‘What I Imagine is Always Beyond What I Can Reach’: A Conversation With Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
- Excerpts from an interview with the Indian American author in advance of her keynote presentation at the Akshaya Patra Gala in Boston.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s name is synonymous with Indian American fiction. An award-winning writer, activist, and teacher, she is the author of 21 books such as “Mistress of Spices,” “Sister of My Heart,” “Before We Visit the Goddess,” “Palace of Illusions,” “The Forest of Enchantments,” and “The Last Queen.” Her latest novel, “Independence,” depicts the experiences of three sisters in strife-torn Calcutta as India frees itself from the British yoke.
This is one author who is familiar to readers of all ages, be it school children, young adults, or adults. Her books are insightful, her themes are universal, and her characters are introspective. Her work has also appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and a Pushcart Prize anthology. Divakaruni’s work has been published in over 100 magazines and anthologies and translated into 30 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Bengali, Hungarian, Turkish, Hindi, and Japanese.
Her novels have been made into films, plays, and dance dramas, and performed as operas. Her awards include an American Book Award, a PEN Josephine Miles award, a Premio Scanno, and a Light of India award. In 2015 The Economic Times included her in their List of 20 Most Influential Global Indian Women. She is the McDavid professor of Creative Writing in the internationally acclaimed Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston and lives in Houston with her husband Murthy.
“It’s never really easy to be successful as a writer when you’re trying to write literary fiction—you’ve already limited your readership, limited by that choice. As I’ve written more, and as other Indian American voices have grown around me, I strive harder to find experiences that are unique yet a meaningful and resonant part of the American story,” says Divakaruni. “What I like is that writing is always new, always challenging. What I imagine is always beyond what I can reach. There’s so much to learn. This reminds me of those lines by Tennyson: ‘Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.’”
Divakaruni has also been an activist in the fields of education and domestic violence and has been closely associated with the following nonprofits: Pratham, which educates underprivileged children in India, and Daya and Maitri, which assist survivors of domestic violence in starting life anew.
Excerpts from Chitra Divakaruni’s interview:
Your first book of short stories “Arranged Marriage” was published n 1995, about 28 years ago. How has the industry changed since? Over the last 25 or so years what are some challenges versus some things that have gotten easier for writers?
The industry today is relatively more open to writers of color and diverse voices. The challenge is that many publishers have gone out of business or merged with other publishers. Another challenge is that many newspapers and magazines that used to have robust book review sections no longer have them. So, it is more difficult for writers –especially writers of color–to get their books to catch the public’s attention.
Almost all the characters in your books are strong women with a distinct sense of purpose. What are your thoughts on public perception of women over the last 25 or so years? Have they improved, changed for the better, or have we taken a step back from all that is happening in the world today?
In some ways, there is a forward movement (more women in professional roles, more women with higher education, etc.). In some appalling ways, such as with the abortion issue in the US, we have taken a distinct step back. In India (except for in the major cities), there seems to be a backlash against women marrying outside their religion or caste.
The times right after the partition were brutal and very complex. Especially for refugees and those that were trying to recreate their broken lives… However, communal disharmony continues to this day. How can we as writers help alleviate some of this dissonance?
I think writers can help by depicting people of many different backgrounds in truthful and sympathetic ways. When readers begin to understand and empathize with, and even perhaps love and admire characters who are very different from themselves in the books they read, it is an important step towards accepting them in everyday life.
“Independence” is a gorgeous novel about the lives of three sisters in post-Independence India. What drove this story and plot?
A major premise behind “Independence” is that for a country to be truly independent, its women have to learn how to be independent, too. And they should be encouraged in this enterprise. The novel depicts the lives of 3 women who will learn this independence through the many challenges of Partition.
“Independence” has been compared to Louisa May Alcotts, “Little Women.” Was this intentional?
I love “Little Women,” so I’m happy with the comparison. But that book was not in my mind when I wrote. I had in mind Tagore’s “The Home and the World,” which also depicts a woman who learns (through mistakes and through tragedy) to be independent during a turbulent political struggle in India.
You will be addressing Akshaya Patra at their Boston Gala. Please tell us more about your association with this organization and why this event is important to you.
I have known of Akshaya Patra and have been associated with it and have attended its fundraisers for many years now, especially in Houston, where I live. I have been a keynote speaker for AP before this, too. The organization’s project—to provide meals to schoolchildren in India– is simple, clear and non-controversial, one that is helping millions of children get the nutrition they need to study, learn and ultimately change their lives through education. It is positive all the way. I am especially honored to participate in the Boston Gala this year. I was delighted to learn that the gala is sold out. I invite those who cannot attend to please contribute through the AP website and transform the lives of youngsters in India.
Visi Tilak is an author and writer who lives in the greater Boston area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org