Special guest post: Nayomi Munaweera, Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Happy Friday, my very dears, and welcome to a special edition of the Open Mic — I’m resurrecting it today to celebrate a special occasion! My friend and fellow IWL writer Nayomi Munaweera has published her first book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. It is a beautiful and vividly written novel with characters who felt real and dear to me from the very beginning. The story colored all my days as I read (filling my Reykjavík living room with Sri Lankan scenery and the sounds of civil war!), and I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera

I’m so excited about Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I wanted to share it with you. Nayomi generously made time to answer some questions about the book and what it was like to get it published. She also allowed me to share an excerpt of the book with you. You’ll find it below (under the interview).

A conversation with Nayomi Munaweera, author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Hi Nayomi! Congratulations on Island of a Thousand Mirrors — it’s incredible. Could you explain to readers what the book is about?

The book is about two families struggling to survive the Sri Lankan civil war which engulfed the country from about 1983 to 2009. It’s narrated by the eldest daughter of each family. The families themselves are from opposite sides of the war. It’s mostly about how people, women especially, experience war, love, immigration, exile and etc. On the larger plane it’s about what that war did to a beautiful island paradise, and a country struggling to mend the physical and psychic trauma of war. On the way people fall in love, immigrate to the US, join terrorist organizations etc etc, so a lot happens!

How did the idea(s) come to you? Did you think of the story all at once, or did you build on it gradually?

The ideas came to me gradually. I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about the war. I grew up in Nigeria but we would go back to Sri Lanka every year for a month and I saw how the war affected people, how people got used to the everyday presence of danger. Once my family and I were at the site of a bombing; there was blood and hurt people but that night we went out to dinner and laughed about the experience. Violence had become normalized. I think that was the moment of catalyst even though I didn’t start writing for years.

When I did start, the story sort of unfolded by itself. A lot of it quite surprised me. Early characters and plotlines faded away until I had a better sense of who was talking and wanted to tell their story — I do think there is at least some sense of channeling involved — even if that just means creating characters so visceral you can hear their voices in your head. Clearly writing is a form of madness.

How long did it take you to write, and did you work on it consistently, or set it aside and come back to it? How did your relationship to the book change as the years passed?

It took me 5 years to write it. The majority of the time I plugged away at it for two to eight hours a day. But there were also months when I just couldn’t look at it. I had a lot of guilt during those periods about not writing (writers will understand this feeling well!). But those breaks from it were necessary for clarity — distance made it easier to see flaws. My relationship with it did change as the work itself changed; it’s like a marriage, a constant dance between two changing entities.

After I finished writing, I acquired an US agent who tried to sell it for a year. When it didn’t sell I figured that it was that first unpublished novel that sits in every writer’s top drawer. I started working on my second and third novels. It was another five years before Island was published: a ten-year process in all.

Nayomi beaming at her book

{Author photos courtesy of Nayomi Munaweera.}

Was it hard for you to access the pieces of the story you didn’t experience firsthand? Parts of it must have been really painful to write (as they were to read — and I mean that in the best way possible). Did you have to do a lot of research?

It was incredibly difficult to write certain parts. Without giving away too much there were parts that had me crying as I wrote. The life of Saraswathi, the young Tamil girl who eventually joins the Tamil Tigers (a rebel group fighting the Sri Lankan government) were especially emotionally draining and I remember just being physically exhausted after I wrote them.

I did a lot of research on the Tigers; I read everything that was written about them. But at the time I was writing, the war was raging and not much was known about them — especially as they would commit suicide by consuming cyanide if they were caught. They would rather die than expose their secrets or give up their struggle for a separate homeland. So I filled in the blanks as well as I could. Later, after the war ended and we came to know a great deal about them, I’ve often been startled at how close my guesses have been.

There is one section that was especially hard to write and I had to do a great deal of research as to what the experience would feel like. There was a text by a survivor that helped me tremendously. She’s in the Acknowledgements but I can’t speak about her work without revealing too much about plot. When readers get to that place they’ll know it. It was a very painful section to write but I knew I had to because it was a reality of that war and other wars.

I think I staggered around for the time I was working on that section in a haze and cried quite a bit. Still I do think it’s important to reveal the hard, dark places in the human psyche. Also I hope readers don’t think it’s all doom and gloom — there is love and even more importantly, a great deal of hope in the book!

I’m very curious about what it’s like to have a book published. Was there anything that surprised you about the process?

Publication is surreal. The thought that your work is being read, digested by others is both absolutely exhilarating and very scary. Also it’s a strange experience because for such a long time, literally years, you’ve been writing in a bubble. I am a very solitary writer — I don’t show my work to anyone until I am at a point that I think it’s absolutely as good as I can possibly make it. It’s a very intensely solitary, introspective journey of many years.

From this place of quiet, you have to enter the literary marketplace where you are asked to shout from the rooftops and literally make a splash about your work. If your story is important as every writer must believe theirs is — you want every possible reader to share the experience. You want to run up to every person you see and say, “Buy this book please! This story is important!” So there has to be creation of a very public and vocal figure.

The writer’s job is to span the gap between the quiet hours of solitary work and the very public, very vocal work of “being a writer.” Both of these are necessary talents and I’m still learning to negotiate these opposite personas gracefully.

One final question. Could you share one other story from your experience of writing, publishing, or promoting this book? 

Yes, I have rather an amazing publishing story. My family and I left Sri Lanka in 1976 when I was 3. We immigrated to Nigeria because stirrings of the war had already begun to impact Sri Lanka’s economy. My very best beloved friend in Nigeria was a little Sri Lankan girl called Dineli. More than anything we loved Barbies and books — books more than Barbies thank god! In 1984 a military coup caused most Asians to flee Nigeria. Dineli’s family moved to Toronto, mine moved to California. We lost contact completely.

More than two decades later Dineli found me on Facebook — she now lived in Sri Lanka and was the mother of two. I had been writing for ten years and trying without success to publish for about three. I had started writing a second novel and had basically given up on ever publishing what would be Island of a Thousand Mirrors. In our first conversation in twenty-four years I told her all this and she said, “Well… two of my best friends here run one of the biggest publishing houses in Sri Lanka. Maybe they’ll be interested.” And that’s how I found my publisher.

Nayomi holding her book

Excerpt, Island of a Thousand Mirrors

In the dry season of the year 1958, [my father] Nishan is a gawky teenager, black spectacles slipping down the sweat of his nose, the weight of large textbooks curving his spine. The teashop rumors have turned into the smoky scent of sulfur drifting down from Colombo. Whispers flutter like insects drawn to the lamp light, “They are killing Tamils in Colombo.” From the opaque darkness, an answer, “This is a Buddhist country. Such things cannot happen here.”

He is rendered immune to these rumblings by the drama of his own adolescence. Each night, a [mother] faced vulture gnaws at his liver, his failed examination papers clutched in her curved talons. He wakes sodden in a chilling sweat. His exams are upcoming and wrapped up in a fog of equations, memorized test papers and complicated mathematical proofs, he is not consciously aware of the fear on people’s faces, the way in which his parents or Seeni Banda greet strangers with a new suspicion, his mother’s hoarding of red rice under the kitchen floorboards.

At dawn, he and Mala walk along the silver ocean towards the railway station. It is quiet, until the terminal. Then schoolboys and girls, giddy in this brief interlude between the authority of parents and that of teachers, chatter like mynahs. There is a girl in this crowd that he likes. She is a few inches taller than him so that the other schoolboys tease him mercilessly. But there is invitation in the girl’s eyes, a certain glance he is sure she reserves for him that allows him to endure the ribbing and gives him thrills of pleasure when she looks his way. In the darkened carriage, boys drape indolent arms around each other’s shoulders, talk of cricket scores and slide their eyes surreptitiously towards chattering girls. The forward motion of the train rocks them into delicious, early morning languor.

All this is smashed open with an ear shattering shriek of metal, the train thrown against some hard resisting object. Boys and girls are flung like bits of paper from an enormous and uncaring hand, bright blood blooming on white uniforms and bare-chested, saronged, machete armed men enter the carriage, stalk heavy footed down the aisle. School kids cower, arms over heads. The men breathe words flaming of coconut toddy, “Tamil devils! Get up! Stand up! Stand up!”

“Look at this one.” A man grasps Radhini, object of Nishan’s ardor, by the upper arm, above the elbow. She is jerked upwards like a fish plucked out of water by a cormorant’s skewering beak. A machete tip traces her upper arm where uniform gives way to smooth flesh. Cold metal on skin. A tear trembles on her lash, catching light in that dark interior.

“Tamil? No?”

Shamefaced schoolboys turn their faces. The odor of panicked sweat settles like a cloud. My father cannot avert his eyes, Mala claws his arm. ‘Do something’ her fingers beg, but though his heart drums staccato, his feet remain leaden.

“Tamil? No pottu? Trying to get our boys to think you’re a Sinhala girl?”

“Maybe we should make a pottu for you, no? In the middle of the forehead. Nice big one. Red I think.”

Swift as a striking cobra, a streak of red across the girl’s curved forehead. The sudden and unmistakable smell of urine. The front of her white uniform yellowed, spreading.

From the back of the carriage, a loud voice. It is a teacher of the fourth standard, a tiny fury in a pink sari and thick glasses. “Leave them alone! They’re just school kids.” She pushes past hefty shoulders, wraps her arms around the girl. “This girl has done nothing. Let her be.”

“She’s Tamil. That’s enough. They take our land, our jobs. If we let them they will take the whole country.”

Miss Abeyrathna, sari rustling like angel wings, says, “Look at her! She’s a Sinhala girl. Only a little dark. You goondas can’t even tell the difference!”

A rustling in the mob. A collective pushing forward and from the back, a single, toddy slurred voice, “If she’s Sinhala, prove it.”

Miss Abeyrathna pushes Radhini’s shoulder. “Girl. Recite something… the ithipiso gatha, say it.”

In a shivering, breaking voice Radhini recites the Buddhist verses preaching unattachment, impermanence, the inevitability of death.

For the rest of his life, the cadence of this particular verse will cause my father’s bile to rise. It will conjure grasping fingers of guilt that wrap about his throat and make him remember Radhini in that dark compartment, the Tamil inflected undercurrents of her accent hidden by her years in Buddhist schools, the front of her uniform dripping yellow with fear and shame.

She was saved, he will tell us, by the courage of that teacher. The mob, deterred by her bravery, left then. But there is something that lingers in his eye when he tells this story that makes us know the weight of it upon his heart.

Thank you, Nayomi, for sharing with us here and for writing such a powerful book. Island of a Thousand Mirrors is available via Nayomi’s website, nayomimunaweera.com, or via Amazon (though the link is having problems at the moment). Read it and I’m convinced the book will move you as much as it did me. And tell your friends!