Nayomi Munaweera, author of 'What Lies Between Us,' says she has to 'inhabit' her narrative before writing it
By Lou Fancher
If writer Nayomi Munaweera were to design a map as a metaphor for her latest novel, it likely would be circular in shape, mostly transparent and scored with equal parts gossamer light and bleak shadow. It would be something to be observed -- or draped around the shoulders and pulled close, like a cloak.
The Oakland author's second book, "What Lies Between Us" (St. Martin's Press $25.99, 320 pages) is set in Sri Lanka and San Francisco, two landscapes Munaweera legitimately claims as home and in which she restlessly exists as insider/outsider. The story told by a female narrator who remains unnamed until the book's end chronicles a childhood trauma, suppressed memories and their monstrous aftermath.
Munaweera's first novel, "Island of a Thousand Mirrors" (2014), similarly explored issues of abandonment, betrayal and unspeakable violence as two young Sri Lankan girls -- one Sinhalese, one Tamil -- experience the tropical island's 26-year civil war from alternative perspectives. "Island" was awarded the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia, short-listed for the Northern California Book Award and long-listed for the Man Asia Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Award.
"I had a much better idea of how to write a book this time," Munaweera says. "I still had the internal, difficult moments, but they happened quickly. One moment brilliant, the next, worst thing ever -- the second time around, you understand it's a necessary part of writing a book."Lessons learned from books she reads closely and holds dear -- a trio of favorites by Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje's "sparse, scenic" writing, and others -- accompany a "tear it apart, use gesture instead of words" approach that she credits to writer Janet Fitch ("White Oleander"). "I learned from her how to put a person's physicality into dialogue," Munaweera says, declining to give away her secrets more specifically.
And it is this closed-versus-open nature of secrets, taboos and similar social conventions that prevail in Munaweera's stories. Immensely pleasurable when shared, a dark secret denied creates a wound, scarring a person for life and stretching out for generations. "What Lies" has a central character who is haunted by half-remembered dreams filled with sexuality that never disperse, even after she moves to America with her mother after her father's mysterious death and eventually finds love and motherhood.
"I read everything I could about childhood sexual abuse," Munaweera says. "It's so prevalent, that's what blew me away. If you sit with any group of women, you will find stories of trauma."
Research she conducted during the book's five-year process left Munaweera thinking, "We're swimming in it, it's just the untalked-about story. When you're in war, it consumes your entire life, and everyone around you experiences it with you. Sexual trauma is usually secret. No one else knows about it, no one else affirms it. It's a splitting of your reality."
Because she prefers to give the reader "a road map that isn't exactly where you're going but has the story's ethos," Munaweera reveals from the start that the narrator has committed an unnamed, atrocious crime. Making the reader only a partial insider provides tension and comes naturally to Munaweera, whose half-in, half-out experience began when her family fled Sri Lanka in the 1970s and moved to Nigeria.
Arriving in the United States in 1984 and becoming a citizen in 1985, she says, "I'm intimate with Sri Lanka, but I feel I'm American. But America is white skin ... and in Sri Lanka, they ask how I can write about a war and a place where I no longer live. There's a certain lostness that lingers."
The "lostness" she also calls "being on the cusp," and says it is a good place for a writer to observe a culture or society. "I visited Sri Lanka recently, and people said, 'Wow, you see things we don't notice.' "
But objectivity isn't her primary, front-of-mind technique for writing fiction. "The idea shows up, and I have to grab it. The idea has to be one I can live with for the next three to five years," so potent that I'll work with it every day.
"Honestly, it's never about the reader at that point. It's me looking at an obsession over time, from every angle, through every lens of politics, emotions, family. I write three times more than anyone will ever see."
If she hits a snag, Munaweera jumps to another chapter. If her earliest ideas prove "too easy" or because of the subject matter -- war, sexual abuse, lifelong trauma -- too harrowing, she interjects humor.
"What Lies" has a comic, self-referential mention of her first book that her fans will recognize. And unlike the character whose trauma she says is "coated, white fog, misty truth" that she suppresses, Munaweera says her writing is like method acting. "I have to go on the journey, inhabit the character. I have to feel it completely, so that you as a reader feel it."