It’s interesting: I’ve heard Munaweera speak about the difficulty she had getting this book published in the U.S., and she said that American publishers rejected it saying it was “overwrought.” And, honestly, I think when I first heard about the book, I was worried that it was going to be melodramatic, but also because I am a product of the MFA institutional literary complex which has taught me to give higher credence to minimalist narratives. And I realize, too, how racist and essentializing that view can be, especially because there hasn’t been any book like Munaweera’s tackling these issues. (Meanwhile, former Peace Corps volunteer to Sri Lanka Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road was picked up by Algonquin Books.) But in a way, I think Munaweera’s lyrical style does differentiate the book from what is hip these days, but serves the book’s narrative richly.
Swati, you’re in an MFA program right now, do you agree that there is a bias towards minimalist writing?
Swati Khurana: That question is hitting home, as it’s something I’m wrestling with while I am writing my novel. In my program, the faculty is not all American, and even with the ones who are, their work engages with an international literary conversation. But I have internalized a certain aesthetic when I think about writing, as I sometimes feel after the workshop, everything needs to be stripped bare in my writing and in others. But as a reader, I don’t feel that way. I have been fighting that urge, and even jot down notes to others, such as, “Keep the long, flowing sentences. The rhythm is working.” I sometimes have to remember that for my own writing.
This summer there was a viral trend on Facebook where people listed the books that influenced them, a trend I participated in after several nudges. I remembered the books that enveloped me in not only story but also language, the books that made me want to write. There is a way I like to be enveloped and transported as a reader. I felt Island of a Thousand Mirrors accomplished that.And some of those books were on so many others’ lists too: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and less frequently appearing Anjana Appachana’s Listening Now. Creating that list, as I embarked on my novel, made me realize that there is a way I like to be enveloped and transported as a reader. I felt Island of a Thousand Mirrors accomplished that, where a sentence could be a poem or a painting, and I did notice that Munaweera chose an epigraph from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Munaweera wrote outside of the “MFA institutional literary complex,” and ended up publishing outside of the United States first. Jabeen Akhtar’s prickly essay “Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and the Pandering to Western Audiences” in the Los Angeles Review of Books had some salient points about the innovation that may be easier to find from publishing within the subcontinent. To imagine American publishers initially using the word “overwrought” as a point of criticism — what a funny word. How is civil war not overwrought?
In the age of “prestige” television, where characters have perfectly sliced dialogues, scenes are carved to drive the action forward, and suspense is sculpted to build to the climax — what do we look for in a novel? For me, I seek someone to whisper in my ears, and when the writing becomes incantorial as it does in Island of a Thousand Mirrors, that is when I am ready to be transported to wherever the writer takes me.
Swati Khurana is an artist and writer living in New York City. She has written for The New York Times, Asian American Literary Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Weeklings, and has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Brooklyn Museum, Zacheta National Gallery of Art (Warsaw), Chatterjee & Lal (Mumbai). A MFA Fiction student at Hunter College and Kundiman fellow, she is working on her first novel.
Neelanjana Banerjee’s arts journalism has appeared in Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, HTML Giant, Hyphen, New America Media and more. She is the managing editor of Kaya Press, an editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and teaches writing through Writing Workshops Los Angeles.