Monday, January 5, 2015

Nayomi Munaweera's moment

Nayomi Munaweera has written a book. Island of a Thousand Mirrors. The book has much to talk about. She talked about them all. Last week. At the American Centre. There is something in her prose that captures heart. It captured my heart. I am sorry that I haven’t read her novel yet. Still, what she read seemed enough to convince me.

There is something special in this lady, something up-and-coming which resists easy definition. I am not hyping here, and this may be owing to how abysmal my knowledge of local English literature is. But all this is beside the point here.

Ashok Ferrey spoke that evening. He interviewed Nayomi.

Nayomi hails from the United States, having been born in Sri Lanka and having lived in Nigeria for a short while. She correctly described herself as a “Diaspora writer”. It is through a mirror that she views her country, one could think. In any case, she had much to say. About her country and the conflict that occupies its history: the same conflict that occupies her novel.

She began with her childhood. She claimed that ever since she was relocated to Africa, she longed for England. The culprit had been Enid Blyton. Nayomi observed correctly that most (former) British colonies have a love affair with her novels. This had been the case with her until high school: “That’s when I discovered other writers.”

Ashok asked her whether that was a good thing. “No!” came the defiant reply. Everyone longs to write, she explained. But how is it good that for the better part of their youth, writers dream of midnight feasts, boarding schools, and kippers, which make up Blyton’s world? Apt.

She then came to her writing career. Publishing her book hadn’t been easy. She had been to three agents. The first one had been blunt with her. He thought the book was incomplete. The reason was simple. Island of a Thousand Mirrors is about the conflict in Sri Lanka. The war wasn’t over in 2007 (when she wrote it). The ending, Nayomi said, was too abrupt.

Still, she didn’t give up. “In 2009, when the war was over, I suddenly understood how to patch up my novel. And I finished it.” Her problems didn’t end there, though. Her second agent had tried to sell her book. No one was buying. And no one was answering her calls. Eventually, she let up her efforts.

And then, in 2012, she corresponded with an old friend. Through her, she approached a publishing house. This was Perera Hussein. They agreed to publish her book. “We printed a thousand copies. The book got bought in India, and started going for various prizes. That’s when America returned my phone calls. And that’s when I returned to America.”

Nayomi talked about how she wrote her book. It had originally been in third-person. When she realised just how overburdened her prose was, she had rewritten everything in first-person. Every sentence had been written five times, if not more.

I remember Tissa Abeysekara, easily one of our most talented bilingual writers, claiming in an essay that the purpose of construction was to make a narrative breathe naturally. That’s what Nayomi echoed when she observed that what may sound effortless in her book was the result of revision and reconstruction. It is perhaps a test of any great writer that he/she should never show the effort he/she has expended. Nayomi seems to have understood this well.

It would be quite easy for me to pass arbitrary judgments on her here. As I wrote before, however, I haven’t read her book. She read three extracts from it. Based on them, I think I can safely say that she has managed to fine-tune her prose to what Shehan Karunatilaka describes as “lyrical, heartfelt, and awash with imagery”.

Whether Island of a Thousand Mirrors is authentic enough is another matter. As Nayomi correctly argued, being authentic doesn’t mean keeping everyone happy. True enough.

It’s to do with poetic licence. I remembered this when reading Colin de Silva’s The Winds of Sinhala. I remember reading this line distinctly: “the morning sunlight streaming through the high ornamental windows of King Kakavanna’s study”. It took some time to realise that this was at odds with actual archaeological evidence of what de Silva was writing about. And when I did, it didn’t matter. I still treasured the book. That it fictionalised history and hence wasn’t real enough was another matter.

I believe it’s the same thing with Nayomi’s book. I am sure she has not refracted Sri Lanka through America. I am also sure that she has not really lived through what she has written. This doesn’t de-validate her. If at all, she has tried. Her prose makes the effort. And it doesn’t show. Remarkably.

Ashok Ferrey has verve. He could have stolen the show. He didn’t. Nayomi dominated it. Through and through.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is available in Sri Lanka. She lamented just how hard it was for Sri Lankans to taste a sampling of their own talent at bookstores. This isn’t limited to English, of course, and for all I know there are enough and more local writers whose talent hasn’t been unveiled properly. They may well dwarf and pale those English writers who find it difficult to publish here.

Nayomi described herself as a rootless hybrid. I’m not sure whether this validates her. After all, much of the criticism levelled against Sri Lankans writing in English is that they reside in a “cocoon”. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but given the type of writers we have seen in the past few decades, I feel that we have progressed very little. We have writers, of course, and among them Ashok himself.

This is why I look forward to buying Nayomi’s book. She had her moment that day. I plan to go beyond that. I plan to read her book. Soon. To see whether what she and Ferrey has claimed of it is true. Whether Ferrey’s claim of her being Sri Lanka’s most talented young writer will endure. I think it may. But I’m not sure. I need to read what has been written. Until then, the final word on being rooted in what you are writing about will belong to Nayomi: “Tolkien did not live in the Shire.”

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 4 2015