BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

In Celebration of Museum Day 2016: Chatting with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 2016 headshotHere’s a ‘did you know …?’-fact about the Smithsonian Museums … they’re all free, all the time. That’s not the case in many museums around the country, so the Smithsonian created Museum Day Live!, an annual event in which participating museums across the country open their doors for free, just like the Smithsonian. Details on how to get free tickets to a museum near you are here.

This year, Museum Day is all about providing opportunities and highlighting achievements for women and girls. Naturally, at BookDragon, we’re all for female empowerment! So when asked by the powers-that-be to create fabulous-women-worthy literary content, notable authors with new books came immediately to mind. In anticipation of Museum Day – March 12, 2016 – we got to talking to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who was last seen on a Smithsonian stage in 2010 as a lauded, beloved guest of SALTAF: South Asian Literature and Theater Arts Festival.

Over the last quarter-century, Divakaruni has published 17 books for every possible type of reader: Grandma and the Great Gourd for the youngest; Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy for middle grade/young adults; Black Candle and Leaving Yuba City for poetry lovers; Arranged Marriage and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives for short story enthusiasts; and eight novels, thus far, including The Mistress of Spices, The Palace of Illusions, and One Amazing Thing, for anyone and everyone else.

Quantity and quality are synonymous in Divakaruni’s oeuvre as she’s regularly topped bestseller lists and won all manner of awards, most recently the Premio Scanno, also known as the Italian Nobel, for her penultimate title, Oleander Girl. Last year, she was named one of “The 20 most influential global Indian women” by Economic Times. Her fiction has gone celluloid over the decades, including The Mistress of Spices which was brought to the screen starring the dazzling Aishwarya Rai (-not yet Bachchan); more recently, Sister of My Heart and Oleander Girl got green lighted to be made into Indian television films (hopefully emigrating to U.S. screens soon thereafter!), and Palace of Illusions and One Amazing Thing have both been optioned, as well. The latter title gets chosen regularly for city-wide (Houston, Berkeley, Alliance, Ohio, to name a few of the 27 cities thus far) and campus-wide reads (including California State University, Sacramento; Oklahoma City University, Marquette University, and so many more) reads across the country.

For now, Divakaruni’s devotees will be thrilled to hear that a new novel is about to hit shelves in just a few weeks. Pubbing on April 19, Before We Visit the Goddess introduces three women who, in spite of being in the same family, are the least familiar with each other’s lives. In a remote village outside Kolkata, Sabitri writes a letter to her American teenage granddaughter Tara who she has never met, at the behest of her estranged daughter Bela who she hasn’t seen in decades. Separated by thousands of miles and too many years of near-silence, Sabitri pours out a life story she has never shared, that might somehow bring these three generations of stubborn, lonely, longing women together. From a dilapidated mansion to a famous sweet shop in Kolkata, from a small house in Fremont, California to a retirement facility in Houston, Texas, Divakaruni weaves together a vast community of friends and lovers, strangers and saviors, to tell a multi-generational story of families destroyed and families restored.

So the last time we chatted a couple years ago, you were working on an adaptation of the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana – what happened with that? Not to be so demanding as most readers are avidly waiting just to get their hands on your Goddess [I know, I was so lucky!], but you also mentioned an interlinked short story collection you were working on back in the day … is that still forthcoming?
Before We Visit the Goddess is the novel-in-stories that I mentioned, and I’m so excited about having written in this form. I love this form. It seems to combine the best of novels and short stories, for me. And I’m still researching the novel on the Ramayana.

And this is your first interlinked story collection – yes? Did the process differ from writing a ‘regular’ collection? Or a straightforward novel? Do you think you’ll try this format again?
Yes, this is my first novel-in-stories. It was very different and more liberating than writing an actual novel because I felt I could make leaps whenever I needed to. I did have to think carefully about who would tell each of the stories, but I had the liberty to bring in new speakers when I felt it was called for. Thus there are several male narrators in this book.

[This format allows for] a closer connection between the stories than in a collection. There is definitely a [narrative] arc. As I was thinking about the collection, I definitely knew my beginning and end points. I think I might do it again – but I don’t know. I like to set myself different challenges with each book.

And your Ramayana novel – where are you currently in that creation process? We readers have no patience, I realize … 
I’ve finished pretty much all of the research and I’ve come up with a narrative plan. Now I know who the narrators of the book are going to be. However, I’m already in the middle of writing a mystery novel!! I’m very excited about that one. It’s set up in a tea garden in the mountains of India.

Not to ask you to divulge any mysterious secrets, but might I ask which mountains?
The Himalayas – in the Darjeeling area. I went to boarding school there for some time, so I know the area well and am quite fascinated by it. Of course, like my other novels, it has strong women narrators.

Ancient myths (Palace of Illusions), current events (One Amazing Thing), family legends (Grandma and the Great Gourd), have all inspired your writing. What sort of ideas spark a narrative that you choose to live with for months, even years, as you weave your tales?
It’s a new idea each time. I never know ahead of time when an idea is going to strike me. But looking back, I think most of my books have a woman-centric approach, depicting women in strong and unusual roles, in challenging situations, often trying to solve a problem – sometimes succeeding and sometimes not – and in strong and often complicated relationships with other women.

However, the milieu changes each time, and that’s important for me because I have to create something new. Goddess, for example, has a lot of Houston and Texas in it! And in this book, I’ve lived in every single place that I wrote about, so in some ways it’s a geographical trajectory of my life, beginning in a small Indian village and ending up in Texas!

And from whence and how did Goddess spring forth? Besides Texas?!
The genesis of books is truly always a mystery for me. But I think I wanted to write a three-generation family saga, to show how the lives of women have and have not changed. One of the central questions that the women in this book – a grandmother, mother, and a daughter– ask themselves is, what is the meaning of success for a woman? This is a question that I have long struggled with. Is it something that changes depending on the time in which you live, and the place in which you live?

And now that I’ve lived in Houston for over a decade, I am finally comfortable writing about Texas – I think I understand it a little better now. And readers of this book might be surprised by the Texas that I depict – it’s not really like the Texas non-Texans imagine!

I just finished another brand-new Indian American novel that had lots of Texas in it. Dallas, specifically. As I once lived there, I chuckled in parts, was horrified in others. I will confess, your Texan Goddess is much better, ahem!
Ha ha. Thanks!

Elaborating a bit more about your woman-centric approach … You have two sons in your real life, but most of your fictional worlds seem to predominantly highlight the mother/daughter bonds – some that tear, some that are able to be repaired, some that improve dramatically. Is that a conscious preference?
I think it’s because, even though in my household I am the sole female, the rest of my life is filled with women who are important to me – relatives, friends, coworkers, students, and the women whom I have worked with when volunteering in the field of domestic violence. These women have left a deep mark on me. My mother was an enormous influence in my early life, as well; she brought me up as a single parent, [which was] very difficult in India at that time. So I find that I am drawn to mother-daughter relationships again and again. And, of course, living in a different country now, I am always interested in examining how family bonds are changed by the culture in which we live.

What are some of the things you want/hope/would like your readers will realize/remember/ruminate over after finishing Goddess?
This is a difficult question. In some ways I want the book to be different for each reader, to make them think about things that are important in their own lives. I never want any of my books to be prescriptive, to have an intrusive theme.

In some other ways, I want readers to think about how our closest family relationships are the ones that give us the greatest joy but also the greatest pain, and why is that? I want them to think about what it is that makes us happy, both men and women. And ultimately, because help comes to these women sometimes from the most unexpected places, I want readers to think about what it is in life that ultimately supports and upholds us through our tragedies.

How did writing Goddess change your life? Did writing it affect your relationships with the women closest to you?
I think – or perhaps a more accurate way to say it is, I hope – that it has made me more compassionate and more ready to see the world from the viewpoint of others, both male and female. It has certainly made me realize how blessed I am to have strong relationships with my women friends.

I assume you’ll be doing another whirlwind book tour, yes? Any DC plans? You were, of course, such a major hit with your 2010 SALTAF [South Asian Literature and Theater Arts Festival] visit at the Smithsonian. Wish we could reprise THAT annual event! For now, your Capital audiences await … so when are you coming back?
Yes, a book tour is coming up – that always makes me nervous. Tour details are on my blog [click here]. No trip to DC is planned right now, but who knows?! SALTAF was wonderful – why don’t you organize something similar again, and I’ll come!

Readers: All


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