Nayomi Munaweera on Picking Up a Megaphone and Shouting Out the Window
Nayomi Munaweera was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. At the age of three she immigrated with her family to Nigeria. In 1984, political unrest in Nigeria necessitated a second migration and the family settled in Southern California. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Literature from the University of California, Irvine and a Master’s degree in South Asian Literature from the University of California, Riverside. In 2001, she abandoned her PhD studies at the University of California, Riverside after it became impossible for her to ignore that her heart belonged not to academia but to writing. She moved to the Bay Area, taught at a community college, tutored students and wrote a novel. Island of A Thousand Mirrors was initially published in South Asia in 2012. It went on to be nominated for many of the sub-continent’s major literary prizes and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. The novel was released in America by St. Martin’s Press in 2014 to rave reviews including one by the New York Times which called it “luminous.” Nayomi lives in Oakland, California and is currently at work on her second novel.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I say “writer” and then wait for either the flash of excitement or utter boredom in their eyes. Some people ask, “A real writer? What do you write?” and they really want to know. Other folks immediately change the topic. They seem to think I’m about to open up my journal and start reading dreadful poetry at them. It’s kind of fun. It feels as outlandish as saying, “I’m a unicorn!” I love that I get to do this weird and fantastic thing with my life.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Not getting swallowed by either the crushing self-loathing or the immense narcissism that are the occupational hazards of being a writer. My partner has to sternly say, “Stop worrying” to me at least once a day to snap me out of it. It really is ridiculous how much mental crap comes with this job. It’s just something every creative person has to deal with. If you let it swallow you, you’ll stop creating.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I hope you really really love it because it’s hard and lonely and you’ll probably be poor for a long time. Also, it’s the best job in the world so if you feel it in your blood and bones and marrow — welcome!
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I must be successful (at the moment) because I’m writing often, sometimes daily. That must be success, because to not be writing would be failure. I don’t think you ever feel like a real success in this work. There’s always the sense that you are a fraud and the adults will surround your house and yell through megaphones, “GIVE IT UP. WE SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING. YOU’RE NOT FOOLING ANYONE. STOP IT AND COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP.” But I think this feeling means that you are successfully doing the thing that makes you an artist. Maybe success means picking up your own megaphone and shouting out the window, “SHOVE OFF! I’M MAKING THINGS IN HERE!”
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Simon’s Cat. I love it inordinately when that cat meows and points at his mouth. Cats are alien gods and we must worship them and these videos show us how to do so properly.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My ancestors seem very far away. They all lived (for the most part) in Sri Lanka and it’s rather difficult to imagine their lives in the midst of my very American one. That said, I have a maternal grandmother who was rather a firebrand. Rumor is that she had an affair and that two of her kids including my mother and aunt weren’t the products of her legal marriage. It’s never been confirmed but I love this story. I love that fact that she broke the rules of very strict culture and of an arranged marriage to affirm her own desires. And this choice gave birth to another branch of the family including myself. My mother is going to be so annoyed if she ever reads this. It must suck to have a writer as a kid (sorry Ammie). But I am proud of grandma’s rebellion, not ashamed of it. I respect her for breaking the societal laws women were subject to.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Gerald Durrell. I don’t think many Americans know him. He was a British conservationist and writer. He wrote a book called My Family and Other Animals that rocked my world when I was a kid growing up in Nigeria and did again when I read the book 25 years later. Because of him I wanted to be a veterinarian. I later gave that idea up because I learned it would involve sticking my hand up cows’ asses and math.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Brown people don’t do wilderness.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
Well I live in the Bay Area where it is the law that everyone does a strip tease at some point or other. Otherwise you get shipped off to some horrific place like Bakersfield. I’m not telling you about my moves — you might steal them and then I’d have to kill you.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Too little to go on an around the world trip but enough to pay Bay Area rent for a few months which should tell you I’m ridiculously rich since rent around here is stupid.
What’s wrong with society today?
If you asked someone this question in the 1800’s you’d probably get the same answer: too many people, no respect, too much technology, blah blah blah. So I don’t really know. We are a weird and wonderful species, I’ll say that.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Sugar. That’s not really a medication is it? More of a poisonous addiction.
What is your fondest memory?
Sri Lanka. The Indian Ocean. This warm water which is a thousand shades of sparkling blue and green will always be my truest and most perfect place. Every time I’ve been in it has been a sultry affair. I think my first novel might be a love letter to that water even though it also mentions people and war and etc.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The halt of environmental degradation. The rise of the animal kingdoms so we are no longer pushing species into extinction but instead learning to share this planet with them.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
We’d be mumbling morons with a thick and hard coating over our souls without it.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
I outed grandma! Isn’t that enough? I’ve got the scolding voices of far too many South Asian aunties in my head to properly answer this question.
What are you working on right now?
A dark, deep and joyous novel. It has to do with the painful side of maternity and immigration. Out in early 2016.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
The books that are so beautifully written that I am both crushed by the knowledge I’ll never do anything half as good and simultaneously rushing to my laptop because I am compelled to try.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Is this a trick question? Rent of course. As I said, it’s stupid at this point.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Sometimes snuggling in bed with my cat and reading while everyone goes out and gets crazy. I love the idea of being home alone and unbothered by anyone. Other times, going out till 4 in the morning and feeling sorry for those sad sacks who stayed in bed with their cat all night.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Sea salt, jasmine and frangipani. (I would add mangoes — but South Asian authors must avoid the mango cliché like their lives depend on it — so no mangoes.)
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
A beautiful little cottage in Berkeley to write in until I had work I was proud of.