Writing Matters: In conversation with Nayomi Munaweera

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Nayomi Munaweera

Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Nigeria and lives in USA.  In 2013, her debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Book Prize, Asian region, and was long listed for the Man Asia Prize and the International DUBLIN Literary Award. In 2017, her second book, What Lies Between Us won the State Literary Award for Best English Novel, 2017. Along with renowned Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai, Nayomi has been a part of the Write to Reconcile Programme in Sri Lanka.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Nayomi, welcome to Kitaab. Congratulations on winning Sri Lanka’s State Award for your second book.

I’m intrigued by the titles of your books Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us – the first visually evocative and the second ironic in its use of the word ‘Lies’. What led to the choice of these titles?

Nayomi Munaweera: I actually do not title my own books. It’s very difficult after you’ve worked on a book for multiple years, eight for the first, four for the second to find a phrase that encapsulates all the thought and complication that you have attempted to explore. Both the titles came after about 3 months of consultation with my publisher, my editor, my agent, my family. The first title came out of an 80 title list. It was a really difficult process to find it. The second was similarly difficult – I think we came up with 60 and before I picked this one. So I would rather write a 300 page book than title it. I leave that to other people.

Sucharita: What was it like to write Island from either side of the socio-political divide while living in a country removed from the scene of this trauma and then to rely on and deal with ‘memory’ as inherent to this story?

Nayomi: Hard.

I had a lot of fear about whether I was the person to tell this story. Whether it was mine to tell since I had not lived in Sri Lanka since I was three years old and only visited the country every year. I was very aware of my out-sider-ness. I think all writers deal with this. But if you stop there you’ve let fear swallow up your writing. A great deal of writing is about being recklessly, stupidly adamant that you will do the thing. It might not be good but you have to try. It was that sort of foolhardiness that got me through eight years of writing that book and the subsequent three years it took to find a first publisher.

Sucharita: What Lies Between Us leaves behind the politics and history of a country and turns inward to a space that is intensely fissured, to memory that is slippery. For you as the writer, living in the mind of a single character through the traumatic events she internalises, did her emotions, fears and responses come naturally to you, the organic process, or did it involve a lot of research?

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The Books We Made review: Kali for Women gets its worthy place in the history of feminism

Filmmakers Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku take us through the journey of the feminist publication formed during the women’s rights movements of the 1980s.

Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku take us through the journey of the significant contributors to the feminist movement in India in the 1980s and 1990s — Kali for Women, the publication house founded by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon.

The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production explores the feminist publication house’s inception in 1984, its landmark books and their authors, challenges and its closure in 2003.

The documentary opens with Butalia’s room, which is overflowing with books. “I always keep books by women… always,” she says, while explaining how she decides which books to keep and which ones to let go. Images of books invariably appear throughout the film, sometimes tucked away neatly in a shelf and at times in the hands of the authors as they read lines from their own works.

The story of inception in black and white footage; the founders’ interviews generating nostalgia as they reveal their humble beginnings in a garage, the designing of the logo by Chandralekha, a dancer, and the lack of profits through most of the years.

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The top 10 Queer and Feminist books of 2017

10. Spinning by Tillie Walden

This graphic memoir from On A Sunbeam’s Tillie Walden deals with young queer love (and first kisses, competitive figure skating, and being a teen girl. In a Drawn-to-Comics-curated interview with Ngozi Ukazu, Walden says:

“[E]very coming-out story is so unique that I think it’s really important that we share with each other what ours was. And readers have related in really fascinating ways. You know what one of my most common questions at school visits is? ‘How do you come out?’ Kids actually ask me this, in front of their peers and teachers. It’s unbelievable to me, it’s so brave. And I’ve realized that because I talk about this hard moment in my life and I’m showing them that I made it through it, they suddenly feel like they can approach this topic with me. It’s mind blowing. Really.”

9. To My Trans Sisters edited by Charlie Craggs

This collection of letters from nearly 100 trans women, including Juno Dawson, Isis King, Rhiannon Styles, Laura Jane Grace and Juliet Jacques, is meant to advise and empower women at the beginning of transition. In an interview at Dazed with Kuchenga Shenje, who was also a contributor, Craggs says:

“Most people just don’t know trans people in their day to day life. I didn’t know any trans people when I transitioned. I only met my first trans person when I was like a year or two in. You feel quite alone and you don’t have anyone to ask those questions. You can’t ask your mum or your cis friends because they just don’t know the answers. So, I wanted to create that source of information and inspiration. I call this book an anthology of trans excellence. The girls and the women that I literally clung on to. I researched them and clung on to their stories in early transition, I just didn’t know any other trans people so I read every Wikipedia page. I read every autobiography. I watched every film. I watched every documentary. I watched all the YouTube videos. It’s like a place where I’ve collected all those amazing women to tell the next generation: ‘Yeah, these are the women who you need to know about.”

8. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby

In her second essay collection, Meaty author Samantha Irby explores The Bachelorette, poop, lesbian porn, family, bodies and more. In an interview atHazlitt with Scaachi Koul, Irby says about her art:

“[M]y approach is always to make my essays poop length. For a couple reasons: one, it’s just practical. I understand that between Instagramming cute dinners and bleeding the planet’s resources dry, people don’t have a lot of time to devote to sitting down with whatever musings I have about my butthole, but everybody poops and most people like to keep a book handy for the toilet, and six or seven pages is just enough time to be entertained while getting your business done without worrying about your butt falling asleep. Same goes for a subway commute or keeping it on your bedside table—I know I’ve got a handful of pages in me before I pass out on top of the book, creasing it into oblivion, and I assume other people are like that, too?”

7. Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed interrogates the idea of the feminist origin story as a result of rites of passage, and instead argues for feminism as an ongoing action.

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