It happened in 1976 when Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was all of 19. Walking down a Chicago street with some relatives she was appalled when a few white teenagers yelled “nigger” and hurled slush at her. The incident, deeply shaming, was never discussed, but it stayed and played in her mind and acted as the spur to kick start her writing. And then one evening, her five-year-old son Abhay returned from school and tried hard to wash off the ‘dirt’ color of his skin. It’s little wonder that much of Divakaruni’s writing resonates with the Indian-American immigrant experience.
“Writing was a way to go beyond the silence,” she offers. And even as she tried to adjust to the reality of life in an alien culture, her other life, the real one, was dimming inside her head.
When she received a call from India informing her that her grandfather had passed away, Divakaruni was devastated. “I was doing my Ph.D at Berkeley at that time and couldn’t go back for the funeral. I was very sad. My grandfather was very dear to me. One day, soon after, I was thinking of him and I couldn’t even recall his face in my mind. This frightened me. I realized how much I was forgetting about India, about my growing years, about the people I loved. I started writing — with a poem to my grandfather — as an action against that forgetting.”
The journey that commenced then saw a slew of novels, The Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, and The Vine of Desire; the prize-winning short story collections, Arranged Marriage, and The Unknown Errors of our Lives; and 4 acclaimed volumes of poetry. She has recently published two books for young readers, The Conch Bearer, and Neela: Victory Song. Divakaruni teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and divides her time between Houston and the San Francisco area.
It is the theme of immigrant conflict — acquired values vs adopted ones — that informs a lot of Divakaruni’s work. And, the challenges of writing about two distinct worlds are many. “It’s okay to be an Indian person who loves Indian culture but now I’m an American citizen and committed to making life in this country better. We need to remain secure in our own identity but participate fully in the culture, politics and daily life of America. The important part of integration is that you don’t give up, you share. For me as a writer, a major challenge is to keep my finger on the pulse of both worlds. That means talking to people on both continents, observing them, learning what is changing with them and what remains the same. This also means that I’m writing for audiences that are very different. This is difficult, especially as I refuse to explicate culture,” she says.
Leaving one’s homeland for distant, unknown shores is at once pain and pleasure, Divakaruni reveals. “It is the pain of leaving the homeland but also the excitement of being in a new place — that is the duality of immigration. Now there is another exciting movement — the second generation trying to connect back with the homeland.” That, incidentally, is a huge theme in her newest novel Queen of Dreams scheduled for a September 2004 release.
Inter-cultural writing is a great thing, feels Divakaruni. “It has always been a good thing and will continue to be, no matter if someone decides it’s “in” or not. Reading about other cultures, about lives very different from our own, expands us as human beings. I don’t simplify when I write about where I come from. I try to lure readers of all backgrounds with the characters and the story. If the writing is good, then readers will identify. If one approaches a book with attention, one gets a lot out of it intuitively. I hope my books will promote conversations and discussions between Indians and non-Indians.”
Divakaruni’s characters in Arranged Marriage, her first short story collection that won her critical acclaim and the 1996 American Book Award, the Bay Area Book Reviewers and PEN Oakland awards for fiction, constantly struggle with dual identities and values. Living in sin, indulging in an extramarital affair, the issue of personal space and the real meaning of love — the author holds up these concerns under a spotlight, concerns that have a completely different shade of meaning in an Indian context — and presents the interpretation in a Western context. Her characters examine these concerns in the light of their evolving identities as American citizens and make choices that reveal a new emerging reality.
Most Indian scriptures talk of the sublimation of desire as a goal but when the author encountered a new meaning in the western model where desire is positive, charged with passion and ambition and often associated with goal-getters it fired her to explore it in The Vine of Desire, the sequel to Sister of my Heart where the protagonist Sudha falls in love with sister Anju’s husband and fights the feeling with every ounce of her might.
“I think desires are natural but we must examine them, see where they’re leading us and manage them accordingly. It is when they control us that they lead to problems. Ultimately, as our scriptures indicate, one needs to rise above desire. For me this means we do the things we do out of love, and not out of need.”
Divakaruni places the issue of culture straddling in perspective when she talks of values. “Values are constantly in flux. I think as I grow and understand more about life, my values shift — new things become more important and the same happens to my characters. Values that empower women have become increasingly important to me. Some things are the same everywhere though. Courage, integrity, truth, compassion. My characters struggle with trying to hold on to them. It is my struggle too.” She confesses she lives with her characters a great length of time, even years occasionally, before they are born on paper. “I have to live these characters in order to write about them. The plot follows.”
What does writing do for her mind and spirit, I ask. “Writing is my great love, a great blessing in my life. It helps me to reach deep into my creativity. It calms me and gives me great joy. I thank God for it everyday. That said, my newest book always tends to be my favorite because it’s my baby! I feel I’ve pushed myself in new directions each time. I have evolved over time and have become very interested in the multi-voiced narrative.”
Where does the author turn to for ideas? “From reading, or talking to people, some from observing, the rest from the mysterious space of the imagination. I rarely watch TV. I read all the time, in the bathroom, in bed. I’m particular interested in writings about India.”