August 2013

Terry Hong


An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

When I recently caught up with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, she was in one of her rare lull periods at home in Houston, Texas, having finished almost three solid months of book touring for her latest novel, Oleander Girl. Like her latest protagonist, Korobi Roy, a young woman from Kolkata who crisscrosses the United States on a personal quest, Divakaruni, too, took to planes, trains, and automobiles, from one coast to another and back again to reconnect with her readers.

"It's great to be home," she confesses, "although I'm getting very little done." She has less than a month left before classes start again -- she teaches writing at the University of Houston -- and has started "just a little" that waiting next novel. She's recently gone digital, tinkering with a new personal website, which she proudly "overhauled" completely on her own. Her two college-age sons are home for the summer, so for a few more weeks, they get most of her attention -- and her home cooking!

Since she published her first collection of poems, Black Candle, in 1991, Divakaruni has managed a near annual output across multiple platforms, from poetry, to short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), to middle-grade titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and her best-known, bestselling medium, adult novels including The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and One Amazing Thing. A novel and short story have been transformed for the stage, while two other novels and another short story have had film debuts. In the latest glitterati film news, her penultimate novel, One Amazing Thing, just got optioned by Hollywood.

Earlier this year in March, Divakaruni added her first children's picture book to her growing oeuvre: Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, based on a favorite story her beloved grandfather shared in her youth, now vibrantly illustrated collage-style by artist Susy Pilgrim Waters. As celebratory as Divakaruni is, the timing of the book's publication remains bittersweet for the whole family: Juno, the beloved family dog who has been Divakaruni's personal muse for years -- "when I am mired in writer's block, I rub her belly" -- passed away a few months ago. Juno herself "inspired" Divakaruni to write this clever rendition of Grandma, about an audacious grandmother who braves the dangerous jungles to visit her daughter and grandchildren, protected from afar by her beloved canine companions. "'What's life without a little adventure?'" Grandma muses; clearly she's channeling some of Divakaruni's far-reaching energy.

That "can-do" attitude is clearly displayed in Divakaruni's seventh adult novel, Oleander Girl. Korobi, who was protected, coddled, and carefully raised by her traditional grandparents since she lost both her parents at birth, decides, at just nineteen, she will venture beyond everything she has ever known in order to find out who she really is. Her grandfather has suddenly died, but his death finally frees Korobi -- and her hesitant grandmother -- to discover the truth about Korobi's parents and their long-buried relationship. Although Korobi is engaged to one of Kolkata's most eligible young men, she realizes she cannot enter marriage without having a better understanding of her Indian future, which is only possible by discovering her American past. The question looms: when she returns home, if she returns home, who will she be to the people who love her most?

The first thing I must know about Oleander Girl is how you chose the name -- Anuradha Roy -- for Korobi's mother? A real-life Anuradha Roy wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. Is your character's name mere coincidence?

It's a coincidence. It's a fairly common name in Kolkata -- I had several friends in school who were Anuradhas! And Roy, too, is a very old name, which goes back a century at least.

When we talked almost a decade ago about Queen of Dreams, it was your favorite among your novels. You've had several titles since. Do you feel the same? I know choosing a favorite is something akin to naming a favorite child, so I'm asking as delicately as possible...

Yes, it's tricky to choose a favorite. But right now it is Oleander Girl, because I gave myself some new challenges in this novel and was pleased at how they turned out. For one, I wanted a book that captured the pulsating heart of contemporary Kolkata, caught between the old and the new, and this was a challenge because although I visit regularly, I haven't lived in Kolkata in thirty years. The other thing I wanted to do is to showcase multiple narrators of different genders. The main narrator (in first person) is Korobi, the heroine who goes on a journey across the world in search of a secret that will transform her. But I was particularly pleased at how the male voices -- especially that of Asif, the chauffeur, turned out. It allowed me to weave together the complex class interactions that are such a big part of Indian society.

Besides giving yourself "new challenges," what was the specific genesis for Oleander Girl?

This novel was born out of a combination of visits I paid to Kolkata and my own musings on family secrets (yes, my family has some!). It struck me that that's an element that transcends culture and country -- the family secret, things we consider shameful or dangerous and keep hidden from outsiders. And what a burden this can become. I was also musing on how the inability to live in amity with difference can cause so much strife and grief, both in the larger political arena and in the home. All these came together in Oleander Girl.

Contemporary Indian society in general doesn't seem to fare well in much of Oleander -- the insistence on social standing and outward appearances, the wide divide between socioeconomic classes, the power of money and status that buys immunity from the law, and more. Was that difficult for you to write?

It was challenging. It's always hard to try to be truthful and nuanced and deal with negatives in one's own culture, which of course one loves. But I hope that I've also shown the positive sides -- the deep family loyalty that drives people and for which they are willing to sacrifice, a reverence for the divine, a willingness (as in Pia and Asif, or Asif and Bahadur) to reach across the chasms of class and religion in friendship. I hope people will laugh, too, at moments when the folly or social ambitions of certain characters are exposed. I've been very pleased that the Indian reviews (the novel came out there recently and was on the national bestsellers list) have been extremely positive and have stated that the novel has successfully captured the complexities of current Indian society.

Given how high-tech and high-powered urban India has become, especially the younger generations, Korobi herself seems almost anachronistic -- her naiveté, her willingness to marry as a teenager, her almost immediate acceptance of her in-laws-to-be whom she barely knows, who are so different than her own small family. What was your motivation for creating such a protagonist?

I wanted to show, through Korobi, a very different kind of person -- who does exist in India, even though she might be uncommon, because India is a country that straddles several centuries at the same time. And I have known and loved homes like the ancient mansion Korobi grew up in. Hers is also the hero's journey (the book follows a mythical structure), and she just seemed the right kind of person for the transformation that is to occur later in the novel.

Logistically, how did you research the scenes set in Kolkata? I know you were born there, but the majority of your life has been spent in Northern California...

I visited, I read books and newspapers, I talked to friends who live there or who have gone back from here to try to live there, I went on the Internet. The most fun part was researching the discos and nightclubs!

Do you still have family in Kolkata? Do you travel there often?

I try to get back there once every two years or so. My uncle and cousin live there. When my mother was alive, I tried to get back every year.

You've now been settled in Houston for a decade. Does Houston feel like "home" yet? I think for the first time ever in one of your novels, you have a Texas-based character in Oleander Girl!

Yes, Houston is home now. Although I will always love California and enjoy going back there, I'm settled and happy in Houston. There's a great writing community, particularly at the University of Houston, where I teach creative writing. I'm writing a lot more about Texas now. Actually, my previous novel, One Amazing Thing, had its final tale (by Uma) set in Texas -- a road trip during which she sees an aurora borealis! I'm planning a collection of stories, and several will be set in Texas. Texas is quite unique, great as a setting and a culture to explore.

Leaving modern Texas... Palace of Illusions was your first foray, I believe, into the ancient past -- that is, you created a story giving voice to Panchaali, a character from the ancient Indian epic, The Mahābhārata, dating back thousands of years. Do you have further plans to time travel back in the future?

Yes, my next novel, tentatively titled The Sorrow Tree, will be a retelling of our other epic, The Ramayana, with Sita, the main female character, as the narrator. I've just started on it. I'm drawing most of the facts from an ancient Bengali version from the fifteenth century, so the research has been very interesting.

Your Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy for middle-grade readers concluded in 2009. And in March this year, your first picture book, Grandma and the Great Gourd, hit shelves. Are you planning to write more titles for the younger set? Is your writing process different depending on your audience?

I particularly loved writing Grandma and the Great Gourd! Yes, the writing process is different -- the vocabulary of course, but also how subtle the ideas can be. I find writing for youngsters really enjoyable -- especially, as in Grandma, when I retell an Indian folk tale with its rhythms, its onomatopoeia, and its clever twists. I know so many that were passed down to me orally. I hope I'll have the chance to share them -- and that will depend largely on whether Grandma is able to find an enthusiastic audience!

You haven't published a short story collection in the last few years. Nor a poetry collection. Any plans to go back to either form? Both perhaps?

After The Sorrow Tree, I'm planning a collection of linked stories. I'm quite excited about that!

You've used your family members -- at least their names! -- in your previous books. Your middle-grade novel Neela was named for your niece, and the Conch trilogy features both an Anand and Abhay(datta), which also happen to be your sons' names. I'm sure many more family members are hidden in your pages... What do they think of that?

So far I've only used their names -- except perhaps with my grandfather, who was a huge figure in my childhood life, at once loving and authoritative. Bits of him appear in the grandfather figures I've written, particularly in Oleander Girl. But I regularly threaten other members of my family that if they don't treat me as I wish to be treated, they'll end up as my villains!

So book-related travel is over for a few months -- at least until the paperback version of Oleander comes out. Best and worst memories from this latest tour?

It's wonderful to have been on this huge national tour and to have met so many enthusiastic readers -- that's the best part, for me. I'm really appreciative to my publisher, Simon & Schuster, for setting this up. The worst part of the tour is getting up really early the morning after a big event to catch a plane, all bleary and exhausted. Flying has become so much more difficult and time consuming with all the added security. No, the worst part is going into cities where you don't know anyone and wondering if any people are going to show up at the event!

In just a few weeks, you'll have a new audience of students when you return to teaching at the University of Houston. What classes will you be leading this next term? And what's the best advice you give to your wannabe writer students?

I'm teaching an upper-level undergraduate course, "Fiction Projects," and a graduate course titled "The Master Workshop in Fiction." Both are the final classes the students will take before graduation -- I'm looking forward to reading and helping to improve some really good manuscripts. As you know, ours is a nationally ranked graduate program in creative writing, and we get great writers coming to us. My advice: read widely, write regularly, revise carefully. That's what helps me the most.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.