I’m sitting here, November 2017, in the raucous Mills College tea shop with Nayomi Munaweera, my MFA workshop professor here for the past four months. Bright-eyed and clever, Munaweera’s classes involve loud outbursts of laughter, dissection of modern politics, and sensitive yet probing critiques. Prone to disconcertingly penetrating smiles, bright lipstick and better clothes than her students, Munaweera makesfor a terrifying professor. In a good way.
“I’m curious about what brought you to teaching in the first place,” I ask over the rim of my latte. “Tell me about your journey from that little kid seeking solace in books, to the teacher and author that you are today.”
Munaweera says, “creative writing is such an intense and personal experience—you really have to give each student a certain kind of attention.”
Munaweera started out as an English major at UC Irvine. There, she immersed herself in old Medieval works like Beowulf, learning the particular style of language of these “really beautiful” texts.
Munaweera found South Asian Studies as a senior via the influence of professor Parama Roy, who introduced Munaweerato Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and other pivotal South Asian texts.
Munaweera says softly yet defiantly, “Until I was in my early 20s, I didn’t know that anyone could write about Sri Lanka.”
After receiving her Bachelor’s from Irvine, Munaweera entered the UC Riverside Ph.D program in South Asian Studies.
“Wow,” I say stupidly. “But you didn’t finish the program?”
Nayomi pauses, then says simply, “I didn’t want to write my dissertation. I wanted to write fiction.”
Munaweera’s first-generation immigrant parents did not respond well to her decision to drop out.
Eventually, however, after her first book won a variety of prizes, her father became supportive.
After she left Riverside, Munaweera traveled to the Bay Area to visit friends and loved it. She says of the area, “I felt much more like myself.”
For a time, Munaweera struggled with the decision to prioritize either her visual artwork, which she was engaged with professionally, or her literary endeavors. Ultimately, “I chose writing as the greater passion.”
“How did you make that decision?” I ask.
Munaweera was always reading, she says, and loved books and the literary world. “I decided I was a better writer than artist, and I wanted to engage with it more than I did the art world.”
Munaweera’s artwork is, she says, something “I don’t want to monetize. I want it to be just a thing I do because I love it, that just brings me joy.”
Munaweera kept the writing of her first book a secret, working on it during her time teaching at Ohlone College in Fremont and working as a private tutor for a wealthy family.
Munaweera says, “I tried to tell the story that I want to read…to write myself into the world.”
Munaweera’s first book concerns the 26-year-long Sri Lankan Civil War between the Sinhalese-controlled government, and theself-proclaimed “Tamil Tigers” who represent the minority, and historically underrepresented, Tamil population. As Munaweeraexplores in her novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors, atrocities abounded on both sides. Though the Sinhalese government officially won the war in 2009, violent conflicts continue onsmaller scale.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors juxtaposes the voices of Yasodhara, a Sinhalese girl whose idyllic life as a privileged occupant of Sri Lanka is shattered by burgeoning violence which ultimately drives her family to relocate to the U.S., and Saraswathi, a Tamil girl who dreams of becoming a teacher until a violent rape alters the course of her life. Their lives send them on a crash course towards each other which throws into chaos the colonialist Western conceptions of hero and villain, victim and killer. A war always takes more from women than they have to give, Munaweera implies, and they are rarely given the luxury of choosing a side.
“I’m really curious how you knew when your book was actually fully finished,” I tell her.
Munaweera pauses. “I was not only concerned about making the book as good as it could be. I also wanted to wait until the war was over. When the war ended in 2009, I knew it was time.”
When Munaweera first sent out her novel, American publishing houses roundly rejected the novel. Munaweera shelved it and began another novel. However, on the advice of a friend, Munaweera sent Mirrors to a Sri Lankan press, who accepted it.
From there, the novel was picked up in India, where it won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region and was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Northern California Book Prize.
Because her book was nominated, Munaweera was invited to the DSC literary festival, the biggest literary festival in the world. This period, says Munaweera, was “exciting and crazy and stressful…this career is a roller coaster…just relax and try to enjoy it. Now, I understand that it’s really all about the writing.”
At the time, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature had been around for 6 years and no woman had won. Had Munaweerawon, she would have been the first woman to do so. Instead, Jhumpa Lahiri won the following year.
Following this fury of awards, the book was published in the U.S. and up for major prizes within a month. Munaweera was then offered a two-book deal from St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. Although she was called an overnight success, she says, “there was 10 years of work behind these prizes.”
The most controversial aspect of her novel, says Munaweera, was the Sinhalese community’s belief that she and the book were pro-Tamil, and that she exposed secrets of the Sinhalese community to the world’s derision. These criticisms continue today, but Munaweera won’t let that kind of thinking stop her from doing the work she needs to do.
“The Sri Lankan Civil War ended officially in 2009,” Munaweera says, “but reports of abuses of the Tamil people at the hands of the Sinhalese military continue.” To ease the process of healing for Sri Lanka, Munaweera has worked for the past three years with the Write to Reconcile program in Sri Lanka. One of few creative writing programs in Sri Lanka, this two week residential program selects 24 young people (aged 17-24) each year who want to learn creative writing. Some are diaspora, some survivors of the war.
The program, says Munaweera, is “about the power of writing to heal.”
Shyam Selvadurai, a Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist who won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, started the program. After Munaweera’s first book came out, Selvadurai wrote to her and asked her to co-teach with him. They work with a team who deals with logistics, travel, accommodation, and scheduling the human rights activists who come to speak at the workshop.
Says Munaweera, the program was “really pivotal for me because he was the first Sri Lankan writer I ever read.”
During the workshop, survivors of the war tell first-person narratives to participants, who also enter former war zones in order to interview survivors. At the end, they put out an anthology of short stories, poetry, and memoir pieces.
Munaweera explains that this is “a project about remembering what happened and trying to keep those stories alive and trying to honor the dead.”
The program was funded by the American Embassy. This year, the Embassy cut funding, so the program, like so many similar programs under attack from the current U.S. administration, is on hold.
Munaweera’s current project is emerging in response to the current political climate. This book will be different because, says Munaweera, “writing is part of the response to what’s happening politically. I think we’re becoming more and more aware of racism and sexism and how they pervade everything, and that’s affecting the work. The book I’m working on now is more engaged with these issues.”
“What is your writing process like?” I ask.
Munaweera smiles sharply. “I don’t really believe in inspiration. I believe in putting your butt in the chair and writing.”
Munaweera initially conducts research on a topic that fascinates her, as well as watching television shows and reading books with similar themes to understand how others have engaged with the topic, “seeing how other people are doing it.” She takes all this input, films and books and memories and dreams, and then blends them together to create her narrative.
Munaweera writes a list of questions to herself for each book, and then “those questions get answered one by one.”
From there, the process involves testing to figure out each character’s motivations, “immersing yourself so strongly in the character and their life that then it starts pouring out in a way I don’t really understand.”
Like many writers, Munaweera is a perfectionist; her work, she says, is “never as good as I want it to be.”
“Who are your favorite writers? Who inspires your art?” I ask.
“Oh…Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Margaret Atwood, Lionel Shriver, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Tthese writers are beautiful wordsmiths who are taking up the big subjects of the country, and the world.”
Anita Desai in particular had a tremendous literary influence on Munaweera. Desai had a hard time getting published because at the time, in the 1970s, “nobody was publishing South Asian women at all…she really put South East Asia on the literary map.”
When Munaweera attended the Kolkata Literary Festival in 2017, Anita Desai headlined the event. When Munaweera saw Desai’s name on the program, she says, she burst into tears.
Munaweera found herself at a table with Desai, who, says Munaweera, “was just full of grace—a graceful, composed, dignified presence.”
Meeting Desai, adds Munaweera, “felt like such a blessing…like meeting a direct ancestor—they’re in your blood.”
After the event, Munaweera reread Desai’s Clear Light of Day. It was, she says, “as astounding as the first time.”
Munaweera is particularly interesting in reading and writing horror because, she says, “I think horror is a great way to explore the human condition.”
Munaweera prefers what she calls “the dark books,” the tragedies, “cautionary tales that explore the repercussions of how people are treated. My favorite stories, and my own stories, are often about the manifestations of female power.”
As far as good writing is concerned, says Munaweera, “you just know—it hits you in a certain way. It’s powerful—saying something in a certain way that you know but you didn’t know in that way.”
“What is your advice to young writers?” I ask.
“Write a lot, read a lot. Have a kind of dogged persistence. Take to heart the 10,000 hours rule. Pay attention to the world around you.”
“Writers,” she says,” are usually the kids that retreat into books and find solace there. A writer is usually the kid that feels like books saved their life. When you write, you can do that for someone else.”
I bow and nod and walk away chewing these words over and over. I’d like to try to be that kind of writer. God knows we need artists with that attitude right now. We all do.