In the idyllic hill country of Sri Lanka, a young girl grows up with her loving family; but even in the midst of this paradise, terror lurks in the shadows. When tragedy strikes, she and her mother must seek safety by immigrating to America. There the girl reinvents herself as an American teenager to survive, with the help of her cousin; but even as she assimilates and thrives, the secrets and scars of her past follow her into adulthood. In this new country of freedom, everything she has built begins to crumble around her, and her hold on reality becomes more and more tenuous. When the past and the present collide, she sees only one terrible choice.
From Nayomi Munaweera, the award-winning author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, comes the confession of a woman, driven by the demons of her past to commit a single and possibly unforgivable crime.
Praise for Island of a Thousand Mirrors:
"The paradisiacal landscapes of Sri Lanka are as astonishing as the barbarity of its revolution, and Munaweera evokes the power of both in a lyrical debut novel worthy of shelving alongside her countryman Michael Ondaatje or her fellow writer of the multigenerational immigrant experience Jhumpa Lahiri." - Publishers Weekly
"The beating heart of Island of a Thousand Mirrors is not so much its human characters but Sri Lanka itself and the vivid, occasionally incandescent, language used to describe this teardrop in the Indian Ocean." - The New York Times Book Review
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About the Author
NAYOMI MUNAWEERA was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Nigeria. She emigrated to the United States in her early teens, and now lives in Oakland, CA. Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region and was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.
Read an Excerpt
What Lies Between Us
By Nayomi Munaweera
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Nayomi Munaweera
All rights reserved.
The walls of my cell are painted an industrial white. They must think the color is soothing. Where I come from, it connotes absence, death, and loneliness.
People write to me. Mothers, mostly; they spew venom. That's not surprising. I have done the unthinkable. I have parted the veil and crossed into that other unseen country. They hate me because I am the worst thing possible. I am the bad mother.
But here's a secret: in America there are no good mothers. They simply don't exist. Always, there are a thousand ways to fail at this singularly important job. There are failures of the body and failures of the heart. The woman who is unable to breastfeed is a failure. The woman who screams for the epidural is a failure. The woman who picks her child up late knows from the teacher's cutting glance that she is a failure. The woman who shares her bed with her baby has failed. The woman who steels herself and puts on noise-canceling earphones to erase the screaming of her child in the next room has failed just as spectacularly. They must all hang their heads in guilt and shame because they haven't done it perfectly, and motherhood is, if anything, the assumption of perfection.
Then too, motherhood is broken because in this place, to be a good mother is to give yourself completely. It is to erase yourself. This is what I refused to do. So they shudder when they hear my name, but inwardly they smile because they have not failed in the way I have.
There are others who write. Men who find the grotesque act I have committed titillating. They send propositions and proposals of marriage that I tear up into scraps of white that match the walls of my cell. I hate their unknown, unseen faces. They remind me that in this country, celebrity is courted no matter the cause. The fact that strangers have heard your name and know the secrets of your life is supposed to be pleasing.
I never wanted this macabre interest, this unsettling notoriety. I never asked for it. I would have preferred to have been locked up and forgotten. Instead, I have become a known thing. My name, the one I had before, is gone. Instead I am named by the act I have committed. To be named thus is to be pinned down onto the corkboard with a needle piercing one's abdomen and a curl of paper underneath with one's genus and species on it in slanted writing. I have been named, and therefore you think you know my story, why I did what I did. To this I object. Perhaps this narrative is a way to undo your knowing, to say the truth is somewhere else entirely, and I will tell it in my own voice, in my own time.
And so, as all stories must open, in the beginning, when I was the child and not yet the mother ...
* * *
Birth. My face was pressed against the bones of Amma's pelvis, stuck there, so that instead of slipping out, I was bound like a lost fish in a too-narrow stream. It wasn't until the midwife, tiring of my mother's screams, reached in with her forceps, grabbed the side of my head, and wrenched me out that I was born and Amma was born into motherhood, both of us gasping from the effort of transformation.
For three months after, there was a hornlike protrusion on the left side of my head. It subsided eventually, but for those months my parents were alarmed. "We didn't know if it would ever go away. I didn't know what sort of child I had given birth to. You were the strangest creature. A little monster," Amma admitted. "But then the swelling went down and you were our perfect little girl."
After that, the doctor looked at my mother's slimness, her girlish frame, and said, "No more. Only this one. Any more will wreck you." She had wanted scores of children filling the grand old house. She had wanted so many to love her. The love of an entire army she had created herself. She rubbed her nose against mine and said, "Only you to love me. So you must love me double, triple, quadruple hard. Do you see?" I nodded. She kissed me on the forehead, searched my eyes. I was blissful in the sun of her love, my entire being turned like a flower toward her heat.
Yes, I could love her more. I could love her enough to fill up the hole all those brothers and sisters had left by never coming.
* * *
I was born in Sri Lanka, a green island in the midst of the endless Indian Ocean. I grew up in Kandy, the hill city of the Buddhists. A city held high like a gem in the setting of the island. Maha Nuwara, meaning the great city, is the name of Kandy in Sinhala. Or even Kande Ude Rata, the land on top of the mountain. It is the last capital of the Lankan kings before the British came to "domesticate and civilize," to build railroads and scallop the hills into acres of fragrant tea. In their un-sinuous tongue, Kande Ude Rata collapses, folds into itself, and emerges as Kandy. But not candy sweet in the mouth, because this place has a certain history.
In the capital Colombo's National Museum in a dusty glass case lies the sari blouse of one of the last noblewomen of the Kandyan Kingdom. Splotches of faded red stain the moldering fabric of each shoulder. The last Kandyan king was fighting the British when his trusted adviser too turned against him. Enraged, the king summoned his adviser's wife. His men ripped her golden earrings out of her flesh, so she bled down onto this blouse. They beheaded her children and placed the heads into a giant mortar. They gave her a huge pestle, the kind village women use to pound rice, and forced her to smash the heads of her children. Then they tied her to a rock and threw her into Kandy Lake as the king watched in triumph from the balcony of the temple palace. Soon after, the British conquered Kandy and took over the island for centuries.
This is the history of what we do to one another. This is the story of what it means to be both a child of a mother and a child of history.
* * *
The house I grow up in is big and old. It has belonged to my father's family for generations. It has rooms full of ebony furniture, waxed, polished red floors, white latticework that drips from the eaves like lace, and dark wooden steps that lead to my little bedroom upstairs. A wrought-iron balcony hangs outside my window under a tumble of creeping plants. If I stand on its tiny platform just over the red-tiled roof of the first floor, I can see our sweeping emerald lawns leading down to the rushing river. Along the bank a line of massive trees stretches upward toward the monsoon clouds.
* * *
In the living room is a small, slightly moldy taxidermied leopard. There are very much alive dogs in the house, but the leopard is my infant obsession. This is because the leopard lets me ride him, while the dogs do not. Amma says I should call him Bagheera, for Kipling's black leopard, but the name Kaa, for Kipling's Indian rock python, is what I choose. The sound is easier and there is something slithery in his yellow marble eyes. Exactly between these eyes is the neat bullet hole that my father's father put there. The hunting guns are locked away in a chest in my father's study, but the leopard is here as evidence of their presence.
A formal portrait of my grandparents hangs above the leopard. My mustachioed grandfather is in a three-piece suit, my grandmother in a Kandyan osari over a Victorian blouse, ruffled and buttoned against the tropical heat. My father is a boy in short trousers, the only child of the five my grandmother gave birth to to have survived the ravages of malaria.
* * *
The house is a kingdom divided into dominions, inside and outside, and ruled over by the keepers of my childhood, Samson and Sita. In the kitchen, Sita shuffles about in her cotton sari, her feet bare. She has been with my father's family since he was a baby. She and her sister came as young girls. Her sister was my father's ayah, while Sita set up court in this kitchen, which she has never left.
Samson is Sita's nephew. His mother has returned to the village down south they came from so long ago, but Samson stays to wrestle our garden. Once a week he cuts the lawn, balancing on his heels, sarong pulled up along his thighs. He swipes the machete back and forth as he makes his crab-legged way across the grass. His skin shines like wet eggplant, and at his throat a silver amulet flashes in the sun. "Inside this. All my luck!" he says. He has pulled it open before to show me what it holds, a tightly rolled scroll of minuscule Sinhala script, a prayer of protection bought by his mother from the village temple at a great price. She believes it will keep him safe from the malevolent influences, the karmic attachments that prey upon the good-hearted.
* * *
I am eight years old, tiny and spindly, and Samson is my very best friend. After school I race to throw off my uniform, kick away my shoes, slip into a housedress and Bata slippers, and escape into the garden. The red hibiscus flower nodding its head, yellow pistil extended like a wiry five-forked snake tongue; the curl of ferns; the overhead squawk of parrots — these are the wonders that welcome me home.
Samson speaks to me in Sinhala. He says, "Ah, Baby Madame. Home already? Come!" He swings me onto his shoulders. My thighs grip the sides of his throat, my legs hook behind his back. I reach both hands up into the guava tree to catch the orbs that are swollen and about to split, a wet pink edge in their jade skins. I grab, twist, and pull. The branches bounce and the birds rise, squawking in loud outrage. His arm reaches up to steady me. When my pockets are bulging he gently places me on the ground.
I bite into sun-warmed guava, that familiar sweet tang, small gemlike seeds crunching between my teeth. Samson is cutting away dead leaves from orchids suspended in baskets from the tree trunks.
I ask, "Why do they call these flowers Kandyan dancers?"
I already know why. These small yellow orchids are named for the dancers of this region because with petal and stamen the flowers imitate perfectly the headdresses and the sarongs, the drums and white shell necklaces that the twirling dancers wear. But I ask because I want to hear him talk and also because I want to show off what I have learned in school. I want to show how much more I know even now at eight years old because I have gone to school and he has only ever been a servant in our house.
He says, "This is the name. No? What else can we call them but their name?"
"No! I mean, did they call the flowers after the dancers or the dancers after the flowers?"
"You are the one who goes to school, Baby Madame. How could Samson know these things? Ask your teachers? Ask someone who knows these big-big things." A perfect yellow flower loosens its grip, tumbles to the grass. He stoops and picks it up between thumb and forefinger as gently as if it were a wounded insect, places it on his palm, and holds it out to me. I tug the rubber band at the end of my plait loose and settle the flower there.
He says, "Come, Baby Madame. I need your small fingers to work in the pond today." We walk over and he sits on the edge while I kick off my rubber slippers, hike up my dress around my thighs, and slip into the water. My feet in the mud, I reach into the water up to my armpits, follow the fibrous stalks of the lotus plants down to their main stem. I pull so the plants tear loose, the mud releasing the roots reluctantly. The koi come to investigate this curiosity in their midst. Their silver, orange-streaked quickness flashes all about me, their mouths coming up to nibble at whatever they can find, shins, calves, fingers. I work my way across the cool muddy water, throw the too-fast-growing lotuses onto the bank, where a mound of uprooted leaves, stems, and unfurled flowers lie open to the sky. Samson gathers the beautiful debris. He will burn it with the evening's other rubbish.
Other days I am the watcher and he the worker. I squat on the bank with a bucket as Samson wades in. He spreads his fingers wide to catch yards of gelatinous strands studded with shiny beadlike eggs, then returns to deposit these offerings in the bucket, which turn quickly into a shuddering viscous mass. Waist-high in the deepest part of the pond, he says, "Bloody buggers. Laying eggs everywhere. Pond is chockablock full already."
I say, "In France people eat them."
Astonishment on his face. "What? No, Baby Madame, don't tell lies. Who would eat these ugly buggers? What is there to eat?"
"Yes they do. Our teacher said. They eat the legs."
He stares at the water between his own legs and says, "No. Can't be. Legs are so thin. Nothing there to eat ... Maybe the fat stomach, no?"
"No. The legs. She said."
He shakes his head. "Those people must be very poor. I might be poor like that if I wasn't with your family." A little nod acknowledges all the years he has lived with us — all my life, all his much longer life. "But even if I was on the street I wouldn't eat these buggers."
"But they are a delicacy there. In France."
"Shall we try, Baby Madame? We can catch them and give Sita to make a badum. Badum of frog."
"That's what Baby will eat tonight. Just like the people in Fran-see. Fried frog curry with rice." He raises his arms, trailing streams of jelly in the air; he looks like a tentacled creature rising from the depths and shakes his fists so the water sparkles, lands on my bare thighs. Our laughter echoes across the pond.
In the monsoon months, the gardens are a different place, the ground sodden, the pond swollen. The sky lights up in the midst of dark stormy days as if a mighty photographer is taking pictures of our little piece of earth. It isn't unusual to come upon a flash of silver and gold, a koi flapping on the wet grass, swept out of the pond by the onslaught of rain. The river is dangerous at this time. It rushes by, carrying all manner of things — furniture, quickly rolling trees with beseeching arms held out to the sky, drowned animals. It is a boiling, heaving mass. The banks could crumble inward, the ground falling away under your feet. We all know this; in these months we keep away from the garden and the river.
* * *
Evenings in the living room, the brass cutwork lamp throws a parade of shadows on every surface. My father reads student papers; he is a professor of history at the University of Peradeniya and always has this stack of work to bury himself in. I read books in English. Stories of boarding schools and midnight feasts featuring foods I've never tasted, but yearn desperately for. I read about children who have to put on scarves and mittens and hats to go outside and wish I too had a pair of mittens. What would they look like covering my small hands? What would they feel like? How exciting to live in a snowy place and eat crunchy red apples and chocolate digestive biscuits. How exotic, how enticing. How boring my life is in comparison.
Here then are my father and I, each of us wrapped in these other worlds. My father is reading about some atrocity of the raj, shaking his head now and then, sharing out bits and pieces with us. This is how, of course, I first heard of the Lankan lady mashing up her children's heads. My father is denouncing colonialization and the history of imperialism while I, thoroughly colonialized by the very books he had approved for me, secretly dream of some other more desirable and colder childhood. But a third person is with us, and it is her presence that brings us all together.
My mother sits and stares at a page in a Mills & Boon novel. Sometimes she sighs loudly, declaratively. Sometimes she leaps up, puts on music, grabs my hands, sends my book flying, says, "Come, child! Dance." Anxiety and joy flood through me in equal measure. Joy at her closeness, anxiety at the thought of what my ungraceful feet are doing under me.
She holds me, her hands on my haunches, pushing them one way and then the other. "Like this, like this, sway your body, move, child. Don't be so stiff. Move around." My elegant, beautiful mother. I can read the messages in the arch of her supple, fluid body: "How is this my child? So different from me, so stiff and so serious?" I can't tell her that I am not serious. That it is only this unexpected closeness to her that is making me awkward and gawky. In the garden with Samson, in the kitchen with Sita, I can dance mad baila like an undulating dervish. I can lose myself and be just a whirl of motion. I can be silly and unfettered and ridiculous. But here with her, I am tongue-tied and thick-footed.
Excerpted from What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera. Copyright © 2016 Nayomi Munaweera. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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