Nayomi Munaweera Gets Rid of Her Rage

The Oakland writer uses an essay to free herself from deep trauma.


Photo courtesy Nayomi Munaweera

Oakland writer Nayomi Munaweera’s first and second award-winning novels dared to traverse the dark, tragic, and repercussive ripples of the 26-year-war between Sinhalese and Tamil factions in Sri Lanka and maternity in her native homeland and America, respectively.

With her latest output, “Her Body/My Body,” an essay appearing with contributions from 14 other writers in writer/editor Michele Filgate’s impressive What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, Munaweera goes nuclear.

“I got a lot of trauma out of my body and onto the page,” she said in a recent interview.

The essay is structured to mirror her childhood experience growing up in a chaotic, violent household and the steps she took toward healing. Munaweera’s mother, although never officially diagnosed, displayed traits of borderline personality disorder.

“She would go from crying uncontrollably to laughing in minutes,” she wrote. “If we were still spinning in the aftermath of her hurricane, she would ask us what was wrong.” Munaweera and her younger sister learned to ignore their own feelings “until we didn’t feel them anymore,” and writing became Munaweera’s safe haven.

Revealing that the essay was the hardest thing she has written thus far, Munaweera said her recovery came from therapy, meditation, the strong alliance with her husband, Whit Missilidine, and time. Therapy introduced her to Christine Ann Lawson’s book, Understanding the Borderline Mother, and re-reading it, she was able to step back from being the “all-bad” firstborn daughter and found perspective.

“There was tremendous love growing up and also control. It’s difficult to separate what was a reaction to being an immigrant. Was she incredibly protective because she was scared to be in a new place? Did she rage because she was married off to a man she didn’t love? It all cycled through a culture that arranged marriages; through reincarnation you were fulfilling your karmic duty by the person you married. I don’t know if she understood we were separate from her,” she said.

Time, the clichéd but perhaps greatest healer, reduced the continued trauma, including strict boundaries Munaweera has had to enforce with her mother, occasionally resorting to cutting off communication and interaction. “I’ve been able to redefine the relationship the way I need. She knows she has to respect that.”

Which is why her mother’s reaction tothe essay is astonishing. Included as a postscript, Munaweera’s mother takes full responsibility for the chaos she caused and commends her daughter for “having the strength to publish” the essay.

“I think she’s matured,” said Munaweera. “She was dealing with racism, sexism, undiagnosed illness, a really violent marriage. She was naive, a schoolgirl. Even the birth process, she didn’t know how it was going to work when she went through it. It was an intense journey.”

Now working on a psycho-sexual literary thriller set in California that will be her third novel, Munaweera said she feels liberated from her own guilt-rage-shame cycle. “It’s marvelous to be freed of that. I’m not angry or terribly sad anymore. I don’t expect my mom and I to talk every day, but it’s good to be rid of the rage — my rage. Having written the essay, I’m just a happier person.”


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