Making The Most of The Time We Have

Join author, educator, and learner, Annmarie Kelly as she laughs, cries, and kvetches with the writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and wanderers who inspire all of us to reach beyond our divisions and discover what it means to be wild, precious, and brave.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Chase Your Dreams with Nayomi Munaweera

Chase Your Dreams with Nayomi Munaweera

Nayomi Munaweera is currently drafting her third novel. However, her first book took over ten years to write. Through dozens of revisions, rejections, and doubts, Nayomi learned the craft and never gave up on her dream. She felt in her bones she was meant to be a writer. Annmarie speaks with Nayomi about her immigrant childhood, teenage shenanigans, and what it really means to do the sacred work of storytelling.

Episode sponsors:

Ashland University low-res MFA in Creative Writing – Where accomplished faculty help you find your voice and complete your degree at your own pace. Learn more and enroll today at ashland.edu.

Pegasus Books – Offering a huge selection of new, used and sale titles, Pegasus bookstores are welcoming and inclusive neighborhood spaces, where we believe in the printed word and in the alchemy of sharing books with one another. Find your next great read and shop online at PegasusBookstore.com.

Books by Nayomi Munaweera:

Island of a Thousand Mirrors

What Lies Between Us

Some of the books and authors we reference in this conversation:

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado

Oscar Wilde

Anaïs Nin

Colette

Michael Ondaatje

James Baldwin

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee

You can find these titles at Pegasus Books or at an independent bookstore near you.

Here’s an excerpt from the 1979 film, The Life of Brian


Follow Nayomi Munaweera:

www.nayomimunaweera.com

Instagram: @nayomimunaweera

Twitter: @NayomiMunaweera

Facebook: @Nayomi.Munaweera

Annmarie Kelly:
Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by the Ashland University low-res MFA, where our accomplished faculty help you find your voice and complete your degree at your own pace. Learn more and enroll today at ashland.edu. And we're brought to you in part by The Bookshop in Lakewood, Ohio, a family-owned and operated bookstore committed to providing new and used titles in-house and online. The West Side's only mom-and-pop bookshop.

Annmarie Kelly:
I am Annmarie Kelly. Welcome to Wild Precious Life, a podcast about dreaming big and making real connections. In each episode, I talk to prize-winning writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs who teach all of us how to make the most of the time we have. I ask folks on this show sometimes, "Who was one of your best Teachers?" But I don't think I've ever answered that myself because I'm lucky to have had a bunch of them. Mrs. Link saw promise in my writing back when I was in high school. My college coach, Christina [Escunez 00:01:18] led the first writing workshop I ever participated in. I was terrified. Like, practically peeing my pants afraid to share my work. "What if it wasn't any good? What if nobody liked it?" And sometimes it wasn't. And they didn't. But she taught me the value of putting one word in front of the other, journaling, and always being able to find something that worked, a paragraph, a sentence, a word, anything that pointed me in the direction I wanted to go. And I could list many, many more. I have been a fortunate student and learner.

Annmarie Kelly:
Today's guest, for instance, has also been my teacher. Nayomi Munaweera is a master writing instructor. She has this way of zeroing in on the one hard truth you were trying to hide on the page. She will see glorious potential in your work when all you see is failure. And she'll call you on your bullshit. More than anything else, she inspires me to write my best because her writing is so brilliant. And I'm super excited today to introduce you to this amazing woman.

Annmarie Kelly:
Nayomi Munaweera is at Sri Lankan-American writer and author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, which won the Commonwealth Prize for Asia in 2013; and What Lies Between Us, which won the Sri Lankan National Book Award for best English novel. Naomi was named one of 12 women writers of color you need to know by Bustle magazine, and one of the Asian-American women writers who is going to change the world by Electric Literature. Her prose has been called visceral and indelible and devastatingly beautiful. And Nayomi has co-taught writing workshops in Sri Lanka through a program called Write to Reconcile, which aims to use creative writing as a tool of reconciliation and healing for survivors of the civil war.

Annmarie Kelly:
Nayomi Munaweera, welcome to Wild Precious Life.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yay. I'm so thrilled to be here with you, Annmarie.

Annmarie Kelly:
It is so nice to see your face, my friend.

Nayomi Munaweera:
You too. Across the country.

Annmarie Kelly:
Right?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
We're just kind of cuddled up here with our beverages and just get a chance to talk across the miles. What a gift. I think that over the last 18 months, I don't know, I feel like we've all realized what a gift it is to connect with people. So, thanks for making time.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Absolutely.

Annmarie Kelly:
I would just love it if you would tell listeners who aren't familiar with you, if you would just tell us your story.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I was born in 1973 in Sri Lanka. And in 1976, my family left and we all moved to Nigeria. And we were going for economic reasons. So, war would happen later in Sri Lanka, but we didn't leave for that reason. So, in 1976, I'm three years old. Me and my mom and dad, we moved to Nigeria. We're there until '84. And in that time, I was growing up going back and forth. We would go back to Sri Lanka for about a month every year. So, it was quite pivotal for me to go to Sri Lanka and have that sort of bi-cultural, bi-continental, I suppose, childhood.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And then in 1984 what happens is there's a military coup in Nigeria and we had to leave very quickly. And then meanwhile in 1983, a civil war had started in Sri Lanka, which would then go on until 2009. So, that's a lot of dates, but...

Annmarie Kelly:
There will be a quiz afterwards. I hope listeners are taking notes. There will be points awarded. And there will be a quiz.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And we ended up in Los Angeles, which was a strange place to go from pretty rural Nigeria. And then, yeah. I get to LA. I don't know where I am for a long time. There's this super disconnect that a young immigrant has. Sort of dislocation in time and space.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And then fast forward. I go to undergrad. I get a degree in English. I decide I'm going to be a professor of English. I do a PhD. And at the very end of that PhD, in September, 2001, which is insane, I'm not sure that I want to write this dissertation. I start instead writing fiction. And after a sort of long, complicated battle with myself, I dropped out of my program in September, 2001. I moved, I think on the 1st of September, to the Bay Area and I started writing a novel.

Nayomi Munaweera:
It took me 10 years to finish that first book. It took another two to find a publisher. My first publisher was in Sri Lanka because the American houses didn't want the book. And then this small house in Sri Lanka said yes to the book, which was very exciting because, as I said, I had not grown up in Sri Lanka during the war years, which were '84 to 2009. And I had this huge question of like, "Is it my story to tell? Can I write about this?" My book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is about the civil war in Sri Lanka. And then this book got picked up in Sri Lanka. It was then picked up in India, at which point it was up for a whole bunch of prizes internationally, at which point the Americans started calling me. There was a mini bidding war for my book. And St. Martin's gave me a two-book deal.

Nayomi Munaweera:
So, first book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, came out in 2012. Second book, What Lies Between Us, came out in 2016. And right now, I'm hopefully, fingers crossed, pray to all the gods, at the very end of a third novel, but we shall see.

Annmarie Kelly:
I have read Island of a Thousand Mirrors. And I don't think, until I listened to you tell the story just now, I don't think I realized how you were actually navigating between not one, not two, but actually three different cultures at three different periods of time, all of which were negotiating this balance between war and a lack, I guess, of peace.

Annmarie Kelly:
So, you left Sri Lanka before the war. I get that. But you guys went back, right? I think I've heard you talk about this. You guys would go back to Sri Lanka as a child. Do you remember visiting a country? Did you know that there was a war happening?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh yeah. From the airport to your house, there were years when there were checkpoints. So, there would be young soldiers with guns. And they would stop the car. They would pull everything out. They would look at all your suitcases. Open everything. Again, we weren't in real trouble because we were coming from abroad. We were Sinhalese. Later, we would have American passports. So, there was never a real threat. But yeah. As a kid, absolutely. And then being in Sri Lanka doing bomb blasts or seeing it on the news. Yeah. I mean, the news in Sri Lanka was often carnage of bus bombings or suicide bombings and those kind of things.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I'm going to tell this story. I don't want it to sound like I'm sort of padding it, but this is a thing that happened at some point when I was in Sri Lanka. I must've been about, I want to say 14. And my aunt is a horticulturalist. So, we went to this big flower show that she was showing at. And we went there. And we were all in this huge building. And my cousins and I walked outside to get ice cream. And as we walked out, there was this really loud noise. And the place had been bombed. And no one had been killed. But when we walked back in, they were bringing out stretchers of people that were bleeding. And in my aunt's flowers stall, there was shrapnel in the wall. So, there were these kind of moments. And then that night, you go to dinner and you kind of laugh about it and joke around because that's just the way folks dealt with it because we were not the people that really suffered in that war. The people that really suffered were Tamil people in the north of the country.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And then sort of to dovetail with that, later, when my book came out, my book came out in Sri Lankan in 2012, and there were pro-government newspapers that would... at the launch of my book, for example, this pro-government guy showed up. And my publisher said this would happen. And he said, "You're American. How dare you? You don't know anything about this country." And I said, "Well, have you have even read the book?" And he said, "No." I said, "Okay, well, you should probably read the book," at which point people started clapping. And then he had to sit down. And he's sort of notorious in Sri Lanka for doing this kind of stuff. But then he wrote this article calling me a cheerleader from LA. And it was really aggressive. It said, "We should give her to the army and see what they do with her."

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my god. That's awful.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. So, considering what happens to a woman given to the army... or not given, you know, in conflict with the army in my book, that was a not-so-veiled threat. So, there are these moments. And, again, at that point, I had an American passport, which protected me and it continues to protect me. So, it's like it really has to be put in the context of, I'm not a Tamil writer. And that would be a completely different situation. I probably would not be able to write this book or a book about this war.

Annmarie Kelly:
I'm thinking about what it was like to be a child going back to Sri Lanka and simultaneously being told that you have nothing to fear, but also being afraid. So, having adults tell you, "It's going to be okay," but looking around and having a different experience there.

Annmarie Kelly:
Throughout the book, because of course this is a book... Island of a Thousand Mirrors talks about both perspectives. And I know there are many perspectives in war, but you're looking at the two sides that are fighting. And you do show it to us first through the eyes of children. Something is happening. The adults aren't telling us what it is. And we're afraid.

Annmarie Kelly:
And I've never been to Sri Lanka. Truthfully, honest to goodness, knew very little about this war, a war that happened during my and your lifetime. My experiencing it in the book was through the eyes of these children. And it was terrifying to be told simultaneously that everything's okay, but to know, as these children knew, that everything is not okay; to be told by adults, "We will keep you safe," but for these children to know, "I don't think you can."

Annmarie Kelly:
So, I think some of that visceral experience of you going back to Sri Lanka, despite the fact that you say, "We didn't leave because of war. We weren't there throughout," I do think some part of that experience has found your way into the writing. And the way you write children and fear I found incredibly powerful in that book.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Thank you. Thank you, Annmarie. I was really trying. You said you didn't know a lot about that war. I mean, there are these wars all over the world that we know nothing about. Folks are often like, "I know nothing about the history of Sri Lanka." I'm like, "Well, we don't know about the history of anywhere." We really don't. There are just dozens of these conflicts, maybe hundreds of them, that we know nothing about. So, I don't expect people to know anything about Sri Lanka.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And yeah. You're totally right. It is like a pervasive thing. And I think the way that I'm talking about it also points to a sort of maybe survivor guilt, like, growing up in a different country and not participating. A thing that always stays with me is I have a cousin who's my age, exactly my age, and he grew up in Sri Lanka, and then went to Britain, and decided to go back to Sri Lanka and live there, and make a life there. During the war years, which was sort of this very, very brave thing. And he has two daughters. And I remember him saying during the war years, that his wife and him each would take a girl and get on a different bus just in case there was a bombing.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my god.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. And I'm like, "Oh man- "

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my god.

Nayomi Munaweera:
"... this is what people were living with?" So, meanwhile, we're in America and safe. So, all of that, right? I think when I was writing that book, I'm like, how do I have people understand what it means to be both there and then not there?

Nayomi Munaweera:
The war ended in 2009. And now I know young Sri Lankan kids, they don't even know, which is strange. I don't even know if our history is alive for folks. There's definitely a push culturally, maybe even governmentally, to forget and sort of get on with it, which is just such a South Asian thing. My God. I don't think we've even dealt with the trauma of partition, let alone what happened in Sri Lanka. We haven't dealt with millions of Bengalis starving because Churchill sent the grain somewhere else. We haven't dealt with that. It's a lot of unprocessed trauma.

Annmarie Kelly:
No. I saw that very much in your book as, I won't give it away to folks, but the idea with, after a nationwide trauma how do you heal? Because moving on is actually not the same as healing. Moving on and saying, "Huh, we're so glad that's over," is not the same as looking people in the eye and listing the ways in which you've sinned or begging for forgiveness or admitting the ways in which the war, in this case on both sides, went on so long that people forgot what it was they were fighting for or against. And everyone lost in that war.

Annmarie Kelly:
So, you were a child in Sri Lanka, but you left when you were three. So, then you went to Nigeria. And you would have stayed there until, it sounds like you were about 12?

Nayomi Munaweera:
12. Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. So, do you have any memories of Nigeria? Of that place? What was it like to be there?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh, it was fantastic. I mean, everything is colored by this nostalgic need for childhood again, so who knows what it was really like, but it was a pretty good childhood. It was in a rural Nigerian village, town called Sokoto, which is in the north. There were nomadic tribes, Fulani, who would bring their heads of cattle through. And it was tribes people, many different kinds of tribes people, Yoruba and Ibo and Hausa. And I went to a English-speaking school. And there were a lot of animals around, which I really loved.

Annmarie Kelly:
What was it like to move from Nigeria, from a rural village in Nigeria, to be dropped as a pre-teenager into Los Angeles, California?

Nayomi Munaweera:
That's a great question. And I just want to back up a bit. We got to Nigeria in 1976. And they had just gone through the Biafra war, which Chimamanda Adichie has written about in Half a Yellow Sun.

Annmarie Kelly:
I've read that.

Nayomi Munaweera:
So, as a child obviously, as a three-year-old, I had no idea, but I do remember being in the backyard and picking up shell cases. So, that was, yeah. That was also a thing that happened. So, that is also the background of us coming in as Asians basically for economic survival. The economy in Sri Lanka was really bad. My dad's an engineer. Not an oil engineer. A civil engineer. And we went to Nigeria to make money and survive. So, I just want to also put that into context. We're coming at the end of British colonization. We're coming at the end of a really brutal civil war that Nigeria underwent.

Nayomi Munaweera:
'84, we move to LA. I just don't know. It's like crazy. It was all very confusing. I spoke English pretty well, but I didn't understand anybody's accent. I didn't know what they were talking about. I didn't know what cookies were. We say biscuits, right?

Annmarie Kelly:
Biscuits.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I thought people saying, "Hi," sounded really stupid. And all of that. And also, nobody understood me. So, I was in a remedial English class for a couple of months before they were like, "Oh, she just has an accent. Right."

Annmarie Kelly:
Wow.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Gosh, what can I say? I was also within a Sri Lankan community. My uncle is... this is in Los Angeles. I'm in the Bay now, but my uncle is still in LA. And he gives jobs to a lot of Sri Lankan folks. So, he sponsored us. And that's why we were able to show up. I don't know if maybe I want to say a suitcase each and maybe a trunk. Not a lot of things. And we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. It was my parents, my sister was three, me, my grandma, and my aunt. So, there were six of us. Two bedrooms. Two bedrooms. Sorry. It was real tight for a while.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And, again, I just didn't know anything. It was just profound dislocation. I had no idea the size of this country. I just felt very, I think, confused for a long time and then also sort of closeted within my own immigrant community for a long time. And it wasn't until later in my teens, when I started pulling away, sort of breaking a lot of norms, that I kind of understood where I was.

Annmarie Kelly:
Ooh. What were some of the norms you broke?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh boy. Okay. Okay. So, this is startling even to me. I don't know quite how I did this. But I got to America when I was 12. And by 16, I had this Tamil boyfriend, which... yeah, I know. Which was-

Annmarie Kelly:
Wow.

Nayomi Munaweera:
... a really big deal for my community because Sinhalese, Tamil people were fighting in Sri Lanka. And I met this person. And we were in a relationship for eight years. And 16 for an American kid is probably very normal. For a Sri Lankan kid, it's like, oh my God, slut of the century.

Annmarie Kelly:
Were you sneaky?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
Did you have to meet him at a place by the thing and pretend to be doing homework?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. For about a year.

Annmarie Kelly:
I mean, I heard. I heard.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. For a year, I was... so, I don't know. Between 12 and 16, I don't know what was going on, but I think I like, "Holy shit, okay. This is all different. Let me do... " I don't know what happened. Something happened. Everything clicked. And I was also like, "I'm not going to do anything the way my parents want or this society wants. I'm just not going to. I'm going to choose... "

Nayomi Munaweera:
My parents were an arranged marriage. It's unlikely that they would have wanted me or asked me to do that, although there was probably some intonation that that would happen. But they also didn't expect me to have a boyfriend at 16, and especially not a Tamil boyfriend. So, I was the girl that the aunties were telling their daughters not to be like or not to be around. Yeah. Yeah. Because I had kept it secret for a year. And then my uncle found out. And oh my God. It was a big, horrible mess. And everybody was really angry. And they took my car away and blah, blah. It was a big, messy thing. And I got this reputation for being really rebellious and breaking a lot of rules. And so, that was all cool.

Nayomi Munaweera:
After a while, everybody sort of calmed down and then like, "Okay, that's fine." And then when I was 24, we got engaged. And then I was like, "No, I actually don't want to marry him." So, it was like another...

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my goodness. They finally probably came around. It's like, "Well, at least she's marrying a Sri Lankan boy," because I'm sure there were members of your community who were not going to become partners. It's America. You can meet people from everywhere, especially in Los Angeles. So, they probably had just finally, eight years to come around, come around to this guy. And then you're like-

Nayomi Munaweera:
No.

Annmarie Kelly:
"Not so much." Wow.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yes. I had quite a reputation for quite a long time. I don't think people quite knew what to do with me. I'm not sure if they do still, but who knows, you know?

Annmarie Kelly:
I'm thinking about belonging somewhere. And the reputation that you're describing probably would have been valuable in the American teenager reputation. And so, not belonging one place would actually kind of make you feel like you did belong in this other place, this American teenage experience and sneaking out with boys. And I definitely remember doing quite a bit of that.

Annmarie Kelly:
My mother's family was Italian. And it was always like, "You don't call the boys. They call you." But if you had to wait for them to call, they'd never call. So, you had to say you were calling Maggie, but then call the boys, and definitely say you were going to Maggie's and then go meet the boys. And so, I do remember that feeling like your family just didn't understand the rules of teenagerland. And so, you could either teach them the rules and they still wouldn't get it, or you could just go and do your own thing.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Exactly, exactly. And the stakes were so high. I just also think about my parents. My God. They'd just gotten here. They're trying to survive economically. And then they've got this daughter who is not just breaking their rules, but breaking community rules. So, if the whole community didn't get involved, they probably would have been more okay with it.

Annmarie Kelly:
Was your dad able to be an engineer here? How much of his identity was shifted when they came here?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh, that's such a good question. He started off being a parking lot assistant.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my god.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. And then he started working for the county. And I remember, he always talks about this, his first job was going through flood control channels in LA on a little board on wheels on his stomach, sort of checking them. And he would say there would be these black widow spiders. It was just really horrific. He worked his way from there to becoming the engineer in charge of the whole freeway system for LA County for a few decades I think. There's a lot of bridges we'll drive by when I'm in LA and he'll be like, "Oh, I've worked on that one. I've worked on that one." He's talking about the freeway overpass. And you're like, "Oh, wow, your stamp is on all of this."

Nayomi Munaweera:
He learned engineering in Sri Lanka. He was the first batch of engineering students in Peradeniya, which is our big university. And his education was just as good, if not better, than the American engineers.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love hearing when stories actually work out like that because that's often not what we hear. So, then how did you not have to become... I have friends whose parents have come from other countries. And the understanding is that you'll be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. So, which did you pretend to be? Or which did you pretend to study for?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh my God. That's so good. I have to answer that by saying my sister is a extremely successful lawyer in LA. So, she did that and took some of the pressure off. But she's also nine years younger than me, so the timing doesn't quite work for taking the pressure off.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I pretended that I was going to be a lawyer. I went to undergrad to study English. And then I was going to "apply to law school." And then when I got there, I was like, "No, I'm applying to a PhD program." And they were like, "Oh, okay, that's respectable, right? You're going to be a doctor. That's good." But the dropping out of the PhD was really hard, especially for my dad. That was a real bummer for him. We've had to have several conversations, ongoing, to explaining that I haven't wasted my life because I dropped out of a PhD program.

Annmarie Kelly:
Can you crawl inside of that decision? I know that it was September of, you said 2001.

Nayomi Munaweera:
2001.

Annmarie Kelly:
I know that was a fraught time for our country, but it sounds like you had made that decision before 9/11. So, can you tell me, why did you decide not to?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah, yeah. So, it took about, I want to say five, four or five months. I was at UC Riverside. I was working with a professor I really love. Her name is Parama Roy. She is at Berkeley now. She's just incredible. And I was all set to write this dissertation. I was working on Krishnamurti, who is this Indian philosopher, writer. He's just incredible. And somewhere along the line, I just kind of started writing fiction. I don't even... I can't really articulate what happened, but I just wanted to write a novel, which made no sense. I had not even written a short story before, like, nothing. Like, nothing.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my gosh.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I know.

Annmarie Kelly:
I don't think I knew that.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I don't know. I have no idea. I don't know. It was really audacious. It's really strange. But some part of me was like, "I have to write this book. I don't know what it is." It started off with very different characters than who ended up in the book that you have read. And I started doing that more and more. And I went to my professor and I said, "Hey, I think I'm writing a book. Can I turn this in instead?" And she said, "No, this is an academic program. We're not going to take fiction."

Nayomi Munaweera:
And then I kind of like... nobody should do this, but I went... this is probably-

Annmarie Kelly:
Everyone is going to want to do this after you tell this story. I always want to do the things they tell me not... I want to touch the stuff they tell me not to touch. I want to go to the places they tell me not to go to. And I'm going to want to do whatever it is you're about to describe. But, other people, feel free to listen.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I just dropped out. Didn't really tell a lot of people, which was helpful. People sort of found out.

Annmarie Kelly:
The aunties were calling each other.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. Obviously, it was a big deal for the program, but I just disappeared I think. Probably not the greatest thing to do to a really nice professor. She and I have made up. She teaches my book. It's great. But that was like September 1st. And then when September... 11 days ago, everything went crazy and no one paid attention anymore, which was kind of great.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And so, I would teach three days a week and the rest of the time I was writing. And I literally lived in this big house full of undergrads. They were really studious, so it wasn't, like, party time. I was just writing for a long, long time and figuring it out. And I think my preparation... the PhD had been my preparation because I was reading so much. I was reading really deeply. I was already in conversation with the writers that I wanted to be in conversation with. I just had never written anything before. So, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is actually literally the first thing I've ever published.

Annmarie Kelly:
You are bonkers. That's not how it... folks, if you're out there wanting to start... absolutely, aspirationally, you should definitely read everything Nayomi Munaweera has written and aspire to be like her, but understand if your first novel does not turn out to be even an island of a 100 mirrors or even an island of 14 mirrors. For most people, it'll just be a broken mirror on the ground that you'll laugh at and then put in a drawer and start again.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh, friend.

Annmarie Kelly:
For most people. Oh my goodness.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Friend, friend, let me tell you though, took 10 years to write. So, I'd say I wrote probably... you know what that book is? It's a slim book, but it's probably about 20% to 30% of what I wrote. So, a lot of writing and writing and getting rid of it and writing again and writing again and like, "What the fuck is this? This is terrible. I don't know what I'm doing. Who am I?" This all might sound familiar to some of you.

Annmarie Kelly:
I've heard a thing or two about that.

Nayomi Munaweera:
"This is insane. Okay. But I want to do this. I don't know what this is." I didn't even go to writing conferences until way later. My friend was like, "You should go to writing conferences." "Oh, that's a thing?" "Yes." Like, "Oh right. I should do that."

Nayomi Munaweera:
And that was like... I don't know. I wrote secretlyish. I didn't really talk about writing a novel very much for about 10 years. It took a really long time. The book was published in 2012. So, yeah, overnight. I don't think you're saying overnight, but it's a weird-ass story, but just also a lot of painstaking work.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. So, tell people about the writing life. What's awful about it? And what's wonderful about it? Take us through the writer's life.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah, yeah. What's awful about it is you will constantly, unless you're very unusual, you'll constantly be battling with self-doubt, self-loathing, depression. You might have a voice that's like, "What the fuck are you doing? Why are you doing this?" That voice is probably not going to go away. It doesn't go away for most of us. I know a lot of writers.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I'm in Oakland. And I write with these two writers who are in New York. And we've been doing this since pandemic where they start writing at 10:00, which is 7:00 AM for me. So, we write together. And this one... I mean, they're both brilliant. They're both just fabulous and brilliant. One of them is on her third book. And I'm on my third book. And she's like, "Oh God, I feel so terrible. I feel like I'm a has-been," blah, blah, blah. And I can say to her, "Shut up. You're still brilliant. You are so just spectacular. Your book is so amazing." And she will buy it a little bit, but she'll say the same thing to me and I'm like, "Oh God." Yeah, we don't quite buy it. Annmarie's making some faces up there.

Annmarie Kelly:
I'm making faces. People can't see me make faces, but I... oh my gosh. So, okay. I asked you to tell me about the writing life. And you basically told me that you will be an amazing writer if you're lucky and you'll doubt yourself all the time.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. Spot on.

Annmarie Kelly:
What else? Do you at least have really sharp pencils? Is there a cool notebook? What's awesome about the writing life?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh my god. I mean, there's nothing better to do with your life. It's like, I guess for lack of a letter word, it's sacred. It is sacred work. We're storytellers. We have a very, very old job. This job was around since the beginning of this species. We make meaning out of the world. We take all of the raw material and the craziness and the different things that are happening, and we make meaning out of it. We tell story. There's nothing better. There's nothing I want to do with my life besides that. It's sacred. It's completely spiritual work.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love thinking about it that way. I always tell people that it's just an itch I need to scratch; that I can't not scribble; that as difficult as it can be some days when I'm typing just nonsense, it's harder if I'm not; that I feel compelled to come to a screen the way or to a notebook the way others feel compelled to do what is the struggle of their own lives. But I love the idea of thinking of it as sacred work that has been around; that storytellers have been in every community. You've lived in Sri Lanka and Nigeria and America, that there have been, since the beginning of those places, storytellers. There have been people who sought to keep the tales and the history, but also the love and the sorrow alive for generations to come.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. All of that.

Annmarie Kelly:
And your work clearly does that.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Thank you. All of that. The storyteller, it's the oldest job. There was always somebody around the fire who was telling the story, whose job was to weave the tribe or the people together through story.

Annmarie Kelly:
I would like to know, how do you know when a novel is finished? I've never finished one. So, how do you know when it's done?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. That's such a good question. I was on a panel... I'm in Oakland. So, the San Francisco Literary Festival just happened. It's called Litquake. I was on a panel. I was a moderator for a panel called The Art of the Novel. And somebody asked this question. And this novelist, Carol Edgarian, had this amazing response. She said, "There's a difference between finished and exhausted." So, you might get to the place where you are exhausted and you're like, "I cannot even look at this anymore. I just, I'm done. I'm obviously done. It's complete. There it is."

Nayomi Munaweera:
And I've gotten there so many times where I'm like, "It's done. It's great. It's as good as it can get." Then I put it away. I let it cool off. I put it in a drawer for two to three months. You want to come back to it with the eyes of somebody else. You want to be like, it's not yours, somebody else has written this. And then you're like, "Oh my God, this is really shitty. This is so shitty. Let me me rewrite." Or you might get to that place and be like, "Okay, it's time for someone else to look."

Nayomi Munaweera:
I'm looking at somebody's manuscript right now. And I love this person dearly. And when they sent it to me, they were like, "I'm done. It's been a decade. And I've worked so hard." I'm like okay, I'm excited. They're a pretty brilliant writer. I'm like, "Oh shit. Right. They're just exhausted. They're not done." But then I got a text from them being like, "Oh, the other first reader was like, 'Yeah, you're not done.'" I'm like, "Yeah, friend, you're not done." And God, they probably cried for two days because they want to be done. I want to be done. But they're not. The work needs more.

Nayomi Munaweera:
So, you don't really know when you're done. Somebody else will probably say to you, "Okay, now we've all worked on it. And there's nothing else to do." That's when you know you're done. Basically, when your agent's like, "Okay, girl. You're done. Okay. Cool. Now, we're going to try and sell this thing."

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my gosh. There's not a lot of hope in that sentence-

Nayomi Munaweera:
No, there is.

Annmarie Kelly:
... except for the idea that at some point other people will read your work and they'll say, "I think we've got it. I think we're there." So, you do at some point have to trust. Writing is transactional. You may not want it to be, but you're not actually writing this just for you. You are writing it for a reader.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Other people. Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
... and they're part of that journey.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah, absolutely.

Annmarie Kelly:
So, what rewrites have you had to do on this book that's still in progress?

Nayomi Munaweera:
So, my agent, she... okay. So, I write the whole goddamn book. And it's about this very bad man and this woman. And they're sort of back and forth. And I write him as a writer. I was teaching in the summer program at Ashland. And my agent called and I'm like, "Oh my God, you guys. I have to take this. You guys just talk amongst yourselves. I'm getting feedback." And then I went and talked to her and she said, "Book's great. Love it. Everything's awesome, except I don't want him to be a writer," which I'm like, "Kill me. Just stab my eyes out. Just yeah. I'll just go in the backyard and dig a big hole."

Annmarie Kelly:
Because it's not like you can just sub out the word writer for painter because that's what I always think, "Oh, just when he says, 'I'm going to go write', say, 'I'm going to go paint.'" But it's not how that works.

Nayomi Munaweera:
No. Everything is different. Everything has to change. Everything. So, then instead of writerly stuff, it has to be painterly stuff. So, plot changes. Why is he in LA? It has to be different. What's his life? He didn't go to writing school. He'd been to art school. Then me go interview art professors. His way of seeing the world is entirely different. The bad thing he's doing, it's not about writing; it's through the lens of painting. Okay. Let me go and learn everything about painting. That rewrite took about a year, I'd say. Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. Your problem is that you're too good of a writer. If you had been lazy and worse at writing, you could have gotten that done in six months.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I know [crosstalk 00:40:11].

Annmarie Kelly:
Your problem was you tried to do a good job.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I know.

Annmarie Kelly:
Which of course you did. I'm excited to read those pages.

Nayomi Munaweera:
[crosstalk 00:40:18] ridiculous. Okay. So, then I did all of that. And I sent it to her. And she's like, "Awesome. But now, this part that's as bad story, it's not scary anymore."

Annmarie Kelly:
The scary painter.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I'm like, "Okay, lady. I super trust you because you're awesome and you represent all kinds of amazing people. So, yes, let's do that." So, I rewrote the back story. I just got done. Going to send it to her soon. And we'll see what she says. She's probably going to be like, "Put in a unicorn." So, cool.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my God.

Nayomi Munaweera:
But I trust her. I trust her because I'm at the place where I don't see it anymore. I know it. But she's seeing something else. And she's guided other writers. So, I trust her.

Annmarie Kelly:
You feel like it's a stronger work because when it was time, you showed this to a reader or in this case a couple of readers, but this person is able to help you make the book stronger because it was time.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Exactly.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. I think we often think of being a writer as this solo, lonely enterprise. And I do spend a lot of time by myself with my words. But I also think that your writing is in conversation with other writers. And I do think that you're part of a larger writing community. So, I'm wondering, can you tell us who are writers out there doing the good work, truthfully, past or present, who you admire?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh my God. So many. So many. The panel I was on, we did the last question in the Proust Questionnaire, which is who would you invite to dinner, right?

Annmarie Kelly:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Nayomi Munaweera:
And there were writers. And all of us picked writers. They were like, "Virginia Woolf is coming and Tolstoy is coming, but not the old Tolstoy. The young Tolstoy." it was amazing. So, I'll just answer that question and then I'll get into it. So, my people were Oscar Wilde, because he's just amazing. And he can do things with sentences that are just brilliant. Anais Nin. I love her. The French writer, Colette. These are the dead ones, The living ones are Michael Ondaatje, who is the Sri Lankan [crosstalk 00:42:38] writer. Fuck, man. As a writer, you get to pick who your parents are.

Annmarie Kelly:
Ooh. Who are your literary parents?

Nayomi Munaweera:
I know. Isn't that fun? Isn't that amazing?

Annmarie Kelly:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nayomi Munaweera:
You get to pick your visionary parents. And you can have as many of them as you want. "I'm a product of so-and-so." Arundhati Roy.

Annmarie Kelly:
Right.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I'm reading the... right?

Annmarie Kelly:
The God of Small Things.

Nayomi Munaweera:
God of Small things. She's done everything. Talk about voice of a child. Talk about just intensely and happening the voice of children in the context of history. It's astounding. And then James Baldwin. Holy fuck. Everything he says. Everything he writes. He talked about America like no one else has. He said everything about America that we need to know. It's all there. Toni Morrison. I don't know. Reading Beloved is like... it's every education that you need. It's all of it.

Nayomi Munaweera:
And then, okay. So, contemporary people. Alexander Chee. She is just gorgeous. His book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is just amazing. There's a essay there called with the same name, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I think. No, no, no. I think it's 50 Ways to be a Novelist. And it listed. And then Carmen Maria Machado.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, you introduced me to her. Oh my gosh. You introduced me to her writing and her work. And how amazing to be alive at a time when you guys are both writing and creating

Nayomi Munaweera:
Here's a tip. You don't need an MFA. If you just go and read In the Dream House.

Annmarie Kelly:
Seriously. We're going to link to all this, folks, because this is a masterclass you're getting right now for free. We're going to sign people up to tip the artist here because this is great stuff. Oh my goodness.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh, I think I'm remembering the quote from Alexander Chee It's something like, "Of course, a novel is a mask, but not for the writer and not for the reader for something that the writer brings in from the back of a room like a lion on a chain."

Annmarie Kelly:
Wow.

Nayomi Munaweera:
I know.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my gosh. I have not read that particular essay, but I know Alexander Chee. I'm going to look that one up.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. It's beautiful.

Annmarie Kelly:
Seriously, this could devolve into you and I just chatting about... we could just do this for hours. I'd be like, "Oh my gosh, did you read this?" You'd be like, "Oh my gosh." And people would be like, "Women, we've been here for an hour and a half. And you got to wrap this up."

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. So, I have to wrap up because that's what we have to do here, but I'm going to give you the same wrap-up questions we give everyone because folks like to hear what you have to say. And okay. It's just quick, multiple choice for you. So, just pick one. Dogs or cats?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh my God. Cats. Actually, dogs that are like cats. Also, I really like those.

Annmarie Kelly:
I've actually been following your progress, because we're Facebook friends, with one cat in particular on your social media feed. What is that cat's name?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Her name is Bastet, which I realize a lot of people don't know what that is. That's the Egyptian cat goddess.

Annmarie Kelly:
Well, I'm pretty sure that this particular Egyptian cat got us was not even in the frame in the beginning because you're like, "Cat is hiding. Will not come out ever." But you have worked your cat whisperer magic because now I see the cat just sprawled out on your keyboard, sprawled out on your keyboard and just inhabiting your space. So, maybe you are part cat goddess too.

Nayomi Munaweera:
Anywhere.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. Coffee or tea?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Coffee in America. Tea in Sri Lanka.

Annmarie Kelly:
Mountains or beach?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Beach.

Annmarie Kelly:
Early bird or night owl?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Early bird.

Annmarie Kelly:
Are you a risk-taker or the person who knows where the band-aids are?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh. Risk-taker probably. Oh my God. Risk-taker in writing. band-aids in other ways. I don't... both?

Annmarie Kelly:
Interesting. Interesting. Mikki Kendall had a good answer for that too. She's like, "Well, I jump off of things holding band-aids [crosstalk 00:46:47]." Yes. There's good stuff in there.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. I'll give you a choice. What's a movie or a book that you just love?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Black Swan and Life of Brian.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. That is one of the craziest combinations ever. You know what that is like? That's kind of like The Big Chill meets the [inaudible 00:47:12].

Nayomi Munaweera:
Yeah. Which is my third novel. So, I hope people want to read that.

Annmarie Kelly:
I think they do. I think they do. Oh my gosh. Okay.

Annmarie Kelly:
What's a favorite ice cream flavor?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh, coffee.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yeah. That's lovely. All right.

Annmarie Kelly:
Last one, if we were to take a picture of you joyful, doing something you love, what would we see you doing?

Nayomi Munaweera:
Swimming.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's right. You love... that water imagery I think it's in both the books. I don't know if it's in the third, but I-

Nayomi Munaweera:
Oh yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
I see a lot of that. Just the birth and the life and also the drowning. It's all... okay. [crosstalk 00:47:49]

Nayomi Munaweera:
It's all water. It's all water. You know, I think some writers are like earth writers. And some writers are swimming, water writers. For me, I'm like the swimming. I'm from an island. And it's there.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yeah, no, I can see this. Nayomi Munaweera, thank you. Thank you so much for being here. Thank you for reminding us to pursue our creative dreams; that deep within all of us is this desire to pursue what we were meant to, even if that means going against the practical advice of others. We need to do the good, great work of our souls. I think Carmen Maria Machado, whose work you introduced me to, I think she says, "Go write the beautiful, burning thing." And again and again, you do that. And I'm going to be on the lookout for more from you. Okay.

Annmarie Kelly:
So, folks, in the meantime, you can find Nayomi's books. What Lies Between Us. And I'll link to it. And also too, the Island of a Thousand Mirrors. You can find them at your local public library, at your independent bookstore, near you.

Annmarie Kelly:
And, folks, to all of our listeners, we're wishing you love and light wherever this day takes you. Be good to yourselves. Be good to one another. And we'll see you again on this wild and precious journey.

Annmarie Kelly:
Wild Precious Life is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to executive producers Gerardo Orlando and Michael DeAloia; producer Sarah Willgrube; and audio engineer Eric Koltnow. Be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Never Run Out of Stories with Rebecca Makkai

Evergreen Podcasts
Rebecca and Annmarie talk about the parallels and differences between battling Covid today and fighting HIV in the 1980s, as well as the lessons we can all learn about how to live and love in the face of fear.
Listen to Never Run Out of Stories with Rebecca Makkai

Make Sense of Your Self with Derdriu Ring

Evergreen Podcasts
Listen to Make Sense of Your Self with Derdriu Ring

Be A Survivor with Jonathan Penner

Evergreen Podcasts
Annmarie and Jonathan talk about love stories, the creative life, and what happens after happily ever after.
Listen to Be A Survivor with Jonathan Penner

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone with Lori Gottlieb

Evergreen Podcasts
In this episode, Annmarie speaks with writer and therapist Lori Gottlieb about the power of talk therapy to transform our story.
Listen to Maybe You Should Talk to Someone with Lori Gottlieb