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Interview: The Mistress of Stories

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
November 2018
Interview: The Mistress of Stories

(Photo: Krishna Giri)

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni needs no introduction to fans of Indian fiction in English. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her writing. A compelling storyteller, she will appeal to any curious reader—and indeed, she’s found a broad cross-cultural audience with her diverse, stylistically rich novels. Divakaruni spoke to Khabar when she visited Atlanta to give the 2018 Sheth lecture at Emory University.

Trying to summarize Chitra Divakaruni’s talk at Emory in one short sentence would be tricky, even absurd. But here’s an attempt: “Immigration made me a writer.” If not a summary, it could’ve at least been the title—for Divakaruni, in her remarks and the Q&A that followed, brought out the intimate connection between her life as an immigrant and her journey as a writer. That quote could also be the thread loosely tying her books together. First came the phase in which she stuck to strict realism, as in Arranged Marriage, where the stories were inspired by her experiences as a transplant navigating disparate worlds. Then her role as an activist helping victims of domestic abuse led to a novel like The Mistress of Spices, where magic realism enables female empowerment. This feminist narrative is seen again, albeit in a different style, in The Palace of Illusions, a reimagining of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective.



Divakaruni’s interest in India’s epics and legends remains deep, inspiring not only her upcoming novel, but also the children’s books she has written and intends to write. However, that doesn’t mean Divakaruni has abandoned immigrant themes. Oleander Girl was the result of a backlash against immigrants in the wake of 9/11—and for all we know, the current distrust of immigrants will prompt a new work of fiction from her prolific pen. It’s bound to find eager readers. Her preoccupation with the themes of migration and families in flux is also evident in Before We Visit the Goddess, her most recent novel, and her other earlier works. And then we have One Amazing Thing, which is in its own amazing category. Although it was published in 2010, the novel is still making news, as we see in the interview.

Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, was in Atlanta with her husband, Murthy. On the day of their arrival, they had dinner with some local writers. It turned out to be a joyful, stimulating occasion—and though it got late when the party finally wrapped up, Divakaruni graciously agreed to sit down with Khabar in the lobby of their hotel.



One Amazing Thing was picked as the 2018-19 Common Book by Auburn University. You spoke there recently. Why do you think that novel still resonates with mainstream readers?
I’ve been very thankful and pleased because that book has now been used in over 20 universities as their common book. I think it is partly because the book has a diverse cast of characters. There are people of Indian origin, Pakistani origin, people of Chinese origin, white people, black people, older people, people of different religions. And the reason I put such a diverse cast in that book is because I wanted to examine what happens when a group of people really unlike each other find themselves in a catastrophic situation. Can they come together as a community, and under what circumstances? Because the whole idea of diverse community building is something I’m very interested in.

We’re going through a very difficult period. Diversity is under attack, immigrants are being demonized. It comes as a shock to folks like us who have been here for so long.
Yes, we’re a central part of America. Immigrants make America what it is, and we’ve been contributing to the community, the culture, and the economy.

What do you think we as immigrants and maybe you as a writer can do to counter this narrative that immigrants don’t belong in America?
We have to create our own narrative and make it available to people. It’s more important than ever to show people what the lives of people are like—how do we feel, how do we think. We have to tell our stories of us interacting with the rest of America. It’s become very, very important to do that.

But at the same time, there is this feeling that people are dividing into groups. We’re in our own little group—whether it is ethnicity, race, religion, or gender—and that’s causing more divisions. How do you respond to the argument that we should not be focusing too much on identity politics? Especially on college campuses, if they don’t like you, they don’t want you to speak. Free speech in some places is under attack.
These are all very difficult questions. I don’t think I have any easy answers. I think we have to do everything—first of all, individually—to counter that by creating an example ourselves: going out into other communities, fostering friendships with people unlike us, and being willing to speak and share our culture with people. And to really see if I’m ghettoizing myself. If I wanted to only hang out with Indian people, wouldn’t I have done it better in India? So the great promise of living in a place like America is that we come to know other cultures, we become friends with people from different places, and as a result we grow as human beings. In a strange and paradoxical way, our own culture becomes enriched because of that.

So it’s a two-way street?
It’s a two-way street. So, interpersonally, we need to do it, we need to encourage our children to do it. In a classroom situation I can make that happen by breaking students into different groups and making sure that there are kids of different cultures and giving them projects that they have to work with. So no matter what our field, we can do things. We just have to realize that we have to do these important things to become that mosaic. It’s beautiful.



Going back to your books, you mentioned earlier that The Palace of Illusions was your most popular book in India. That book is about the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view. Isn’t your upcoming book about the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view?
Yes. It’s called The Forest of Enchantment. It’s going to come out in January at the Jaipur Literature Festival. We don’t have the date yet for the American edition.

What attracts you to those narratives? I won’t call them revisionist, but obviously you want to present a different point of view.
First of all, I love our epics—they’re so rich, so powerful, so timeless. And I want to retell those stories by putting women at the center of those tales, because I think for a long time there have only been stories of men. Women have been objectified in these tales. So I wanted to change that; that’s my re-visioning.

And that speaks to the current moment, if you think of the #MeToo movement.
Absolutely. I was giving a talk somewhere else the other day and I said the very first #MeToo moment in literature is when Draupadi’s clothes are taken off of her. That shaming of her, that sexual harassment, is the first in literature anywhere in the world. And she is very aware of it; she is very angered by it. She is not going to take it just lying down. And she wins in that situation. She stands up and fights against it.

Sita was a little different.
Well, I want to show—and I hope I have managed to show in my novel—how she is also a very strong character in her own way. She’s often mischaracterized, misinterpreted.



I saw The Mistress of Spices and, I’ll be honest with you, I was not too impressed with it. Do you think novels that are not genre fiction are harder to adapt?
They are definitely harder to adapt, but not always. Sister of My Heart was wonderfully done [as a Tamil teleserial]; it won five awards. It followed the book very closely. I think The Mistress of Spices became more of a romantic film and therefore it moved away from the text. But you know, each director has their own vision. I don’t get involved. I’m there as an advisor if they want advice. If not, they can do their own thing. But I’m always excited when a book is made into a movie—because if it’s done well, it gives the book a whole other dimension and it reaches a whole lot of other people.





You wrote a book called The Conch Bearer for children. Are you going to continue doing that?
I hope so. I’m particularly interested in our folktales that I hope to retell. I’ve done one picture book for children, called Grandma and the Great Gourd. It’s a retelling of a Bengali folktale. Our folktales are just amazing, and I want to share them with people, children, everyone. And they’re getting lost—these folktales are getting lost because the whole idea of telling tales is going. That generation is dying out and some of these folktales are only available in tellings. So at least the ones that I learnt from my grandfather, I want to pass them on.

Are publishers more receptive to diverse books and diverse authors these days?
Yes, I think they are. But, paradoxically, publishers have also become more concerned about the bottom line. My agent tells me that the industry is facing some problems. So they are open to diversity, but they are also concerned. They want to make money, they need to make money. It’s a push and pull.

How have male readers received your work? Have you heard from them?
Yes! When I give talks, the majority are women, but there are quite a large number of males these days. What is really sweet is that men will buy the books for the women in their families as a gift, and my hope is that eventually everybody will read it. The fact that they’ve come to my talk and they’re buying the book for a woman in their lives is a very good gesture. It’s a good start.

Climate change has been in the news lately, and we’ve seen the U.S. pull back from its commitments. Hurricanes have also been in the news, and in India we’re familiar with cyclones. Khabar interviewed Amitav Ghosh when he published The Great Derangement. In that book, he takes issue with the stance that novels work best only when we focus on individuals and their stories. We’re disconnected from the nonhuman world, he argues, and when we don’t consider the collective or the natural and animal world, we miss the chance of addressing and influencing larger issues like climate change. How do you see it?
Amitav is very good at engaging the natural world and looking at natural disasters, looking at large diasporic movements—as he did in his Ibis trilogy. Every writer does something well. Some writers do better when they focus on individuals. Through the individuals, they give us an insight into society. And we see this from way back. I’ll give you one example: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s about a family. It’s about a marriage falling apart and one family, but through that he’s giving us a whole vision of Russian society. And there are other families that mirror this family in different ways.



So my hope is, as I focus on the stories of women, I am also focusing on the society out of which these stories, these problems, are emerging, and the changes are beginning to happen. In my book, Before We Visit the Goddess, there is the immediate family story. This young woman will leave Kolkata; she is following her sweetheart who has had to leave Kolkata because he was involved in the Naxal movement. So from the individual story I move into politics and society, I move into the larger picture. I truly believe that through the lives of individuals we see these larger movements in the lives of individuals. I think some important Bengali writers who have influenced me—like Sarat Chandra—wrote very simple family novels. But he touched on so many family ills, especially against women, which then attracted the attention of people who began to change the laws. So one never knows. A simple story might resonate with the world and change things.

Murali Kamma is the managing editor of Khabar. His debut collection of short fiction, Not Native: Immigrant Stories of an In-between World, will be published in 2019 by Atlanta-based Wising Up Press.

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