'A Thousand Mirrors' Shows Two Views Of One Long, Brutal War

Aug 31, 2014
Originally published on August 31, 2014 7:19 pm

It's hard to comprehend the toll Sri Lanka's civil war took on the South Asian country. The United Nations estimates that between 80,000 and 100,000 people lost their lives in the conflict — all on an island just slightly larger than West Virginia.

Ethnic tensions between two main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka — the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils — simmered through the '60s and '70s. The civil war officially began in 1983 and continued until 2009.

Over the course of the conflict, as many Sri Lankans were killed, tens of thousands of others — both Tamil and Sinhalese — left the war-torn island.

Nayomi Munaweera, who is Sinhalese, left with her family in the 1970s and went to Nigeria. They arrived in the United States in 1984. Her new novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, tells the story of the conflict from the perspective of two girls who witness the horror — one Tamil, one Sinhalese.

"What I wanted to do in this book was really try to depict what happens to normal people in the course of warfare, and how your life can be completely derailed by this," Munaweera tells NPR's Arun Rath.


Interview Highlights

On presenting both sides of the conflict in the novel

I was very interested in not taking a side. ... I wasn't interested in propaganda. ... The devastation was on both sides, the Tamil Tigers were really brutal terrorist force and killed hundreds and thousands of people and the Sri Lankan government did exactly the same thing. So both sides are complicit. There's really no innocence here.

On the culture shock a family in the book experiences when they leave Sri Lanka and come to Los Angeles

I think that might be where I take the most from my own life, because I came here in '84, when I was 12 years old. And it's just startling to be in America. Everything is different. I mean, I remember, like, seeing somebody walking their dogs and then picking up the poo in a bag. Like, "Oh my god! What are they doing with that?" Like, "Wow, we're in the richest country in the world and she's ... is she saving it?"

On incorporating the real-life end of the war into the novel

I finished writing this book about 2007. And it ended at a different place and it felt unfinished. But, you know, I mean I grew up with this war, it's been since '83. So for me, and I think many, many young Sri Lankans, we didn't expect that we would ever see the end of this war. We thought that this would always be something that was happening.

In 2009, right when everything happened and it ended, is when I wrote that final piece and it does end on a hopeful note. I think also, as a writer, I just couldn't make myself go through any more pain with it. So I think a different book, maybe a different author needs to take up — maybe I will take it up at some point — but what happens post-war.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's hard to comprehend the toll Sri Lanka's civil war took on the South Asian country. The UN estimates that between 80,000 and 100,000 people lost their lives in the conflict, all on an island just slightly larger than West Virginia. Tensions between the two main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka - the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils - simmered through the '60s and '70s. And a full-on war between government forces and militants, called the Tamil Tigers, broke out in 1983.

The war didn't end until government forces eradicated the Tamil Tigers in 2009. During the war years, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhalese, left the island.

Nayomi Munaweera was one. Her family left in the 1970s for Nigeria and arrived in the U.S. in 1984. Munaweera's new novel about the conflict and its effects on Sri Lankan families is called "Island Of A Thousand Mirrors." It mostly follows one Sinhalese girl who was an eyewitness to the horror.

NAYOMI MUNAWEERA: What I wanted to do in this book was really try to depict what happens to normal people in the course of warfare, and how your life can be completely derailed by this. So I was very interested in not taking a side or - I wasn't interested in propaganda. So I wanted to show what happened to normal people. And this is actually something that I read about and heard about. Tamil people at various points have been asked to prove that they are Singhalese - or when the mobs come. And of course the opposite, too - the devastation happened on both sides. The Tamil Tigers were really brutal terrorist force and killed hundreds and thousands of people. And the Sri Lankan government did exactly the same thing. So both sides are complicit. There's really no innocence here.

RATH: And the family, or part of the family, in this book - they decide to leave the island, leaving their extended family behind. And there's some serious culture shock in the book when the family ends up in America in Los Angeles. Talk about their experience.

MUNAWEERA: I think that might be where I take the most from my own life because I came here in '84 when I was 12 years old. And it's just startling to be in America. Everything is different. I mean, I remember like seeing somebody walking their dogs and then picking up the poo' in a bag. And I'm like, oh my God, what are they doing with that? Like, wow, we're in the richest country in the world and she's - is she saving it? Like what does that mean?

RATH: (Laughter) So you mentioned you are Sinhalese yourself. But you didn't want to have a narrow perspective for this book. And sure enough, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, the viewpoint switches to a young Tamil girl named Saraswathi (ph).

MUNAWEERA: Right.

RATH: She's abducted and brutalized by a group of Sinhalese soldiers. Can you talk about her radicalization? I'm wondering if it was difficult for you to put yourself inside the head of a militant?

MUNAWEERA: Right, right. One of the questions that drove me is what makes someone do this? Because Sri Lanka - the Tamil Tigers especially - were known for suicide bombings and specifically female suicide bombers. In fact, each Tamil Tiger cadre had a capsule of cyanide that they wore around their necks. So if they were caught, they would immediately commit suicide.

So suicide was very much part of their sort of culture. And so there were these - this cadre of female suicide bombers, which, you know, are quite rare in the world. And, you know, I really wanted to try and find out like what would make someone do that. And at the end of the day, it wasn't that difficult to imagine. Because if everything is taken away from you - and again, I don't want to give away too much, but she is taken away. She is brutalized. And then when she returns home, she is not accepted really by her community anymore. So it's almost like her choices dwindle more and more. Yeah, that part of the book - that specific part - was really difficult to write. It was painful research. And a lot of readers tell me that was hard to read. But, you know, this is what would make someone a militarize. This is what would make someone willing to sacrifice their life. It has to be difficult, you know.

RATH: So it's not a spoiler to reveal, obviously, that the war in Sri Lanka ended. And that's covered in this book. But it - wow, it ended brutally. I mean, it involved the government really just kind of stomping the Tamil Tigers out of existence. And in the book, the characters don't quite know how to process it at the end.

MUNAWEERA: Right. I have to say that was because I finished writing this book at the moment that the war ended. Actually, I finished writing this book about 2007. And it ended at a different place. And it felt unfinished. But, I mean, you know, I grew up with this war. It's been since '83. So for me and I think many, many young Sri Lankans, we didn't expect that we would ever see the end of this war. We thought that this would always be something that was happening. And then in 2009, I'm like - right when everything happened and it ended was when I wrote that final piece. And it does end on a hopeful note. I think also because as a writer, I just couldn't make myself go through any more pain with it. So I think a different book, maybe a different author, needs to take up - maybe I will take it up at some point about what happens post-war.

RATH: Nayomi Munaweera's new novel is called "Island Of A Thousand Mirrors." And it is coming out this week in the United States. Nayomi, thank you such much. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

MUNAWEERA: Oh, such a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.