Friday, March 29, 2013

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni talks about Oleander Girl, the changing face of India, writing a children's book, and so much more

So there I was at a big cocktail party for the Tucson Book Fair and none of the authors I knew had shown up yet. I was wandering around amidst all the food, gravitating towards the vegetarian entrees when I met Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni--a fellow vegetarian! Of course, as soon as I saw her name tag, I was thrilled to meet her, since I knew and loved her novels, and what is more wonderful than becoming friends with someone you admire? Chitra is an award-winning author, poet and teacher, who writes about immigration, the South Asian experience, history, myth, magical realism and diversity. Her books have been translated into 29 languages and two of her novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into films. Her short stories, Arranged Marriage won an American Book Award. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, and I'm thrilled to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Chitra! 

You manage to do this alchemy: create gripping page-turning stories that are crafted with luminous prose. What sparked this particular novel?

The genesis for this novel is tangled. It came out of recent visits to India, where I noticed how fast the country is changing, and how powerfully these changes surge up against traditions that are thousands of years old. I explore this through the complicated relationship between the protagonist Korobi, who belongs to a very old and respected Kolkata family, and her fiance, Rajat, who symbolizes the new India with his contemporary ideas for building his family business and his penchant for the disco scene in the city. Mixed up with the above is an obsession with family secrets, something that I feel transcends cultural boundaries, and often has to do with the sexual transgressions (or what a society considers the sexual transgressions) of women.

The novel brilliantly shows post 9/11 America through the eyes of Korobi, who is Indian. Did her experience match yours at all when you came to America?

I was around the same age when I moved from India, and as wide-eyed with wonder, but it was a different America I came to, more hospitable and accepting of brown-skinned foreigners. Korobi's USA has been shaken by 9/11. She--as well as many of the other Indians in New York--will experience the repercussions of this disaster: the prejudice, an sometimes the violence, that rises from fear and a need to blame. But she will find many positives, too--kindness in unexpected places, enriching friendships, heart-shaking beauty, an ability to see one's own culture more clearly. I certainly experiences these as well.

How difficult do you think it is for us all to find our true identities, and to be willing to face the truth about ourselves and others?

It's difficult. It's what Korobi (and, in their own way, each of the other narrators in the novel--Rajat, his chauffeur, Asif, Korobi's grandmother Sarojini) struggles with through the novel. Identity is a shifting thing. Often we think it lies in externals because they are easier to measure, such as family pedigree, parentage, race, education, religion, socio-economic circumstance, but it's more slippery than that. Facing that and facing the truth can be pretty painful, but that kind of pain can help us grow, or it can destroy us. 

I love that one of your characters says, "never choose something because it's easier." Can you talk a bit about that please? Would you say that that is how you live your life?

I believe in it, though I can't say that I manage to follow that path all the time! But the easy choice, the lazy choice, stagnates the soul. One has to pay the price for it at some point or another, as at least one character in the novel will realize. 

What is your writing life like?

I write as regularly as I can. Not writing makes me grumpy! On the days when I'm not traveling and not teaching at the University of Houston, I like to give myself several hours to write, preferably in the morning. I often experience writer's block, but I'm learning to work through it. I'm an obsessive reviser. I keep a writer's notebook, and if I'm lucky enough to get ideas for new stories or books, I write them down as soon as I can because otherwise I forget them. 

I have to ask, because you and I bonded over this, how did you become a vegetarian?

I decided on this several years ago. It was hard, at first. I fell of the vegetable wagon (!) several times. But it was important for me to keep trying because I wanted to cause as little pain as possible to other beings through my food habits. I'm very happy that I am one now--and very happy that me met as we foraged for vegetarian food at the author's reception at the Tucson Festival of Books!

What's obsessing you now and why?

A couple of different projects that I want to start on. A novel based on the epic, The Ramayana, retold from the main woman character Sita's point of view, and a collection of stories about an Indian family and some of the people whose lives are entangled with theirs. Characters keep popping up in my head. But I'm on book tour now, and when I travel, I can't write anything. So I'm yearning.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I'm very excited about my first children's picture book, which has just come out: Grandma and the Great Gourd (Roaring Brook/Macmillan.) It's the retelling, in English, of one of my favorite Bengali folktales, which my grandfather used to tell me when I was little. it has a hero's journey structure (in that, it's not unlike Oleander Girl!) I had a lot of fun writing it, playing with rhythm and onomatopoeia, and I love the vibrant illustrations by Susy Pilgrim Waters, which really enhance the story.

1 comment:

Chitra Divakaruni said...

Thank you, Caroline! It's been such a pleasure meeting you.