Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2016. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Nayomi Munaweera’s family fled Sri Lanka when she was just three -- first to Nigeria, and then, in 1984, to Los Angeles. But the civil war that began in 1983 between the Sinhalese and Tamils serves as the backdrop for her excellent debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and her brilliant follow-up, What Lies Between Us.
Munaweera describes Sri Lanka’s culture of war with vivid detail, partially the result of memories shared by her family. Munaweera had almost given up on her debut novel when it got picked up by a publisher in Sri Lanka in 2012; after being long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and winning the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, Island of a Thousand Mirrors finally saw publication in the U.S. in 2014 St. Martin’s Press.
Where do you live?
I'm in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland.
If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?
What did you do last night?
I came home and hung out with my husband and we watched... oh no, wait, we read. We were going to watch stuff, but then we read instead.
What can't you live without?
Obviously, my husband. Sri Lankan food, my cat and books.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I'll say The Maldives. I've been wanting to go there forever.
Who is your personal hero, and why?
There are a ton of writers. I'll say Nabokov, because he wrote Lolita, which I think is the most brilliant book.
How did you find your creative voice?
I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in English Literature and stumbled my way through writing my first novel.
What is something that most people don't know about you?
Oh gosh. That I was a tall flag cheerleader in high school.
I went to school at Arcadia High School in Southern California, and the interesting part of that is we were the Arcadia Apaches, which is the Native American tribe. I came to America in 1984 and I came from Nigeria and I'm from Sri Lanka. Then, within two years, I was a tall flag girl and for parades and stuff, we wore "Indian outfits." You know, moccasins and belts, leather and the whole thing, feather headdresses.
I was really dislocated and didn't have much sense of American history and what has happened here. I remember there was one science teacher causing quite a ruckus about it, and I didn't understand. I think it wasn't until I was in college that I understood how grievous that had been, and how complicated. And how strange for me as a South Asian person to get here and be wearing that outfit.
What do you do when you feel uninspired?
One of the great things about working on a novel is it's so big, so if one part of the book isn't working you can go work on a different part. I really love that about novels, the big scope of it. If that just doesn't work, I have days where I just don't write at all and I'll spend the day reading or I'll go walking. I really love walking up in Mt. View Cemetery. It's really close to me, and it's gorgeous up there.
What's been your biggest learning moment, and what did you take from that experience?
I don't think it's just one, I think it's a series. As a writer, something that you're constantly grappling with is rejection. For every opportunity that is a Yes, you have about 20-25 that are a No. The ride is pretty much a roller coaster. Your books will not sell and then some maybe will sell really well. You'll get a big event, meeting 500 people, and then for a while nothing will happen. It's this constant roller coaster and you just have to learn that it's the long game. I think the biggest learning thing is that it's a long marathon of a process to have this particular career.
What has been your greatest achievement?
I'd have to say writing two books. As obvious as that is, writing a book is a really, really difficult thing. Being able to say that I've done it twice, when I'm in it, it just seems impossible and it's really, really difficult. To be lucky enough to have them manifest themselves in the world feels like a huge achievement.
Do you drink coffee or tea, and what kind?
I drink coffee, which is strange, because I'm from Sri Lanka and we have the best tea in the world. I don't drink tea unless I'm in Sri Lanka because it never seems as good. In Sri Lanka there's a lot of ritual around tea, or at least anywhere you go it's good china cups, and it's the good coffee, and the sugar cubes and all of that. I just never have that same experience here. I just don't even deal with tea here.
In Sri Lanka people drink, I don't know, three, four, five cups of tea a day. It's very much part of our culture and also something we, of course, inherited from the British. Here, I'm a coffee drinker, and in Sri Lanka I'm a tea drinker.
What does a perfect day look like for you?
Books. Lots of reading. Maybe a walk out in nature, hanging out with people I like. Not engaging too much with technology. Not having to think about a list of things I have to do. Really, more than anything else, having a period of time that's unfocused and unplanned.
Who are your local inspirations?
Candy Martinez and Cecil Carthen are really good friends. They have a party called Skin which is really fantastic. Cecil DJs with the People Party. I love that they are really local and they've done these giant parties for about 12 years now. The ways that they've brought the community together around music has been really inspiring.
I have another friend called Keenan Norris. His first book won a prize and got published. It's called Brother and the Dancer. It's really amazing and people should check it out. My husband has a podcast called This is Actually Happening, which is a narrative of changing events; that's the intent of it. It was just featured a couple of times on Snap Judgment and on NPR because of that, and that's fantastic. One more: My very good friend, Gustavo Sandí is a DJ called El Diablo and he plays amazing music around here.
What's your favorite meal?
Sri Lankan food, which, sadly, we do not have in the Bay, we have no restaurants. If I go down to L.A., there's a ton of restaurants. Also Staten Island has lots of restaurants.
What upcoming show are you excited about?
Our big local book event, LitQuake, which happens in October is huge. You have audiences of hundreds of people and I'm really excited about all this literary activity that is now happening in the Bay Area.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I'm so not a planner. I can only hope. And I'm hoping that in that time I have at least one more book, maybe more. Who knows? That's pretty ambitious. I hope I've written another book by then.
If you could live in a book, or a TV show, or a movie, or a play, or a painting, or an album, what would it be?
This question takes me back to an idyllic piece of childhood. For me, the book that really captures that is a book called My Family and Other Animals. It's something that Americans don't really know, because it's by a British author called Gerald Durrell. He wrote it about his childhood spent on the Island Corfu. It's just a beautiful, really charming, enchanting description of what it's like to be a child and be free in nature, coming into contact with lots of different animals and people of the area. Running on the hills and discovering nature in its very raw form. That particular book was something I was very obsessed with in childhood. I think it's very much flavored my writing, the lushness of nature and beauty of it. If I could live anywhere, I would want to live in that book.
Where and when can people see you and your art in action?
I do events all over the Bay and the country and South Asia too. They'd really just have to check my website. I have been promoting my second book for some weeks now and doing readings once, sometimes twice a day. I've just gotten to the point where I'm taking a little break to work on my third book. I'm going to Sri Lanka to teach, and then I'm coming back and doing some more.