My wife Jane (now a Nadaraja as well) is a big reader so, perhaps in an effort to also learn more about her new homeland, she picked up Island Of A Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. It’s a story of romance and tragedy, set against the background of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war (and one of the main reasons my parents moved to America in the early 70s). Go figure, one of the main characters is called Nishan.
My own full name is Nishan Ian Nadaraja, but ever since 5th grade, most people have just called me Nish. My Dad (who I interviewed for Nissue #19) and my Mom (interview forthcoming!) were born in Sri Lanka, and while I have grown up in a mostly Western world, at some point your heritage catches up to you.
I could not resist the coincidence and similarity to my own family’s narrative so I wrote to Nayomi, who, like any good Sri Lankan, wrote back. And almost to prove how small the world really is, she responded to my questions, not from Wijaya Beach but from Oakland, CA, where she lives barely an hour from me.
Nish: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Nayomi: Being in warm ocean water- anywhere in the world, I’m thinking particularly of the south coast of Sri Lanka where my ancestors are from but also waters in the Caribbean, Mexico, Belize, etc. Anywhere where I can swim and snorkel. A night snorkel to look at octopi hunting -- they are night predators -- is my idea of paradise. They are alien creatures, to see them slink across the ocean floor, changing colors is revelatory. The warm ocean feels like my truest home, it is where I am most truly in my body and alive.
Nish: What was your worst job ever?
Nayomi: Being the private tutor to a billionaire’s daughters in a mansion in the Bay Area. It paid really well. Though many pairs of the mother’s shoes (I taught in a room that was adjacent to her giant closet) often cost more than what they paid me monthly.
Also writing, when it’s going badly, and the self-doubt and self-loathing which are a normal part of the occupational hazards of being a writer really kick your soul in.
Nish: What was your first job ever?
Nayomi: Gift wrapping counter at Macy’s during Christmas season in high school. Lots of angry customers, lost presents, a cacophony of gift wrap, a mayhem of ribbon, a miasma of tape, and over it all the true hellscape of endless Christmas carols. Lousy pay too, obviously.
Nish: What was your best job ever?
Nayomi: Writing when it’s going well. When the words are coming and the connections are happening and it feels like you actually know what you’re doing, even though this is an absolutely mysterious activity and no writer can actually tell you what we are really doing. That feeling -- there is no other paradise. (Except obviously the night ocean when the octopi are out hunting).
Nish: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Nayomi: Selfishness, jealousy --when they show up, they can really shrink the heart. Forgetting kindness. Forgetting my own deep truth and getting small, contracted, mean because I’ve forgotten that there really is enough for everyone. Forgetting to try and walk as softly upon the earth as possible. Forgetting that I constantly need to be doing healing work on myself so that I don’t spread the kind of trauma humans are prone to spreading to each other and to the others on the planet.
Nish: What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Nayomi: A refusal to attempt to heal. We are all repositories of trauma. We are all survivors of various brutal histories. Some of us have benefitted more than others from history. But none of us have escaped unscathed. We carry both the resilience and trauma of our ancestors. Science has proven this. We also carry the trauma of our own lives. It’s our responsibility to find tools to try and heal those wounds -- whether that’s meditation, therapy, plant medicine, art, whatever. If we don’t do that self-healing and often difficult work, we are the walking wounded and we unconsciously spread that suffering to others we encounter. We have the choice whether we want to spread wounding or healing.
Nish: What’s some advice you’d give to yourself at 23?
Nayomi: You’re going to fall in love in a year. With someone who is not your fiancé. Your whole world will be detonated. You’ll learn more next year than in most years of your life about claiming desire, surviving patriarchy and misogyny, who to trust, who not to trust. You’ll become who you will be for the rest of your life next year because you will be required to fight for her. Write it all down. Enjoy the hell out of the confused chaos. Claim yourself. This is the entrance into self-hood. Try to love yourself through it -- you already know what to do. I love you and I’ll see you on the other side.
Nish: What is your greatest extravagance?
Nayomi: Being out on this planet, which is an entire glorious extravagance in itself. Flowers -- mostly dahlias, zinnias, peonies, anything that is huge and bold and looks like a firework in your hands. Good bread with good butter. Sri Lankan food. A beautiful interior. BOOKS, obviously, all the brilliant books in the world. If you let them, they will save your life, over and over and over again. How brilliant to be alive when humans can read, when there is time to read, when a woman is allowed to read, when a woman is allowed to make her life through books -- this was not always the case. A fantastic book, a cat, a sofa, this is extravagance.
Nish: You have exclusive dinner reservations for 4 excluding family and close friends, who are the 3 people (alive, dead or imaginary) you’d invite?
Nayomi: Oscar Wilde, Arundhati Roy, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. Sorry I know that’s one more than asked for but this is always my answer and I can’t cut out any of these folks.
Nish: What is the theme song of your professional life?
Nayomi: “More Than This” by Roxy Music. The theme song for all of life, professional and otherwise, it brings me back to myself at any moment.
Nish: What is your motto?
Nayomi: Motto?! Like in the Marines? I dunno-probably, “Your mental health is not your fault but it is your responsibility.”
Or “Cats know everything. Talk to them when in doubt.”
Or “Why aren’t you writing?”
Nish: What is something you’re really excited about right now?
Nayomi: Plant medicine becoming more accepted as a form of healing for humans. For example, mushrooms being used to treat depression and anxiety becoming more and more normalized instead of seen as kooky as it has been for the last fifty years. All the wisdom is in the plants. Ancient people knew that. Indigenous communities know this now. They know how to connect to plant medicine and how to heal both us and nature. If we can connect to that wisdom, instead of ignoring or exploiting it, there is some hope for the species and therefore for the planet which we have put in peril.
P.S. If you have not already, please make sure to read Nissue #29 with the super cool novelist Jessica Anya Blau, and Nissue #11 with the great Dave Pell, whose new book Please Scream Inside Your Heart is hitting shelves just about now.