I’m at a competitive and well-respected writing conference in the west and have become friends with a talented black woman writer. Wherever we go, we run into a white male writer from the screenwriting workshop. Whenever this man sees us, he comments on the fact that we are together. He tells us that we are joined at the hip, he calls us Siamese twins, he asks us if we ever go anywhere without the other. We wonder if he would say these things to two white women who have met and become fast friends. We know he probably would not. That it is probably the sight of our brown and black female bodies together that is causing him distress.
On the last day of the conference we are in line at the smoothie shop when we see the screenwriter approaching. We huddle closer together and hope he will not see us but instead but he pushes his way between us and then he says, “Now I’m the cream in the Oreo.”
I’m at a gathering of Sri Lankans in Los Angeles. This is the immigrant community I grew up in but one that I do not visit often, having left two decades earlier to go to college and then to make my way in the world. I’ve come to spend time with my sister, her husband and their beautiful new baby.
Now, at this party an uncle who I haven’t seen since I left comes over and says, “You’re a writer now? That’s wonderful. Why don’t you come and meet my friends. They want to know about your book.” I am suspicious of older men in this community but go with him, since he has invoked my novel which has been big news in this community.
He leads me into a circle of men and says, “This is Nayomi. She used to see …” He names a sweetheart I haven’t seen since I was 24, but with whom my name has been linked since adolescence. A teenage shame flares through my veins and shocked I can only waggle my head in an ambiguous gesture. The uncle says, “You can’t even remember? So many boyfriends no?” The men cackle. All mention of my book is fled, instead I am pinned and defined as solely a sexualized body.
I’m at a Christmas party at my sister’s house in LA. My cousin’s best friend tracks me down. He is a white man. He has read my book at the recommendation of my cousin and now he wants to tell me about his response to it. I can tell that the experience has affected him in some deep way but I cannot understand what he is trying to convey. He tells me that my book is the first time he has encountered the perspective of someone who is not white and male. That it’s the first time he has read a book from a perspective of people as far away from his identity as possible- two brown women. He is a theatre director. He has read many plays, fewer novels. It astounds me that my work has the power to make him feel his own place in the world, privileged and superior. That it has the power to make him feel empathy with characters he has little in common with.
My first book has been out for a year. I’m at a book club in Sri Lanka surrounded by twenty-five women, Sri Lankan and otherwise, who have all read my book. I talk for a while and then there is a Q and A. My book is about two women going through the civil war that raged in Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009. A woman suddenly stands up and tells the story of what happened to her family during the war. A mob came into her house, they shot her uncle in front of the whole family. Her aunt and cousins fled to England and never returned. She misses them. They left so quickly and have never come back. She has tears in her eyes. The rest of us are also tearing up. She says with wonder, “I never thought about it. I’ve never talked about it until now and that was twenty years ago. I thought it was normal. I didn’t think it was something to be talked about.”
For these two precious moments, I will endure any number of racist screenwriters and drunk, sexist uncles. For these moments when I know that my words have had actual impact upon the minds and hearts of reader, I will endure any number of barbs. This is not the whole reason we write, there is also the obsessive inner drive. But this is what we do. We hold up the mirror, we keep writing.
NAYOMI MUNAWEERA‘s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and was short-listed for the Northern California Book Award. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Munaweera’s… lyrical debut novel [is] worthy of shelving alongside her countryman Michael Ondaatje or her fellow writer of the multigenerational immigrant experience, Jhumpa Lahiri.” The New York Times Book review called the novel, “incandescent.” Nayomi’s second novel, What Lies Between Us will be released in February 2016 and was named one of 2016’s 27 most exciting releases by Buzzed. More at www.nayomimunaweera.com