Nayomi Munaweera had almost given up on her novel. After abandoning her career as a visual artist to concentrate on writing, she spent five years finishing her first novel and four shopping it around, but she couldn’t get a single publisher interested in Island of A Thousand Mirrors, a passionate tale of two families living through Sri Lanka’s civil war. “There were some issues of legitimacy,” Munaweera recalled. “I grew up in America, so how can I write a book about Sri Lanka and the war?”
Actually, Munaweera’s family lived in Sri Lanka until she was three, when, civil war looming, her family moved to Nigeria, where they lived until that country politely kicked them out when its own civil conflict began. In Nigeria, Munaweera became best friends with another Sri Lankan refugee, but they lost touch after Munaweera’s family left Nigeria for Los Angeles. Years later, Munaweera and her friend reconnected on Facebook, where Munaweera, now living in Oakland, shared that she was trying to publish a book. It just so happened that her friend’s friend owned a publishing house in Sri Lanka. While Munaweera was workshopping her second novel at a retreat of the Bay Area Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, she got the call that Sri Lankan publishing house Perera Hussein had decided to publish her book. Soon, things began to snowball. After Munaweera entered Island of A Thousand Mirrors in a handful of publishing competitions — figuring she was a long shot at best — it was long-listed for The Man Asian Literary Prize, which recognizes novels “showcasing the power of the writing emerging across the whole breadth of Asia.” Now, the novel she nearly gave up on is available on her website (NayomiMunaweera.com) and Amazon.com; she starts an Asian book tour in January; and chances are she’ll soon have her pick of American publishers.
It’s a fitting story for a novel about love during wartime — a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of lovers from opposing sides of Sri Lanka. The heroine hails from the closed-off northern part of the country; the hero from the south. To tell the story, Munaweera relied on characters and stories shared by her family, and then did a ton of research on the war and on the revolutionary Tamil Tigers. “There are probably as many versions of this story as there are people who went through it,” Munaweera said. “This is my version, my reaction. I was interested in trying, not to speak for, but to access what people went through — common people living through it who don’t have a voice.” Overall, there’s not a lot written about the 26-year conflict that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. So Munaweera did as Toni Morrison advised: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” “I just wanted to get the word out there,” Munaweera said.
With the New Year comes a whole new chapter in Munaweera’s life. She’ll embark on her South Asian book tour, including a visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the largest of its kind in the Asia-Pacific. Then she’ll visit Sri Lanka. “I haven’t been back since 2004,” Munaweera said. “This is total reentry, almost ten years later.” But her energy will be focused on Hong Kong, where she hopes to be bumped up to The Man Asian’s short-list. From there, the sky’s the limit.