Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Munaweera Explores the Power of Place in Island of a Thousand Mirrors
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Nayomi Munaweera

By Ellen Birkett Morris

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera

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January 2015

Nayomi Munaweera’s first novel, “Island of a Thousand Mirrors,” tells the story of Sri Lanka’s civil war through the eyes of two Sri Lankan young women, Yasodhara Rajasinghe and Saraswathi , one Sinhalese, one Tamil. The book paints a vivid portrait of the region and things that unite and divide the women. Munaweera, who is Sinhalese and emigrated with her family to Nigeria and later to Southern California, offers her thoughts on the creation of Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

“I was finishing a PhD in English Literature when the novel claimed me. It wouldn’t let me finish my dissertation. . .”

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way?

MUNAWEERA: My path has been rather unusual. I was finishing a PhD in English Literature when the novel claimed me. It wouldn’t let me finish my dissertation so I dropped out and wrote the book instead. I didn’t take any classes and didn’t show my work to anyone until much later. I have a dread of sharing work too early as I think it can stifle an author’s intuitive about what the book needs. After the book was published in Sri Lanka by a tiny press, I was part of VONA (the only writers of color workshop in the country) and Squaw Valley Community of Writers where I met the agent who sold the book in America.

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of “Island of a Thousand Mirrors” develop?

MUNAWEERA: I grew up in Nigeria and California but with frequent trips to Sri Lanka through my childhood and adolescence. At the same time Sri Lanka was going through a brutal 26 year long civil war. Yet it was also this beautiful paradise where my loved ones lived. The seeds of this book were with me for decades before I sat down to try and write.

AUTHORLINK: Water plays a part in the novel. You describe the “drowned depths” of a man’s sleep in the prologue and later you describe the corpses floating in wells and lagoons in the Tamil region. Talk about the richness of water as a metaphor and why it was especially apt for this story.

MUNAWEERA: The book is about Sri Lanka which is an island, so of course water shapes and contains the characters’ lives. In a larger way I am obsessed with water as many writers have been for centuries. The fact that as living beings we are made up for the large part of water is something I find quite fantastic. So perhaps the story of people is always the story of water.

“Place defines people, how they think and speak. The landscape is the soil in which people are planted . . .”

AUTHORLINK: Discuss the importance of place in “Island of a Thousand Mirrors.” How it informs and impacts these character and their choices.

MUNAWEERA: The book is set in three places, Colombo-the capital of Sri Lanka, an unnamed village in Northern Sri Lanka where the war is actively being fought and Los Angeles where one of the families has migrated to. Place defines people, how they think and speak. The landscape is the soil in which people are planted so each location exerts its influence on the character dropped into it.

AUTHORLINK: What was the greatest challenge when writing “Island of a Thousand Mirrors” and how did you overcome it?

MUNAWEERA: It was a difficult book to write. Telling the story of a war as it was being waged (it went on from 1983 to 2009) was hard. It was also a beautiful and necessary experience for me. Trying to understand and tell the story of my characters’ lives is how I think I made sense of my own life and relationship to the place I came from.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

MUNAWEERA: I read everything I could, fiction and non fiction. I was also writing partly about the Tamil Tigers and at that point there was little info about them since they each had a capsule of cyanide around their necks and would commit suicide if taken alive. They also had a female fighting force as big as the men’s and this was fascinating to me. So I read a lot, then I delved into imagination and memory which are a writer’s greatest tools.

“This is how it is… A constant struggle between grandiosity and self loathing. I call these the writer’s occupational hazards. “

AUTHORLINK: How has the process of writing changed for you as you have gained more experience?

MUNAWEERA: I think each book is different, perhaps as each child a parent has is different. I’m editing my second book now and I think the voice is stronger than the first since I have more experience. But it’s possible you’ve caught me on a good writing day and tomorrow I will think it’s all crap. This is how it is… A constant struggle between grandiosity and self loathing. I call these the writer’s occupational hazards. I’m talking to the editor soon so then I’ll have a better idea, but it’s very hard for me to objectively look at my work. I just work as hard as I can and hope the reader feels what I was feeling while I wore the character’s skin.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. Who was your editor and what was it like working with him/her? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

MUNAWEERA: My first editor was the brilliant Michael Meyer in Sri Lanka. The book was published in America with very few changes. The second book is being read by my American editor Jennifer Weis at this moment. She’s fantastic and we have our editorial talk soon. I’m actually looking forward to it which tells you that she’s just great. My advice is listen to them. Having said that I’m firmly in the camp that you should work your fingers to the bone before the editor sees it so that by then it’s gorgeous and blows their socks off. At least that’s what I aspire to. Who knows how often I actually do that but it is my goal.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

MUNAWEERA: A daily work habit is essential until the brain becomes limber and knows what is required. The more you do this thing, the easier it is to enter and of course this doesn’t mean sitting forcing yourself to scribble non stop for hours. But perhaps sitting and writing something else, reading something to inspire, just working on different angles of the book, chipping away at it. There has to be separate time that is sacrosanct writing time otherwise the work gets subsumed by a hundred other concerns. Someone used this word to me years about when I was complaining about not having time to write. She said I needed to set aside time that was “sacrosanct” and I’ve never forgotten it.

“You have to be slightly mad to do this thing.”

AUTHORLINK: Who is your agent? How did you connect with your agent? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

MUNAWEERA: My agent is Ellen Levine. She actually found me at a moment when I needed an agent. She’s my third agent. The first tried to sell my book in 2009 (I had started writing it in 2001) and had zero success and stopped returning my phone calls, understandably. My point being that this is an extremely long and hard road. Writing novels and getting them published is the marathon. You have to be slightly mad to do this thing. If you are mad enough you also have to buckle down, do the work, be patient. If you do it long enough, I can almost guarantee things will start happening for you.

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

MUNAWEERA: Same old stuff they’ve probably heard a million times. Butt in the chair and do the work. The work is more important than anything else. Do it.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

MUNAWEERA: A dark, crazy novel about motherhood.

About the Author

Nayomi Munaweera 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. Island of A Thousand Mirrors was initially published in South Asia in 2012. It 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. Nayomi is an alumnus of VONA Voices Workshop and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She lives in Oakland, California and is currently at work on her second novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.