Welcome back to The Aerogram Book Club, where Book Club editor Neelanjana Banerjee brings together writers and thinkers to discuss new South Asian books of significance every other month. Join in with your thoughts in the comments after reading her discussion with artist and writer Swati Khurana.
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors has been described as incendiary, searing, and devastating, but also as beautiful, vibrant, and intoxicating — reflecting the nature of an island paradise torn apart by a 26-year, bloody civil war. Originally published by Perera Hussein in Sri Lanka in 2012 and Hachette India in 2013, the novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Award, shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature given out at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia in 2013. It was finally published by St. Martin’s Press in the United States just last month. NPR offers an online excerpt from the book. The novel follows the lives of both Sinhalese and Tamil people as they deal with life in Sri Lanka, immigration, and ultimately: violence.
Neelanjana Banerjee: I think the aspect of Island of a Thousand Mirrors that I appreciate the most is that the narrative refuses to look away from the bloodshed that held Sri Lanka hostage for so long. Munaweera insists on writing about some of the most violent aspects of what was one of the most horrific civil wars in recent history, with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 killed. From what I have read, I know that the Sri Lankan Civil War was marked by a particular kind of silence, especially in immigrant communities.
While reading Island, I thought of my good friend and poet Pireeni Sundaralingam’s poem: “Language Like Birds,” which has these lines: “But we have no words to express / our loss, no tools / to measure out the length of our leaving. // Fleeing before the war’s black howl, / we left behind language / words too heavy a burden to carry.” Munaweera’s book also made me think of Urvashi Butalia’s amazing oral-history The Other Side of Silence in which she attempts to uncover the silence that shrouds the extreme violence of Partition in India, even in her own family. I also thought of Tahmima Anam’s wonderful novel A Golden Age which is about the 1971 War in Bangladesh, but focuses explicitly on the domestic sphere of its protagonist, leaving the violence at the periphery.
Munaweera’s novel insists — loudly — on looking at the violence, and The narrative refuses to look away from the bloodshed that held Sri Lanka hostage for so long.how it touches Sri Lankan lives, and explores this violence from both Sinhalese and Tamil perpetrators. This makes for shocking and difficult reading, whether we (the reader) watch as machetes rain down on a husband’s body or suffer through a truly horrific gang rape scene, and then stand by helpless as witness to a final tragic incident that rips the lives of the book’s characters apart. I thought that this book — beyond its literary beauty — was a real act of literary witness to a conflict that has been silenced.
Munaweera takes some major risks in tackling these issues, both personally and narratively: one major one is that she introduces a new character — a Tamil girl from the North of Sri Lanka, Saraswati — over 100 pages into the novel. Swati: I’m curious as to what you thought of this bold move?
Swati Khurana: It was indeed a bold move! Bold in the imaginative work of Saraswati’s dreams and transformation. At the recent Kriti Festival, Munaweera spoke about how hard it was to research the Tiger experience, because so few accounts were available at the time of writing the book, and because there was a practice of Tigers taking cyanide upon arrest. Saraswati is such a feat of a character for Munaweera, whose biography more closely, in some aspects, resembles that of Yasodhara — a Sinhalese immigrant who comes to the United States, leads a middle-class life, and studies literature. The gesture was bold also because of its asymmetry. The first part is mostly about Yasodhara’s family, especially the house at Wellawatte, and what happened in the space of the blue room; while the second part braids Saraswati’s story with that of Yasodhara. I appreciate that the author didn’t attempt to make the different point-of-views symmetrical.
Writing Saraswati was incredibly brave, given the stakes of what we talk about when we talk about women and violence against the state. I thought about Frantz Fanon’s incredible work on women’s participation in Front de Libération Nationale in A Dying Colonialism, Sabiha Sumar’s documentary Suicide Warriors (1996, for Channel Four Television), and the Indian Tamil feature film The Terrorist by Santosh Sivan (1997, which was post-facto executive produced by John Malkovich.) We see what Saraswati goes through, and the choices she makes, yet wonder, along with Munaweera, if a girl in her position even had a choice to make. And through the harrowing details, there is incredible compassion.
Another aspect of Munaweera’s boldness in Part Two, The heartaches in Island of A Thousand Mirrors are interlaced with the tragedies of war, and they mutually illuminate one another.through the weaving of Saraswati and Yasodhara, was the latticework of their sorrows. I was reminded of the “Exquisite Pain” exhibition of Sophie Calle. She traveled for 92 days to be abandoned by her lover, who stood her up for their planned rendez-vous at a New Delhi hotel. In despair over her break-up, Calle returned to France asked others to tell their stories of their most painful moments. Over a decade later, in the final part of the exhibition, Calle had her tellings of her heartbreak embroidered, juxtaposed with the stories of others. Those other stories included someone waking up and going blind, witnessing their entire village being killed, and mourning the death of a parent. I found that exhibition deeply moving in that it revealed how individual pain is. A testament’s to Munaweera’s writing is that the heartaches in Island of A Thousand Mirrors are interlaced with the tragedies of war, and they mutually illuminate one another.
Talking about the writing, I enjoyed the sensual details about the sea, the delicious meals which were magic, and how sex was described on the page from the gang rape to the tender love-making. (I also really enjoyed Munaweera’s holding back, when she referred to M.I.A. very briefly as the “international female pop star.”) Neelanjana: What did you make of the texture of the language?
Neelanjana Banerjee: The texture of the language in Island of a Thousand Mirrors is incredibly sensual and rich, Swati — you’re right. Munaweera was a visual artist and I think you can really feel that in her words.I know that in a previous lifetime (prior to focusing on writing), Munaweera was a visual artist and I think you can really feel that in her words. The book is highly erotic, in fact starting on page one with the release of grief into physical pleasure, harkening back to your Sophie Calle comparison. And it makes sense: that the same impetus that drives the narrative to be bold when talking about the violence is equally so when talking about bodies and desire.