Nayomi Munaweera is the author of the new novel What Lies Between Us. She also has written the novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors. She was born in Sri Lanka, and lives in Oakland, California.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for What Lies Between Us, and for the book’s main character?
A: I’ve been quite interested in mother-child relationships. I’m very interested in women’s issues—my first book was about two women going through the civil war in Sri Lanka. It’s something I’ll always be grappling with.
I was going to write about domestic violence—she would have murdered her husband. I thought that was too easy to garner sympathy for the character—I was interested in unsympathetic characters and how you humanize that.
I was thinking of a woman who had killed someone—her husband was emotionally too easy [in terms of sympathy for the character], so I turned it quite a bit darker.
I read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is such a brilliant book. The most obvious threat is coming from the child. The only scarier thing than that is if the threat is coming from the mother.
Q: You start the book with a story about a moon bear. Why did you decide to begin the book this way?
A: I think that the most painful part of being human for me is the impact we have on other animals. I originally was going to be a veterinarian. It hurts me when I know my existence as a human being is predicated on the suffering of other animals [and yet] we all have to accept that’s the way it is.
I read a story on the Internet and it was so painful. The animal rights people have my admiration. [The story] stuck with me and when this theme came up, it seemed like the perfect thing.
The book was written and rewritten, and I took it out, and my husband said, No, you need to put it back in.
Q: The book takes place partly in Sri Lanka and partly in the United States. How important is setting to you in your writing, and how do you see the dynamic between those two locations playing out in the novel?
A: This is straight from my life—I have a foot in both places. I live in Oakland, and this is very much my home, and on another level, Sri Lanka is very much my home too. I go back at least once a year.
Landscape is very important to me [and the two] are at odds. Sri Lanka is lush and tropical. San Francisco’s palate is blue and gray. They are both very important to me.
About this character—it’s the story of an immigrant. I did a little [on that theme] in the first book.
Q: Speaking of immigration, clearly her story is not universal, but how do you see her story reflecting the difficulties of being an immigrant?
A: It’s complicated. On the one hand, you get to make a new life and escape painful things that you might be leaving in your home country, and you’re also bringing these things with you.
My character is someone who feels like an outsider, [both as an immigrant] and more with her specific trauma. It’s different for every immigrant who comes.
When I’m here, I’m considered a writer of color, a woman writer, a South Asian writer. In Sri Lanka, I’m considered an American writer….My book in Sri Lanka is taught in diaspora literature, not Sri Lankan literature.
That’s the thing that says the most about being an immigrant. Americans are assuming Sri Lanka is claiming me, and Sri Lanka is saying, You’re American, you left and made a life there…it’s complicated.
Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
A: I have a really hard time with titles, and it was a three-month process. There were 60 to 80 titles I considered [along with] my publisher and my editor [who] came up with it—it stood out as something that sounded as if it already existed. We were all surprised [that it didn’t].
It works on many levels—what is physically between us, what lies as an untruth. A novel is a bunch of lies. You’re telling lies to uncover the truth.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you change things around a lot?
A: I knew the central act, the climax. I was writing toward that. I didn’t know much else. I knew there was a childhood in Sri Lanka where something happened, and there was a family who was not what they seem—there was an eerie quality to her childhood…
I wanted it to have that, Is it a dream? Part of her childhood was idyllic, and then there’s that almost ghostly [sense] that something bad is going on, and as a child, you don’t trust your memories.
I had to write a character where if you’re going toward that scene, it had to be pretty bad. The idea of being possessed—it had to be really bad so it could balance out the bad things that happen later. I don’t like to know everything that happens until later.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: I am, but it’s early to talk about it. I’m working on something else, but I realize I have to put it aside and pay attention to this second book, and do publicity. It’s strange because all I want to be doing is writing this book!...
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I know it’s a bleak book, but there’s a lot of beauty—I hope people don’t get scared off. It’s up to the individual reader—I did try to balance it with beautiful things.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Nayomi Munaweera, please click here.