By Jennifer Rodrigo
“Have you ever cried over some lines in a book?” someone asked me once, and my mind foraged through memories and landed on the moment when I had to wipe tears off the pages of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini.
Heartbreaking and intimate, the book spoke to a side of me I didn’t know existed till then. The story is of two generations of characters and is set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s history covering the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to post-Taliban rebuilding. It is of violence, fear, hope, and faith, told in the most human of terms.
From Hosseini to Nayomi Munaweera, from fictitious depictions of real-life conflict to true stories of personal struggles, my go-to reads have almost always been soaked in realism.
I wept again recently, not over a book. But over our country. Over the unimaginable pain mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters, sons, and friends must be going through having lost loved ones to the violent events of Easter Sunday (21 April). Over the stark reality of how humans can be capable of transcending love whilst also being plagued by a capacity for unfathomable evil. With the tears came the need to write down words and with those words, came the thought – how powerful the written word can be to purge emotions, depict conflict, instill hope, and also to bring about reconciliation.
My train of thought led me to reach out to some Sri Lankan writers who’ve dealt with similar subject matter in their writing – violence, conflict, loss, fear, heartbreak, hope, and peace, and this series spanning the next few Sundays will unfold their stories.
Nayomi Munaweera sheds light on the healing power of books
“People can sometimes find their own experience reflected in the pages of a book and this makes them realise that they are less alone than they assumed,” shared Nayomi Munaweera, author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors (2012) and What Lies Between Us: A Novel (2016).
Primarily identifying herself as a novelist, Munaweera, 46, also writes non-fiction and short fiction. She was born in Colombo and now lives in California, admitting: “I’ve been travelling all my life so the idea of a hometown is a bit fractured for me.”
Her books mainly speak of loss and childhood affliction often resulting in adult conflict. Her debut novel “Island of a Thousand Mirrors” tells the story of two young women on opposing sides of the Sri Lankan civil war. The two unforgettably authentic voices are that of Yasodhara who comes from a Sinhala family, rich in love, and Saraswathie, living in the active war zone of Sri Lanka, with hopes of becoming a teacher. A series of events that shatter the peace of both these girls’ lives eventually connects them. “I was just trying to humanise people caught up in both sides of the civil conflict,” said Munaweera.
Munaweera’s formative years were what any childhood is to the child experiencing it, “having nothing else to compare it to, it was prosaic”. In retrospect and as an adult, however, she realises it was somewhat unusual. “I was born in Sri Lanka in 1973. In 1976, my parents and I moved to Nigeria and I grew up there until I was 12. At that point we moved to Los Angeles.”
Currently living in Oakland, she detailed that she studied English literature as an undergraduate and then as a PhD student. “Eventually, I left my PhD programme to write.” It took her 10 years, she confessed, to write and then find a publisher for her first novel, “Island of a Thousand Mirrors”. Her second book “What Lies Between Us” came out in 2016 and she’s currently working on her third novel, whilst also teaching creative writing at various universities.
Books are empathy-creating machines
“Books are emotional conduits between humans; they are empathy-creating machines,” she highlighted, adding that there’s a lot of research showing that writing, even a few pages, is therapeutic. “In studies, patients recovering from surgeries who are asked to write about their experiences a few times a week recover more quickly than those who don’t. There is a great healing power to writing.”
Munaweera was part of a programme in Sri Lanka called Write to Reconcile where she worked, together with others, on teaching students how to use creative writing as a tool of healing and reconciliation. Write to Reconcile, inaugurated in December 2012 by Shyam Selvadurai, in conjunction with the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, was one of the best experiences of her writing life. “We published the work of many budding Sri Lankan writers from every community. I am a huge believer in the redemptive and connecting power of writing and Write to Reconcile was a powerful reminder of that.”
(You can find the work of these writers at www.writetoreconcile.com)
A hope of healing
“I haven’t been back to Sri Lanka in a year and I am so very sad to watch what’s happening from a distance,” she said, commenting on the country’s most recent time of turmoil. “But also as someone only watching from the outside, I’m reticent to have any message to people who went through this tragedy and are now dealing with the aftermath. I think it’s much more important for those of us outside the country to listen than to speak.”
Her characters, Yasodhara and Saraswathie, she thinks, would be very sad about this tragedy, adding that they’d also be bolstered by the many stories of different communities rising to the challenge of supporting and keeping each other safe. “They would be trying to see how they could help foster peace in whatever small way possible.”
How important is it to show the negative aspects of conflict and also paint a picture of hope when dealing with such a subject matter in your writing? I asked her. “Conflict is necessary for storytelling. No work of fiction works without conflict.”
Munaweera thinks it is important when writing about difficult subjects to not shy away from all of the pain and trauma of those subjects. “To do less is to be afraid and a writer needs to be brave.” At the same time, she does feel that hope is essential and necessary. “Sri Lankans are nothing if not resilient and I am hopeful for our collective future.”
“All I can say is that my heart is with you all and that I hope so much that individually and collectively, the country finds its way to peace.”
Next week: Ru Freeman, author of “A Disobedient Girl” and “On Sal Mal Lane”