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Nayomi Munaweera: ‘I couldn’t have written those hard scenes if I’d had a natural child in my life’

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Though she had been to many book clubs since the publication of her novel What Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera found her heart sinking when faced with the newest group. Sitting around in a circle, waiting to discuss her novel were nearly 50 women, all mothers with children who attended the local elementary school. She braced herself for a barrage of criticism.

Before the book even appeared on shelves, Munaweera and her publisher had had a frank conversation about what to expect in terms of fallout. They thought it quite likely that people would find the crime at the heart of the novel – “the very worst thing a woman could do,” as Nayomi describes it – thoroughly objectionable. “My publisher told me, ‘You are going to get a lot of hate mail. People are going to be upset,’” Munaweera remembers.

Hearing this didn’t come as a complete surprise to the Sri Lankan-American writer. She knew the protagonist of her novel, who remains unnamed till the very end, wasn’t going to take home any prizes. We can guess, almost from the first page, the crime this woman has committed. You read on simply to know why and how, a pursuit that takes up most of the 300 pages of What Lies Between Us. The author had deliberately set out to wring sympathy from her readers for an unsympathetic character and now, in a book club, surrounded by readers who were also mothers, she was about to find out if she had succeeded.

The women loved the novel.

“You’ve got this completely right,” one reader told her; she remembers another saying, “You are talking about stuff that most people don’t want to talk about.” The conversation that followed was for Munaweera a kind of validation. The things she was writing about were grim and emotionally weighted but her readers were drawn to the book despite, no, because of her willingness to wade into murky waters.

By now, Munaweera is used to surprising everyone, herself included. Her debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, made the rounds of several US publishers and was rejected multiple times before a chance encounter with an old friend led to Perera-Hussein Publishing House launching the book in Sri Lanka in 2012. Island was subsequently a nominee for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It took home the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Asia in 2013.

By then, good reviews had earned Munaweera a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. The author, by now at work on her second and third books, could rest easy that her next novel already had a publisher.

Munaweera’s confidence, on page and in person, has grown visibly since her debut. Her style, though eliciting comparisons with the lyricism of Michael Ondaatje, is very recognizably her own. The pages are thick with metaphor and simile; every other paragraph seems to launch a kind of sensory assault – taste, touch, sight, sound – on the reader. Her attention to visual detail reminds you she once considered a career in painting. Her plots, which lean toward the dramatic, are fuelled by deep emotion. Certainly, her work is not to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t seem to bother Munaweera in the least – she lives by the dictum that she writes the kind of book she would want to read.

Since she frequently ventures far beyond the experiences of her own relatively privileged life, writing remains for her a kind of leap into the unknown, an inseparable blend of “imagination and research, dreams and overheard conversations.” Munaweera does not subscribe to the notion that writing is meant to be easy. She describes an approach that sounds almost painful in its emphasis on writing and rewriting a piece until all those re-workings produce the illusion of ease and effortless flow. Experience has taught her not to show her manuscript to anyone early on, and so she is largely a solitary writer.

Despite the emphasis on technique, she is far from detached. The novel’s interest in motherhood had Munaweera wondering whether her own decision not to have a child would come under scrutiny (it hasn’t, so far). But she is honestly sceptical about whether she would have attempted this book if she and her husband Whit had had a family, or even if her niece, who she adores, had been born then. “I don’t think I could have written those hard scenes if I had natural child in my life,” she confesses. Even though the character of the girl Bodhi had no real counterpart, Munaweera says the life of her protagonist sometimes felt too painful to inhabit for long stretches of time.

The author is currently listening to an audio book of Moby Dick, and in Herman Melville’s iconic work she sees an odd concurrence of philosophies. For her Moby Dick is all about the ocean, and Melville, she says with frank admiration, has “considered every piece of it.” She strives toward something very similar, building novels that revolve around a single theme. “The way that I think about a book is that there is a central idea or a question. For the first book, the central idea was about the civil war [in Sri Lanka], and in this book it was about maternity. I end up looking at that idea from every angle that I can.”

Munaweera admits to a kind of necessary obsession with the subject she chooses, because it is one she will live with for the many years it takes to write, publish and publicize a book. “I just attune my life to answering that one question, to attacking it from every single angle I can.”

Her use of the word “attacking” is reflective of Munaweera’s surprising tenacity, a trait that might initially seem at odds with her cheerful, easy-going personality. The 43-year old has a predilection for difficult, dark subjects – the question at the heart of her unpublished third book is the nature of evil – but running through all her writing so far is a concern with women’s bodies, how they are circumscribed by the patriarchy, and policed by society. “Women live in a world in which we don’t even fully realize the ways in which we are oppressed,” she says. Referring to the dominance of male voices in literature, Munaweera declares her interest in being a writer who writes about women, their relationships to themselves, to each other and to the world.

This ambition demands that as a writer she switch constantly between the private and the public. In What Lies Between Us, a young girl grows up to become a mother herself. We see her life filtered through the lenses of family, society and tradition. Trauma is a seed whose roots run ever deeper over time. It does not seem to matter that our protagonist has long since left everything behind; fleeing her attacker, her homeland and every expectation of who she should be. She is still haunted.

This plot, which flows in a relentless circle, will undoubtedly leave some readers feeling leaden. Munaweera, not being immune herself, says she has always tried to find room for humour and beauty. “I wanted to have moments of respite,” she says. One of the most charming segments comes early in the book, when she describes a typical Sri Lankan party, complete with a feast (silver-skinned fish, fried beetroot, red chicken curry, fried potatoes, coconut sambol, crackling papadams and rice), music (a heady mix of Abba, Boney M and baila) and a full complement of aunties and arrack-soaked uncles whiling the night away.

“That one was straight from my memory. That was absolutely what childhood parties were like,” she says of the chapter, adding “Boney M – ah, no matter where Sri Lankans go in the world, they take Boney M with them.” I think it revealing that Munaweera – who is by now used to people coming up to her to talk about how her handling of ethnicity, violence or trauma had a personal resonance for them – takes particular pride in a very different kind of compliment. “It’s amazing when people say to me, ‘I really want to try Sri Lankan food now.’ I really love that.”

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Published in Scroll.in on 27 August, 2016. By Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Nayomi Munaweera. 

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