The role fiction plays in travel writing and how the “American Voice” is being challenged by writers of color
By AMY GIGI ALEXANDER
Travel writer Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, about two families living through the 26 year long Sri Lankan civil war was originally published in South Asia and was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It was released in America by St Martin’s Press on Sept 2nd 2014 to critical acclaim, including coverage on NPR and a New York Times Book review which called the book, “luminous.” Nayomi lives in Oakland, California and is currently at work on her second novel. She recently sat down for a one-on-one interview with me, transcribed below.
Amy Gigi Alexander: I would like to start with talking about your own travels in your childhood. You’re from Sri Lanka, and you traveled with your family to Nigeria in 1976. Then in 1984, your family left Nigeria and came to the United States. Can you speak to the reasons why your family undertook such journeys: Why leave Sri Lanka? Why leave Nigeria?
Nayomi Munaweera: I was born in Sri Lanka in 1973. When I was three years old my family immigrated to Nigeria, Africa. My parents left Sri Lanka because the island was going through some dark economic times and my father, who was an engineer, could not find a good job. There were huge South Asian communities all over Africa and we were part of that diaspora. Nigeria had just discovered oil and the country was hiring engineers to create a greater infrastructure. My father was one of those engineers. We lived in various parts of Nigeria, some of them quite rural, from 1976 until 1984.
While we were in Nigeria, in 1982, civil war broke out in Sri Lanka. This war between the Tamil Tigers (a terrorist group) and the Sri Lankan military went on for 26 years and only ended in 2009. My parents had only planned to be out of Sri Lanka for a few years, but the fact that there was a war back home meant that we couldn’t return. We planned to stay in Africa until the war was over.
In 1984 in Nigeria there were rumors of an impending military coup. The entire expatriate community that we were part of disbanded quickly and people left for all corners of the world. The fear was that we would be attacked as had happened to Asians in Uganda a few years prior under the dictatorship of Idi Amin.
We were really at a crossroads. We couldn’t go back to Sri Lanka as the war there was now raging. My parents worked tirelessly to try and get our family, now including my three year old sister, to safety. Very luckily, an uncle who had lived in Los Angeles since the 1970’s agreed to sponsor us. We landed in Los Angeles in 1984.
AGA: Let’s talk to about that move to the United States. You arrived as an outsider, an experience you’d already been through once in Nigeria, and had learned to adapt. Now you had a yet another place to adapt to. What was this like?
NM: When we immigrated to Nigeria, I was only three. At that age, nothing is strange so I think that going from Sri Lanka to Nigeria was relatively painless for me. I’m sure my parents had a hard time adapting to all kinds of things, but I don’t have early memories of that move. I do remember being sad that we were leaving my grandparents and my cousins. But we went back to Sri Lanka for a month every year so I was also very connected to my family there.
Arriving in America at the age of 12 was a much harder and stranger experience. In Nigeria we lived in small remote villages, but I had always gone to school with both Nigerian and other expatriate kids. I was used to a lot of diversity. Now, in America, almost all of the kids in my school were white. I was one of the very few Asians. I remember that they had the only Indian girl in the school show me around. I remember thinking, “I’m not Indian. Why did they choose this girl?” and then realizing she was the only one in the school who looked like me. She and I very quickly separated. Both of us were trying to fit in and neither wanted to be lumped in with the only other South Asian person at the school. There was this intense pressure to fit in. There were decisions to be made about what to wear, what music to listen to, how to do one’s hair. In Nigeria, I had always worn a uniform and regulation shoes. There was no freedom or choice, the idea of teenage expression did not exist. But in America being a teenager was very much about expressing individuality in a way I had never experienced before. It took years before I felt somewhat American.
AGA: That is interesting, the mention of individuality as part of the American experience. I often get confronted with this as a traveler—an American traveler—when I go to other countries that don’t have the same emphasis. But returning to those two journeys—Sri Lanka to Nigeria, and Nigeria to the United States—how have they defined you as a traveler and writer today?
NM: I grew up with the idea that travelling extensively and belonging to different places and cultures was very normal. I took my first flight at the age of 3. My parents had never met a black person before they went to Africa. My father had only been to India before this. My mother had never left the island. I say this to show you what a huge step immigrating was for them at that time. The decision to leave Sri Lanka was economic but it was also a very bold and brave thing. They left everything and everyone they knew and made a new life far away. However, in the pursuit of a better life for their young family, they were prepared to move continents.
When you grow up like this, between various cultures, there is a sense of displacement. But at the very same time, one also feels like a global citizen. I do have a sense–possibly a misguided sense–that I could land in many different places on the globe and make a life there if I needed to.
AGA: You say that your parents’ “sense of boldness” has informed you. Obviously that changed the way you saw the world at large and your role inside of it. Yet you also talk about displacement and an almost intimate transitory quality about what you see as “home.”
This leads me to want to dig deeper and ask you about the themes of belonging and exile. These are two strong currents in your life, in your writing, and in the travel genre itself. How do these two themes color your life and your work?
NM: As an immigrant, issues of exile and belonging inform my life. This is also true as a writer.
For example, in Sri Lanka I am seen as an American and my book is taught in classes like “Diaspora Writing.” Meanwhile in America, although I have lived here since 1984 and been a citizen since 1986, I’m not really regarded as an American, since American for the most part is still defined as white. My book is considered Asian Fiction. So there is always the sense of having my feet in two different and disparate cultures. There is always an attempt to try and stitch together the different parts of my existence. There is a Sri Lankan self and an American self and they are somewhat different. I do have to change and shape-shift depending on where I am. These changes have to do with things like language, dress, and gesture, but also occur on a deeper, quieter level. You simply are a different person in different settings.
I think grappling with these issues of non-belonging are very good for a writer. They force you to always be on the outside looking in, observing, and I think this is a very useful trait for a writer.
AGA: Watching for signs and signals is key to writing well, and keen observation means attention to detail, which is something you master in your writing. I am interested in how your book and voice are heard: I read your book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and to me, it was a travelogue. Fiction, yes. But a travelogue, a series of journeys…
Circling back to exile and belonging, has the way you have experienced these two things changed over time, or has your definition of what they are changed? Has writing been a catalyst for these changes?
NM: Over time I have become more comfortable with my in-between state. This has a lot to do with writing about it. In working out these conflicts in my journals and in my novels, I do think I have a better, more integrated sense of self around these issues.
Before my first novel was published, I had a great deal of doubt about whether I had the authority to write about the Sri Lankan civil war because I did not grow up in Sri Lanka during the war years. I had been far away and in safety in Nigeria and America while this war was being fought. My family always spent a month of every year in Sri Lanka, no matter where in the world we were living, and this is where a lot of the catalyst for writing about the conflict came from. But I wondered whether I had the right to tell this story, being as I am privileged by the fact that I am Sinhala –the majority ethnicity in Sri Lanka–and an American citizen.
I started writing the novel in 2001. I finished in 2009 and tried to find an American publisher. Every publishing house said no so I put the book away and started writing another. In 2011 I was introduced to a Sri Lankan publisher who wanted the book. It was hugely validating to me that people in Sri Lanka, most of whom had experienced the war I had written about were willing to publish it. Even more significant was the fact that when the book was out in Sri Lanka, I started to hear from people there who said, ‘yes this is how it was.’ ‘Yes you got it right.’ This was despite the fact that the government at that time which controlled all media was publishing reviews extolling people not to read it.
In the same way, I’ve often felt strange about being some sort of cultural ambassador of Sri Lanka in the U.S. I’ll never consider myself an expert on Sri Lanka but I am accepting that my relationship with it is deep and intimate, and from this place I can talk about it.
AGA: You’ve talked about how others see your work. How do you see it? How do you categorize it?
NM: I don’t really categorize it. This is the book that came to me. The characters in it are mostly Sri Lankans. Some of them are dealing with migration to the United States. Others are in the midst of the war in Northern Sri Lanka. Beyond this specificity, their feelings and emotional states, the joys and sorrows they have to confront are universal. Their experiences they could easily apply to people of any ethnicity and in any place.
AGA: You decided to write a book, a fictional book, based on that early experience you had, the conflict itself, and how it affected people in Sri Lanka. Let’s talk about the book title first: Island of a Thousand Mirrors. What’s the meaning behind the title?
NM: Since the book is about a civil war I’m playing with the idea of mirrors, as in the enemy one is fighting is, the self. The Tamils and Sinhalese–the two warring ethnicities in Sri Lanka have a long and intimate history, sometimes fighting, sometimes marrying. So I wanted to invoke the sense that we are fighting intimate enemies, ourselves. There are also other explanations of the title tucked into the book. I like titles that have multiple meanings, so that as you read the book, you also discover these.
AGA: The book must have been controversial for you to write, and yet you felt called to do so. What was the calling, and why did you follow it?
NM: In my experience writers don’t choose books, books choose writers.
AGA: I think you are righ. Yet, some writers resist the call for a long time. You didn’t.
NM: I knew that this was touchy material, but when I was first writing, in 2001, it didn’t matter. This was the story that was inside me and the story that wanted to be told. I had a compulsion to write and a compulsion to write about these particular characters.
At that stage I wasn’t thinking about publication. That wasn’t the motivation. And since it wasn’t my motivation I could write about whatever I felt like. I didn’t think about it as particularly controversial, although it turned out to be, I was just writing to try and work out my own ideas of belonging and exile, my own relationship to the war happening in the country of my birth.
I realize this makes it sound like the writing was easy. It wasn’t. But it was also deeply joyous. Some part of me really loved doing that work. It still does.
AGA: So you never thought about publishing it? It just was the process of writing the story that drew you in? That is, to me, the very best kind of writing.
You are a self-taught writer. And that is very exciting to me because I’m self-taught as well. Can you talk about the process of deciding to be a writer, and writing your book?
NM: In 2001 I was finishing a Ph.D in English Literature and had to write a dissertation. However, all that was coming to me was bits of this book. I tried to submit fiction but they wouldn’t accept it. So I left the program, dropped out, moved to Berkeley, got a job at a community college and started writing my novel.
I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t think it would ever be published. It’s not that I didn’t want it published. I just never imagined that publication, which is so insanely hard to achieve, would happen to my book. I didn’t think anyone in America would care about this war happening to people far away.
AGA: So you did go to a few writing workshops, but only after it had been accepted, but you didn’t show the book to anyone while you were in the process of crafting it?
NM: I have a horror of showing my work too early as I think it can easily be shifted away from the author’s own vision.
AGA: I agree. I think you can lose your voice. It happened to me a few times and it was leveling. Better to work out the details on your own, I think—or just with a few very trusted mentors.
NM: The idea of work-shopping anything–and getting various views on what’s wrong with it– scares the heck out of me. I think it’s healthy for young writers to struggle in solitude for many years and try to figure it out what they are saying for themselves. I don’t show work to my editor unless it’s as close to perfection as I can get it. As you said, I have a few trusted readers but they only see it very late in the game when I’m quite sure of my own voice. But these folks are precious and invaluable. Every writer needs them. They can be hugely influential.
AGA: Can you talk about the act of writing a book without formal training? What did you have to teach yourself, and where did that teaching of yourself begin?
NM: I think my true education came from reading voraciously since childhood. I continued this all the way through my Ph.D.
AGA: What were some of these early books that were major influences for you in your childhood?
I don’t think any of these titles are familiar in America but anyone who grew up in the ex-colonies will recognize them. For American readers I’ll add, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and the Flowers in the Attic series. I was obsessed with these as a teenager.
AGA: And in adulthood?
NM: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Anita Desai’s Feasting, Fasting, Lional Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Yann Martel, Life of Pi.
AGA: There is the process of reading and absorption, and then there is organic talent that writers naturally have. Your foundation came from your reading, but what did the process of creating actually look like?
NM: I’ve journaled avidly since I was 13. Now looking back I can see that crafting my experience in this way keeps the writing muscle supple.
The idea that you can work through emotion, hardship or trauma by writing about it is very important to me. I keep seeing studies that point to the therapeutic effects of writing about one’s life. I was always doing this but didn’t realize it was an exercise that would serve me well until much later.
The everyday act of creating looks messy and chaotic. Some days it all flows beautifully and I think I’m a genius. The next day I’ll delete every word because I now am convinced it is all crap and that I’m an idiot. On the third day I’ll rewrite everything erased the previous day. My creative process consists of ping-ponging between grandiosity and self loathing on a daily basis. Now I realize this is just a normal part of being an artist. I call it an occupational hazard and I’m much better at letting the highs and lows just flow.
I see writing novels as marathons. There’s nothing fast or easy about it. It’s a long labor of love, patience and discipline.
AGA: That is a fascinating way to describe it. There is always the next section, endlessly. In your case, the marathon of the writing alone took eight years. That’s very long time.
One thing about your book is that it is fiction, and the development of the characters and story took time to happen. Talking about fiction, there are people who don’t think that fiction fits into the travel genre; yet, obviously one quick look at your book belies that assumption. How do you think fiction fits into the travel genre?
NM: I think when a book transcends one setting and talks about what it means for a character to move between places — physically and psychologically — you can see it as a travel book.
AGA: Can you give a few examples of fictional books which you think cross with ease into the travel genre?
NM: I’m thinking of: The Life of Pi, The Poisonwood Bible, The Satanic Verses, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
AGA: You are a person of color. How does this affect how you see the publishing industry and opportunities for yourself and other people of color? Your book was published first in Sri Lanka. Did this make the publishing experience easier here?
NM: I tried to publish in America for three to four years and was completely unsuccessful. My agent at the time tried to sell the book and then eventually stopped taking my phone calls probably because he got sick of giving me bad news.
I then found a publisher in Sri Lanka through a mutual friend. This first publisher printed 1,000 books out of their tiny office. There was no advance. Then the book was picked up in India and nominated for some of the region’s biggest prizes. It ended up winning the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. This is when America called me. There was a mini bidding war and then the book came out in Sept 2014 in America.
I think it’s very difficult for writers of color. There are a few folks who are hugely and rightly successful like Jumpha and Junot but if you are an unknown person of color writer in America, it’s tremendously difficult to get published. But the stories these writers are telling are really interesting and fresh and they need to be told.
I was at the Japiur Literary Festival in India in 2013 and they were talking about the new American voice and everyone they talked about was a person of color writer. So the very definition of American writer as male and white is being rightly challenged. These are the most interesting voices to me: Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Celeste Ng, No Violet Bulawayo, Sugi Ganeshanathan, Chris Abani, Sandip Roy, to name a few.
AGA: Favorite travel book?
NM: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondatjee
AGA: Despite the fictional narrative of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, it feels very real. What is the basic story of the book?
NM: The novel is about two young women, one from either side of the Sri Lankan civil war, telling their account of this 26 year long conflict. It’s about love, war, belonging and exile. At its heart, it’s the story of a nation struggling to find itself.
AGA: What has been your experience writing and publishing a story about something some people would like to not even havediscussed?
NM: When my book first came out in Sri Lanka in 2012, the pro-government media–all media was controlled by the state–attacked it saying that the subject of the war was an obsolete one and that no one should be writing about it. That was a scary time because as I said, that government was imprisoning and disappearing journalists and activists. I was in Sri Lanka for the book launch and when the articles came out attacking the book, I was really afraid that there would be a banging on my door at night. I have known other people who have been taken away to be questioned and escaped through luck so it was a very scary time and there was a very real push towards silence.
This government was overthrown in a democratic election in January 2015. It remains to be seen how the new government will deal with the memory of that war, minority rights, and press freedoms.
AGA: Travel writing is often seen as pleasure writing. But your book describes war and conflict interlaced with lucid and beautiful details. Is writing about what is real and not what we wish to find. Is that how you see it?
NM: Some of the characters in the novel I wrote were going through a war. So there was no way I couldn’t try to represent that. I think writing about what we see, writing about the truth, as experienced by characters is essential in any kind of writing.
AGA: Do you feel you have written about a place that no longer exists?
NM: The early part of my book is set in the pre-war Sri Lanka of my dad’s youth and that place, with its very pristine nature and innocence, doesn’t exist anymore. I was also writing about a war that ended in 2009 so the more horrific and active warfare is over. Sri Lanka is changing rapidly. I was there in 2012 and then in 2014 and the changes are astounding. But other things, like the food, the ocean, these never change.
AGA: How do the senses evoke a place to you?
NM: If you talk authentically about the smells, tastes, sights, feeling of a place, the reader should be able to connect. It’s always good to notice the details that no one else is paying attention to. As a visitor, you’re granted a fresh view of this place that the people living there probably no longer see. They might have a much better idea of how it all works, but you have the un-spoilt eyes of new experience. Capturing this can be really powerful.
AGA: That’s true. I think often writers are forgetful of this fresh view.
NM: I’ve had readers in Sri Lanka say, ‘You know I’ve seen that a million times, but I never noticed it until I read it in your book.’ They say this about various things. One example, the way the sea salt scent and the fragrance of jasmine combine in parts of Colombo. If you’ve lived there all your life you might not notice anymore. But as an outsider I will notice, revel in it and write about it.
AGA: Give me an example from your writing that demonstrates this.
NM: “On the new nation’s flag is poised a stylized lion, all curving flank and ornate muscle, a long, cruel sword gripped in its front paw. It is the ancient symbol of the Sinhala who believe that they are descended from the lovemaking between an exiled Indian princess and a large jungle cat. A green stripe represents that small and much-tossed Muslim population. An orange stripe represents the larger Tamil minority.
But in the decades that are coming, race riots and discrimination will render the orange stripe inadequate. It will be replaced by a new flag. On its face, a snarling tiger, all bared fang and bristling whisker. If the idea of militancy is not conveyed strongly enough, dagger clawed paws burst forth while crossed rifles rear over the cat’s head.
A rifle toting tiger. A sword gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between related beasts.”
This early passage in the book describes the flags of the two enemies who fought in the Sri Lankan war. I’ve had Sri Lankan readers tell me they never thought of their flags as militant until they read this passage.
My point is that when you live with something on a daily basis, you cease to really see it. This is just a condition of being human. The writer’s job is partly to point out the unseen in the everyday.
AGA: How does a writer show and not tell? This is so important in the travel genre, and yet many writers miss this fundamental rule. How do you show and not tell?
NM: I try to tell the story by capturing vignettes from a character’s life. If the character is real enough, authentic enough, and if as the writer, you have really done your work to tap into them, then you can show the reader that scenes from their lives, their thoughts and it will ring true. But the writer has to do the hard work first. Otherwise readers will sense that it is inauthentic.
AGA: How do you tap into someone? Give me an example of a character you’ve written about and how you got close enough to let them show you their story.
NM: The character whose life is furthest from mine is Saraswathie from my debut novel. She lives in a village in northern Sri Lanka. That part of the country was closed off from the rest of the country for most of the war so I had never seen it until long after the book was published and the war was over.
When I was writing that book, I was reading everything I could find about life in the war zones and thinking about what it might be for a young Tamil girl in the midst of the war. I had written a great deal from the perspective of the other main character when Sarawathie’s voice started popping up in my head. I really didn’t want to write her story as it’s quite emotionally difficult. But at some point I realized her point of view was extremely important. So I started reading everything I could find about people in her situation. At some point her voice got clearer to me. I felt like I could picture her and how she would respond to certain scenarios, to trauma and othering. Her experience was the furthest from my own but she is also my very favorite character so far. Writing her took me to some real depths since, in order to render her emotionally real, I had to imagine being in the terrible situations she finds herself in.
AGA: One reason I chose this book for the series, and also you, is that it is the story of someone leaving where they belong, and going somewhere else, perhaps against their will. Is that a travel story? I think it is.
It’s different than the travel stories we hear, which are usually about leaving a place by choice and going somewhere one chooses. What are the differences and similarities between these narratives in your personal experience?
NM: Migration is, of course, different from travel for pleasure. But I wouldn’t say that my family was made to go anywhere against our wills. We found ourselves in various moments of history that necessitated movement but we were never forced to flee for our lives as so many refugees are around the world. In this we were quite privileged. My experience seems to fall somewhere between the trauma suffered by someone who is forced to flee and the ease of someone choosing to travel.
What we did find was that both of these migrations necessitated a remaking of the self.
We are not the same people we would have been if my parents never left Sri Lanka. We don’t know what our lives would have been if we stayed. There would have been different sadnesses and different joys in our lives.
AGA: What are you working on now?
“In the months before the thunderous monsoon, the ocean tugs at his toes, wraps sinuous limbs about his own and pulls him into its embrace, out until it is deep enough to dive, head first, feet overhead, inverted and submerged. Eyes open against stinging salt, he sees coral like a crowded, crumbling city, busy with variously marked, spotted, dotted, striped, lit, pompous and playful sea creatures. Now and then, he encounters the curious, swiveling eye of a small red octopus emerging from secret passageways. Approached recklessly, the octopus blanches a pure white and with an inky ejaculation, torpedoes away. So he learns to approach slowly, in rhythm with the gently rolling water, until the creature coming to know this stick-limbed biped, is lulled enough to allow his quiet presence.
Further out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a hundred mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.
When he emerges dripping from the sea, it is to find this father, the village ayurvedic doctor, perched on an upturned catamaran, deep in conversation with the fisher-folk who squat on their heels before him.
The fishermen wear sarongs splotched with octopus ink. Their hands are leathered by handling rope, mending nets, wrestling sharks by their tails onto the beach. They are ruthless with the flesh of the creatures they catch, upturning gentle sea turtles in the sand to carve off chunks of the living flesh. The turtles bleed slowly, drip salt tears from the corners of their ancient eyes. In this way the meat stays fresh for days, the fishermen explain. For similar reasons the fishermen grasp just caught octopuses and turn them inside out, exposing delicate internals that flash through cycles of color. Decades later, in America, when my father sees Christmas lights for the first time, he will astound us with the observation that they look just like dying octopuses.”</span>