November 27, 2012

I finished reading Nayomi Munaweera’s outstanding debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, on my way to a Buddhist pilgrimage (details to follow).  It brought back memories of my first trip to Sri Lanka, in 2007, just before the end of the three-decade long bloody civil war between the government and a Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which killed 100,000 and wounded and displaced many more.  “This island would be paradise itself, if it weren’t for the civil war,” said one Sri Lankan man.  This man still startled with loud noises, recoiling from the memories of bombings near his house in Colombo, fearing for his family and his own life.  The war was marked with horrific atrocities on both sides.  Tamil Tigers utilized child soldiers and suicide bombers, and the military carried out its own terror campaign of rape and torture (well documented in newspaper accounts and books such as Only Man is Vile, by William McGowan).  While the now peaceful island is booming with tourism and growth, these traumas still fester.  A “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” was appointed in 2010, but it largely blamed the LTTE and didn’t uncover government abuses.  Sri Lanka is indeed a paradise and important home to a creed that can lay a fair claim to being one of the most peace-promoting religions of mankind – yet it carries the contradiction of having one of the most brutal histories of the last half-century.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors explores the conflict through the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans.  It is a captivating read, tracing the lives of Tamil and Sinhalese individuals, entwined in relationship, blood, rage and love, carrying them from tragedies to the barest blossoming of hope in the far off city of San Francisco.

Art, at its powerful best, allows us to bear witness to trauma and come to grips with awful reality.  Munaweera succeeds admirably.  Her words and portraits pull us closely into the experiences that news accounts might make remote or cold.  This is important work.  Only in the telling of trauma can we both understand and transcend it.  Richard Mollica, of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, in Healing Invisible Wounds, writes of the importance of telling the trauma story in informing the world, and healing and empowering the traumatized individual.  Exposure desensitization therapy, the most widely supported treatment for PTSD, guides individuals in retelling their trauma story until the story itself is uncoupled from strong emotions - disturbing emotion is metabolized and lifted from memory.

Nayomi Munaweera

We have a long way to go in understanding and coping with traumatic events.  The best art and storytelling allows the slower, softer healing emotions – love and compassion – to rise and transform the hurt, anger, aggression and fear that are coupled with trauma.  Munaweera’s novel performs this kind of alchemy admirably, and I highly recommend it.

Addendum:  Personalized and signed copies of the book are available at

©  2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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