Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni


An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni by Soumi Basu

Soumi Basu, a member of Medha Journal, presents Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni to our readers in this thought-provoking interview.


 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning author and poet. Her work is widely known, she has been published in over 50 magazines including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker and her writing has been included in over 50 anthologies.

Her works have been translated into 13 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese.

Much of Divakaruni’s work centers round the lives of immigrant women, something she has had to live first hand and something she finds an instant connection to. Her interest in women began to grow after she left India, at which point she began to reevaluate more reflectively the myths and stereotypes surrounding the good, self-effacing and self-sacrificing Indian women. One of the major themes in all her writing is sisterhood – the mysterious female bonding that she found everywhere she looked. She describes how as a child she used to find the stories of the Indian epics narrated to her by her grandfather inadequate. She searched in them for a sense of sisterhood between the women that she knew existed. In an essay in Bold Type she says, “[t]he aloneness of the epic heroines seemed strange to me even as a child. I could see that is not how the women around me lived” whether in the villages of India or the middle-class urban India where she was growing up. Retelling becomes an important tool in her hands, she reinterprets the ancient Indian myths and epics and makes them blend in with the story of immigrant Indian women, struggling to fit in to a new way of life in an alien culture and at the same time struggling to keep alive the values and memories of the homeland.

Her stories for the young readers take both the young as well as the adult to a world of enchantment and innocence. The magic world that she manages to weave with her vivid imagination and lyrical prose is something that one has to experience first-hand. In her enchanted world, nature and forces of nature when rightly understood and used are capable of immense power.

Her latest novel, The Palace of Illusions, has Draupadi at the center of the novel. She retells the Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi and is definitely a must read for all readers interested in the great Indian epic and yet open-minded enough to perceive it in a new light.

Soumi Basu presents to you this interview for the readers of Medha Journal. Soumi was always attracted to stories. Even as a child she would always notice how the same story heard from two different people were not the same. Her serious interest in retelling as a genre began when as part of her M Phil course work she was exposed to a multitude of rewritings on myths and memories by women writers from across the globe. Of all her precious finds that year, the magic created by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni influenced her the most. Here she presents an interview with one of the most noted Indian woman writers of our times.

Medhajournal is a forum for aspiring writers. We would love it if you could share with us how you became a writer. How and when did your first Manuscript get accepted for publishing? How did you feel?

I started writing mostly for myself, several years after I moved to the US. Immigration made me into a writer. I wrote to remember the things I was forgetting out of my childhood and youth in India. Slowly I became more and more interested in how immigration changes us, and how we transform the countries to which we move. Then I took a year of writing classes and my professor introduced me to my agent, Sandra Dijkstra. She took my first stories to New York and found me a publisher. Those stories became part of Arranged Marriage, which went on to win an American Book Award. I felt at once happy and blessed and incredulous.
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You teach Creative Writing at Houston University. Would you like to share a few insights with our aspiring writers?

I love teaching writing. It gives me an opportunity to work with younger writers and discuss issues of art and craft that are very important to me. It pushes me to keep reading, to try and remain aware of what’s being written now. Three things that I tell my students are:
a. make time to write regularly, several times each week
b. read widely and read as a writer, closely analyzing writing techniques
c. get good feedback and revise intensely

As a writer are you comfortable with labels? When some one brands you as ‘an expatriate woman writer from India’ do you feel restricted?

I don’t pay too much attention to labels. So they don’t restrict me.

Celebration of sisterhood or the bond between women is a recurrent theme in your novels and short stories. Be it the bond between sisters, cousins, friends, or mothers and daughters. The daughters often realize that for all their progressiveness and education, they have more of their mothers in them than they had thought before. These relationships are not only not secondary to heterosexual relationships, but many times also overshadow the heterosexual relationships in importance. Can you share with us how you got interested in writing about women? Was this a conscious decision?

I’m not sure this was conscious. Maybe it came out of growing up in India where relationships between women are deep and important, and women often support each other through the problems that rise out of a patriarchal structure. I’ve been fortunate to have many close women friends who have been like an extended family to me. I’m sure the work I do with battered women, through organizations like Maitri (San Francisco area) and Daya (Houston) have influenced my need to present in my work strong women who overcome tragedies. I wouldn’t say relationships with men are unimportant in my novels. In Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams and Palace of Illusions, husbands and lovers play significant roles.

Imagination plays an important role in your novels in creating parallel worlds, like the magic island of the Mistress of Spices, or the order of the Conch Bearers. You have attributed magical powers to natural objects such as spices, conches and mirrors. What made you to turn to the Natural world for magic?

I think this is an influence of the folk tales I was told when growing up in Bengal. Our folk tales are full of magic—the objects and animals in folk tales are at once natural and magical. I wanted to bring that element into my books, which do draw upon folk tale material.
{xtypo_quote_left}Imagination plays an important role in your novels in creating parallel worlds, like the magic island of the Mistress of Spices, or the order of the Conch Bearers. You have attributed magical powers to natural objects such as spices, conches and mirrors. What made you to turn to the Natural world for magic?

I think this is an influence of the folk tales I was told when growing up in Bengal. Our folk tales are full of magic—the objects and animals in folk tales are at once natural and magical. I wanted to bring that element into my books, which do draw upon folk tale material.{/xtypo_quote_left}
How would you define feminism? Would you consider yourself to be a feminist writer?

As I said before, I’m not that interested in labels. I’m interested in helping to create a world where men and women are treated with equal respect and allowed choices.

I love the way you rework on myths, like the Shakuntala myth in the ring of Kalodighi or the myth of kalpataru in two of your short stories, or mythical heroines like Draupadi in your last novel, and then subvert them to suit your stories and characters. How did you get interested in retelling as a genre?

Again, it comes out of our folktale / epic tradition which is largely oral and therefore often a retelling of old and loved stories. I think I grew up feeling that it was OK to tell people my version of things. I’m interested in reinterpretation as an intellectual activity and a political one.

You write poetry as well as novels. Your novels have a lyrical quality to them. Do you think being a poet helped you in becoming a better novelist? Do the subjects choose the medium of expression?

Being a poet certainly helped me be aware of imagery and rhythm in a whole different way. I think that helped my prose. Usually, I know which subject needs which genre. But not always. Mistress of Spices began as a series of poems!

In the world of the first generation and second generation expatriates, language often plays a key role. For example, in the Queen of Dreams, when Rakhi wants to explore the dream journals of her dead mother, she has to take the help of her father to get them translated. How important would you say is the role of this language gap in the communication between parents and children?

I think that depends on each family. Rakhi’s mother was a particular kind of woman—and perhaps she wrote those journals in a particular way so that her family would be forced to come together to read them.

Ultimately, although it is wonderful to be able to pass on one’s mother tongue and all the cultural ideas embedded in it to our children, it is secondary to love, respect and communication, which can happen in any language.

How do you bridge this gap with your children?

I try to do it not through a particular Indian language (my husband is Telugu and I am Bengali, so we don’t really have a common language except a halting Hindi) but just through having as open a line of communication with them as possible, by being interested in their ideas, by being available to them, by sharing my love of books with them. It’s never a perfect process. I’m still learning.

You are the co-founder of Maitri in the San Francisco Bay Area and on the Advisory Board of Daya in Houston. Both these organizations help South Asian or South Asian American women who find themselves in abusive or domestic violence situations. You are also on the board of Pratham, an organization that helps educate children (especially those living in urban slums) in India. How did you get started on social work? Could you share some of your experiences with us?

There are so many experiences, and they’re often painful or confidential, so it isn’t really possible to share. All I can say is that working with women in domestic violence situations has changed me as a person. It’s made me so much more aware of what women go through, and how you can’t tell, from looking at a person, what’s going on deep inside them. As for the children at Pratham, their plight is at once heartbreaking and heartening. They are so strong and resilient—all they need is a chance, someone to help them and believe in them. I do hope your readers will check out the Pratham website, www.prathamusa.org, and help in whatever way they can. I also urge them to get involved with a group that combats domestic violence, which is a huge problem all over the world.

How much of your work is autobiographical / based on personal experiences? Have there been any major influences on your literary style?

I write about things around me, but not much is autobiographical. I had a near-death experience, which I’ve tried to describe in Vine of Desire. Maybe my closest-to-autobiographical story is “The Names of Stars in Bengali,” from my collection Unknown Errors. It’s about a mother taking her children back to her ancestral village in Bengal.

I’m influenced by so many authors that I’ve learned from. Maxine Hong Kingston, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Cristina Garcia, Tim O Brien, Toni Morrison, David Malouf, Ha Jin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez—the list goes on.

Your books for children are as fascinating to children as they are to adults. How do you change your writing style to suit different age groups? I am eagerly waiting for the third book of the Conch Bearers’ series, so can’t really resist this question. Have you started working on it?

Thank you! I have a special fondness for my children’s books, through which I hope to share my love of the magical world of India with children all over the world. I have to think carefully about style and vocabulary and a more straightforward storytelling technique when writing for children. The third book of The Conch Bearer series is now complete and it will come out in March 2009!

You have used your sons’ and niece’s names as different characters in your children’s fiction. Do these names have a way of coloring the characters?

Maybe a little bit, but not much. Once I start writing, the character in the book takes over.
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As an expatriate exposed to a different set of values, you must have questioned the values of your homeland more often than not. What values do you try to inculcate in your sons?

I admire Indian family values a great deal—the close bond between generations, the way people will do whatever they can, giving up things to help family. I want my children to learn the value of Karma Yoga, and Indian spirituality in general.{/xtypo_quote_right}
As an expatriate exposed to a different set of values, you must have questioned the values of your homeland more often than not. What values do you try to inculcate in your sons?

I admire Indian family values a great deal—the close bond between generations, the way people will do whatever they can, giving up things to help family. I want my children to learn the value of Karma Yoga, and Indian spirituality in general.

You are a writer, teacher, wife, mother and social worker. How do you juggle all these roles?

With much difficulty, and even more help from my wonderful husband, and mostly, God’s blessings.

About the author:
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in 1957 in Kolkata and lived in Kolkata till 1976, when at the age of nineteen after finishing her graduation in English from Presidency College, Kolkata, she moved to the US. She continued her education in English by receiving a Master’s degree from Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. To support her education she held many odd jobs like baby sitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, slicing bread in a bakery and washing instruments in a science lab. At Berkeley, she lived in the International House and worked in the dining hall. All these odd jobs provided her with valuable experiences and insights that she later used in her stories. She briefly lived in Illinois, Ohio and Texas, but has spent most of her life in Northern California, which she often writes about.

Divakaruni currently teaches in the nationally ranked Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. She serves on the board of Maitri (www.maitri.org) in the San Francisco Bay Area and on the Advisory Board of Daya in Houston (www.dayahouston.org). Both these organizations help South Asian or South Asian-American women trapped in abusive or domestic violence situations find their feet. She is also on the board of Pratham, an organization that helps educate children (especially those living in urban slums) in India.

Divakaruni has judged several prestigious awards, such as the National Book Award and the PEN Faulkner Award.

Two of her books, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into movies by filmmakers Gurinder Chadha (and Paul Berges (an English film) and Suhasini Mani Ratnam (a Tamil TV serial) respectively.

Divakaruni lives in Houston with her husband Murthy, her two sons Anand and Abhay and Juno, the family dog.

Her Published Works:

Shadowland (2009): Fiction for young readers, 3rd of the Conch Bearer Trilogy (available March 2009)

The Palace of Illusions (2008): Novel

The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (2005): Fiction for young readers, 2nd of the Conch Bearer Trilogy

Queen of Dreams (2004): (Novel)

California Uncovered: Stories for the 21st Century (2004): Anthology of short stories

The Conch Bearer (2003): Fiction for young readers, 1st of the Conch Bearer Trilogy

Neela: Victory Song (2002): Fiction for young readers

Vine of Desire (2002): Novel: Part II of Sister of My Heart

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (2001): Anthology of short stories

Sister of My Heart (1999): Novel

The Mistress of Spices (1997): Novel

Leaving Yuba City (1997): Anthology of poetry

Arranged Marriage (1995): Collection of short stories

Black Candle (1991): Anthology of poetry

The Reason for Nasturtiums (1990): Anthology of poetry

For more information about Ms. Chitra Divakaruni and her books, please visit www.chitradivakaruni.com

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