Sri Lankan author to discuss book, cultural identities
By Lou Fancher
How is it best to hold onto one's native culture while living in a separate, often vastly different culture? Or, split between two identities, where is the true self?
"Island of a Thousand Mirrors" is Munaweera's award-winning answer. The 41-year-old Oakland resident's debut novel tells the story of two Sri Lankan girls, one Tamil, the other Sinhalese. Tested, tortured and ultimately shaped by their country's 26-year civil war, they find their place in the world but not perfect peace.
Munaweera will read and speak about her novel at the San Ramon Library at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"I'm always going to be between two places," Munaweera says. "Almost no one looks at me and thinks I'm American. In Sri Lanka, I'm an outsider."
Munaweera was born to a Sinhalese family in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fleeing with her family at the age of 3 to Nigeria, a military coup in 1984 caused the family to immigrate to Southern California. Receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees from UC Irvine and UC Riverside respectively, Munaweera tutored disadvantaged students in San Francisco's Tenderloin District and taught at a community college while working on her book.
"I started it in 2001 and finished in 2009," she says.
After multiple rejections from U.S. publishers, Munaweera found a Sri Lankan publisher through -- improbably -- Facebook.
"I had a Sri Lanka friend who went to Canada when we came to the U.S.," Munaweera recalls. "After two decades of not talking, we connected. Her best friend was a publisher in Sri Lanka."
"Island" was published in South Asia in 2012 and subsequently won the 2013 Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and other awards. St. Martin's Press published a U.S. edition in fall 2014.
Munaweera says the book's reception in Sri Lanka is fascinating.
"They consider it diaspora fiction," she says. "I found two out of 25 kids had read my book when I went there to teach a class."
South Asians marvel at what they consider to be the horrors of emigration, captured in the book by a character whose own body becomes foreign, like a strange field of odors and shapes that fail to fit into the Hollywood landscape in which she lives.
Alternatively, she says Americans remark on characters' "terrible arranged marriages" that rarely cause comment from readers in India or Sri Lanka.
Hardest yet are the scowls and outright attacks, like one pro-government editor protesting her book during the "soft dictatorship" of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He said she was American and it was not her story to write.
A stunning election in early January ousted Rajapaksa and brought a fragile, hoped-for democracy to Sri Lanka.
"None of us expected the war to end. It's amazing to see Sri Lanka out of war. To see people going around their daily lives without risking being burned up on a bus," Munaweera says.
Her words reflect the ferocity of her book's central concern, the mystery of suicide bombing, but also the two-headed beast that lurks inside her writer's head.
"'It's what I call occupational hazards: moments of total grandiosity and ego and severe depression and self-loathing. I wish I could just treat it like a joyful job instead of the painful mental gymnastics of not knowing if I'm a good writer," she says.
The confession is classic Munaweera: ferociously honest, fearless, exposing good and evil impulses.
"I'm slightly obsessed with serial killers and mysteries, but I have to balance that with lovely, joyful things," she says.
When the writing flows, Munaweera finds a sympathetic thread in even an awful character -- a suicide bomber, a person betraying a lover, a parent abandoning a child. Attracted to "the dark stuff" and the inexplicable, she says, "When the characters talk and a scene works, it's the most thrilling thing in the world."
Library Manager Nancy Kreiser says Munaweera is a great fit for the program, presented in partnership with the American Association of University Women.
"It meets our goals to bring a female author, to model women's history, to hear a Bay Area perspective," Kreiser says.
With the San Ramon library closing for a major renovation in late summer or early fall, Kreiser will be searching for future partnerships and planning to meet the public's request for more programs.
Meanwhile, Munaweera will draw on the power of having two sides from which to write. Completing her next book, due out in February 2016, she is secretive but says it is "a dark look at migration and maternity."