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Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Post by: Bookchums

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni who has authored celebrated works of fiction, such as, The Mistress of Spices, The Palace of Illusions, Sister of My Heart and her latest, One Amazing Thing,  is known for conjuring  up a world of fantasy in her novels. Her works have been considered a welcome relief from what writers of pulp fiction come up with these days. Her subjects revolve around Indian migrants settled in the US and their immigrant experience. With these interesting stories Divakaruni also refers liberally to fables, myths and legends and weaves a story so beautifully around them that it makes reading her enchantingly enriching. She says that she aims to bust myths and stereotypes and hopes to dissolve boundaries between people of different backgrounds, communities, ages, and even different worlds with her writings.

 

Interestingly, Divakaruni has co-founded Maitri, a helpline founded in 1991 for South Asian women dealing with domestic abuse. Divakaruni serves on its advisory board and on the advisory board of a similar organization in Houston, Daya. She also serves on the Houston board of Pratham, a non-profit organization working to bring literacy to disadvantaged Indian children.

 


In a tête-à-tête with Bookchums.com, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni speaks about her unique choice of subjects, distinct writing style (often interspersed with poetry) and her vocation in the US.

 

 

Your latest novel, One Amazing Thing, tells the story of 9 people stuck in a crisis. I remember you spoke about how the idea for this book came to you at JLF. Could you give our readers a glimpse into that experience?

One Amazing Thing comes out of an autobiographical experience. In 2005, I, too, faced a natural disaster — Hurricane Rita was headed toward Houston, Texas, where I live, and we had to evacuate the city. There was a lot of panic, huge traffic jams, etc. It made me contemplate how human beings deal with catastrophe and the fear of death, and how we might be able to connect with strangers under such circumstances. That idea is at the heart of One Amazing Thing.

 

 

You began your writing career with poetry. Then there were short stories and contributions in various anthologies. You then came out with your first novel, The Mistress of Spices, in 1997. How did this development, this move from one form to another come about? Were you testing the waters before publishing your first novel?

No. I was interested in expressing or exploring different things at different stages. First I was interested in the image, or the experience of the moment, & I wrote poetry. Then I became interested in character growth and narrative, & I wrote short stories. Then I was interested in creating an entire fictional world, so I wrote novels.

 

You moved to the United States and pursued your Master's degree. Much of your work deals with immigrant themes, and you have stated in previous interviews that being an immigrant yourself you want to take something from your experiences and tell stories that break prejudices. If you had not moved to the States, and were an Indian resident, would you still have been a writer?

It’s hard to know. Certainly I would have written different kinds of ebooks. I couldn’t have written about immigrant experiences, or had multicultural characters in my fiction.

 

 

Your first novel, The Mistress of Spices, was made into a movie in 2005. Your novel, Sister of My Heart, has been adapted into a teleseries. While writing, does the thought of how it would turn out in an adapted version affect the story?
No, but I do tend to imagine things visually when writing. I think this comes from having been a painter in my early years.


Spanning a time of over 15 years, you have written 12 novels, contributed in various anthologies. You are often called a prolific author. Prolific authors sometimes tend to build a formula around their style and stories, but you have always taken up different narratives, even while keeping some similar themes. Where do you find the inspiration and the creative energy required to keep writing different books?

I don’t know. I only know that it’s important for me to set myself a new challenge with each books. For instance, with Palace of Illusions, I wanted to retell the story of an epic (Mahabharat) with a woman (Draupadi) at its center. In One Amazing Thing, I wanted to write a novel about creating community, and I used a disaster scenario as the setting.  In Mistress of Spices I used magical realism.



We often see folk tales, myths and legends being retold in your various novels. Do you think as an Indian you have an advantage that you can mine into a treasure trove of stories that can be used as a trope in your narratives?

Yes, I feel very fortunate that I had a grandfather who was a wonderful storyteller and shared these folk/legendary tales with me. It gives me a very rich source to draw from, and I have used them amply, especially in my children’s books such as The Conch Bearer.

 

You teach Creative Writing at the University of Houston. Does teaching what your main vocation is help your writing or affect it in any way?

I love teaching. It keeps me thinking about the art of writing & how to become a better writer. It keeps me reading new work and analyzing new writers & latest books.

 

 

Your novel The Palace of Illusionswas a retelling of The Mahabharata through Paanchali. You've given facets to personalities which make us question our own knowledge, or they make us see those characters we've grown up loving or hating, in a different light. There have been several versions and retellings of the Mahabharata. Despite that, were you apprehensive with your retelling of one of our most sacred and beloved epics?

Yes. The original is such a great text, I wanted to do it justice & knew it would be the hardest task I’d set myself until then. I did a lot of research & reading in preparation.

 

 


Following the same train of thought, Mahabharata and Ramayana are two our most important epics. Both have women in a central role who have faced great injustice. What made you choose Draupadi over Sita?

 I have always pondered about Draupadi, who is very timeless & modern (both) in her questioning of her role & rights as a woman. That said, I do want to write a novel about Sita.

Fan question: As a writer, your work often treads the fine line between reality and magic. Do you really believe in something like magic or is it just a literary device for you? (Submited by Dipabali Dey.)

I believe we live in a magical world, a world full of mystery. I feel it often around me. Don’t you?

Hope Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is able to weave the same magic in her coming works so that she continues to enterain kids and adults alike

Did you love reading The Mistress of Spices and The Palace of Illusions? Put up a review to let people know what you loved most about it...

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Tue,Aug 9th 2011 6:47 PM