Marco Werman: Let me tell you now about Nayomi Munaweera. She was born in Sri Lank in 1973, but a brewing civil war convinced her family to move to Nigeria. Then there was a military coup there and the family moved again to Los Angeles. Today, Munaweera is a writer in Oakland, California. Her first novel, “Island of a Thousand Mirrors” is just out and she recently sat down for our “First Day” series, where immigrants remember what it was like arriving here in America. Here’s Nayomi Munaweera talking about moving to LA as a teenager.
Nayomi Munaweera: It was September, so we were immediately enrolled in school. I think I was in a state of shock for at least three months. I remember being at a party and another Sri Lankan girl saying “So, are you from LA?” and I literally didn’t know that LA meant Los Angeles, so I said “No. I don’t know.” I was very confused and all the other kids started laughing, but I literally did not understand really where I was or the greater geography of the state or the country. You’re scrambling to figure out who you are, what you are. There’s not many people around that look like you.
We were quite poor. My parents went from being professional people to being menial labor, is what they were doing to begin with. My dad went from a civil engineer to the attendant in a parking lot, so he did that for a few months. I remember specifically I had two pairs of jeans, a green sweater, a pink sweater and I think like two shirts, and those were my choices. These other girls were showing up in school with a new outfit everyday or they had hairspray in their hair - it was the “˜80’s, so you learned about Aqua Net, and they had makeup and this was just all incredibly new to me. This was also teenage years, so things like hair on your legs - “Okay, that’s unacceptable”; in Nigeria or Sri Lanka at that time, it would have been completely not anything anybody paid any attention to. But in an American high school, or junior high school, this was a big deal. You had to shave your legs, you had to shave your armpits. It was much more attention upon the body in a certain way. These are just lessons you learn as you watch and you learn how to emulate.
I think the thing that really saved my life, in terms of this migration, is books. I grew up in a very rural village in Nigeria where I didn’t have access to books, in English especially. So when I came to America, it was just a feast, the fact that I could go into a library, and it was such an incredible feeling of liberation. It was like church, like “Oh my God, I can take any book out that I want,” and I think that’s really what was my salvation and has been throughout my life.
Werman: We’ve posted an excerpt from the new book by Nayomi Munaweera at PRI.ORG. I hope you have a story about your first days in the US and that you’ll let us know about it. Go to PRI.ORG/Firstdays or join the conversation on Twitter. Just use the hashtag #FirstDays.