The Sunday Leader

Nayomi Nemesis Of War

By Sadhana Senanayake

Literature has always been a powerful weapon. Throughout history, governments have ordered books to be burned in town squares, great writers and thinkers have been hunted down, persecuted and killed, all because of printed words.

With the way the world is moving, however, into age of digitalism, the writing of novels seems to be a dying art. But there are a few out there who know the importance of literature and the power of words, Nayomi Munaweera is one of them.

“Kafka has this line which reads, ‘A book is an axe to shatter the frozen seas within us.’ And I think this is true.” She says. “Literature has enormous power to explain the inexplicable, to inspire and most importantly to get us in touch with our own feelings and those of others around us. It’s a way to become another person and have an experience that is outside our own lives.

I can’t think of anything that is more important to us as human beings than to really feel what it is to be in another person’s life. If more people delved deeply into literature, or were given the luxurious and privilege of doing so, I do think we would treat each other far better. In fact, there are now many studies that scientifically prove that reading leads to both greater intelligence as well as greater empathy. Literature in my experience is one of the great privileges and pleasures of life.”

Nayomi was born in Sri Lanka and when she was 3 years old her family migrated to Nigeria. “We were there until I was 12 at which point we migrated to California.” She says, “I have however come back to Sri Lanka for a month most years of my life. I haven’t lived in Sri Lanka for most of my life but it is one of my dearly loved homes.”

Nayomi holds a Bachelor’s degree in Literature from the University of California, Irvine and a Master’s degree in South Asian Literature from the University of California, Riverside. Though her path seemed to be leaning towards a life in academia, she could not deny the fact that her heart truly belonged to writing. So in 2001, she began teaching at a community college and started writing her novel, Island of A Thousand Mirrors.

The novel was initially published in South Asia in 2012 and went on to be nominated for many of the sub-continent’s major literary prizes and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. The novel was released in America by St. Martin’s Press in 2014. It has been gathering glittering reviews since its release, for instance Janet Fitch, bestselling author of White Oleander, says, “Munaweera writes with ferocity, fire and poetry of the incomprehensible madness of civil war and its effects upon those caught within it… A masterful, incendiary debut.”

In this novel, Nayomi tells the story of the Sri Lankan Civil War from the different perspectives of two young girls, one Tamil and one Sinhalese. There have been lots of Sri Lankan authors who have penned phenomenal stories about the war, but Nayomi says it’s important to keep writing about the war, “There have been some very good novels written about this subject, (Funny Boy, The Road from Elephant Pass, On Sal Mal Lane, Noontide Toll) but I don’t think that means that everything that has to be said has been said.”

She says, “In fact I’m sure none of the other writers who have written about it would claim that their books are the definitive work on the subject. I certainly do not think my book is the definitive book on the subject either and I don’t think any one book can be. I think that there’s a great deal more to be written about this subject and in the coming years we will see that flurry of war writing unfold. I do think there’s a trend in Sri Lanka to say that the war is over and people should not talk or write about it anymore.

On the contrary, the civil war in America ended hundreds of years ago, but American writers are not told that it is a dead subject. They are free to explore it if it is the subject that chooses them.”
When asked what led her to tell a Sri Lankan story for your first novel, having lived most of her life away from Sri Lanka, she says,

I can only say that the story chose me. I didn’t actively choose it. When I started writing, this is the story that came, these are the characters that started talking to me. I think I had absorbed a great deal from my yearly visits to Sri Lanka during my childhood as well as the stories my parents told. So that when I wanted to write, these were the concerns most potent and rich for me to explore. I think this is how it happens for most writers, we don’t actively pick a subject. Instead the subject picks us.

Nayomi lists the work of Salman Rushdie, Lionel Shriver, Elana Ferrante, Arundhati Roy, Shyam Selvadurai, Micheal Ondatjee, Anita Desai amongst many other who have influenced her work and her life, “I would say more but there are too many to list!”

Nayomi recently spent some time in Sri Lanka and found it quite vibrant, “Chhimi Tenduf-La’s first novel is coming out soon, Vivimarie Van Der Poorten writes beautifully. Ashok Ferry who hosted me at the American Center is a fantastic literary mind and very interested in bringing together writers and readers. I do have to say that I found it extremely frustrating that bookstores do not seem to stock books.

When I was in Sri Lanka last month, I had various people at book clubs come up to me and say “I really wanted to buy your book and the bookstore didn’t have it.” I would go to book-stores and ask them to stock it but in most cases they wouldn’t, despite readers asking for it. As a writer, it’s tremendously frustrating to have your book out all over the world, but not in bookstores in the country you most want it to be in. If you are a bookseller, can I implore you to stock the books of Sri Lankan writers? People do want to read our books too!”

For any aspiring young novelists, Nayomi offers some advice, “Read as much as you can. Find the great books that speak to you and let them be your teachers. Study how their writers did what they did and realize that almost every single sentence has been rewritten multiple times. Realize that writers write numerous versions of a book and revise for years before the book sounds as if it flowed beautifully fully-formed from the pen. You also need to be disciplined. Carry a notebook around and write every day.

If you are serious about writing a novel, it takes hours of work every day. There are two things that will kill your book, 1. A lack of discipline, 2. The question, “What will my mother think?” If you pay too much attention to number 2, you will most probably stop writing. If the story is important enough to you, you need to commit to it and not care too much what people will think or say. We need your stories, so I wish you the very best of luck.”

Nayomi has just returned to California to continue working on a second novel, but fondly remembers the recent time she spent in Sri Lanka, “I did some wonderful events including at various book clubs as well as teaching a creative writing workshop at the University of Colombo. I deeply loved meeting Sri Lankans and talking to them about this book, about writing, about this beautiful place we share. I think I’ll be back in 2016 when the second book is out. Until then I’ll be writing!”

Nayomi’s first novel Island of A Thousand Mirrors is out now. Check local bookstores for stocks or online at http://www.nayomimunaweera.com/

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