Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni + Author Interview
Spanning 17 titles over a quarter century, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has published books for every possible type of reader, including Grandma and the Great Gourd for the youngest, the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy for middle grade/young adults, Black Candle for poetry lovers, Arranged Marriage for short story enthusiasts, and eight novels such as The Palace of Illusions and One Amazing Thing.
Quantity and quality are synonymous in Divakaruni’s oeuvre as she’s regularly topped bestseller lists and award announcements, 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.
Last month, Divakaruni’s latest fiction hit shelves, sending her all over the continent once again to meet with her devoted fans. Before We Visit the Goddess is yet another new creative endeavor for Divakaruni – her first novel-in-stories. Over nine interlinked tales, she 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 this novel-in-stories format is new for you. Did the process differ from writing a ‘regular’ collection? Or a straightforward novel? Do you think you’ll try this format again?
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. 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 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 from whence and how did Goddess spring forth?
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!
Now that you’re so ensconced in the Lone Star State, does this mean you’ve finally accepted Texas as ‘home’?
Home for me is a very amorphous and shifting concept. America is my home in one special way – India is my home in another. I do love living in Houston – not sure how I would feel about living in other places in Texas, but Houston is wonderfully multicultural and hospitable to artists and writers. Ultimately, though, as I grow older, I feel one’s true home is internal, kind of a spiritual locale.
You often have dual (or more) narratives in your fiction that are centered on both sides of the globe. In Goddess, you have the relationship between the grandmother and mother set in India, and then the mother and daughter set in the U.S. Do you think you might be making comparisons (perhaps unconsciously?) in your novels between the two rather different cultures to which you very much belong?
You are right, moving back and forth between India and America, exploring both of the cultures, and the ways in which they are both changing, are central to all of my contemporary works. And, of course, culture in America is a very complex thing, because so many people have brought their cultures into this land. It always fascinates me the way cultures are different and shape us in different ways, and yet I love discovering things at the heart of each culture that are human and timeless. One of my hopes for all my books is that they will bring people of different cultures together in a common understanding of human frailty, desire, and love – which are all very similar, no matter which culture we are born in.
With so much anti-something legislation that doesn’t seem to stop – anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQIA – being a writer of color comes with certain challenges and even expectations. Do you ever feel pressure to write a certain way? Tell certain stories?
There is always pressure. Some of it comes from the outside, from a mainstream that has decided what the minority narrative needs to be. Some of it comes from your own community, who want you to tell a particular story about them to the mainstream. Part of being a writer, for me, is to push back and write the stories that are important to me, the stories that are true for me, and complex – that don’t really fit into anyone’s agenda.
I know you get LOTS of adoration from your readers. Your sales alone are testimony to your writerly success. But how do you react to detractors? Bad reviews – that is, if you’ve ever gotten any …?
Ha ha ha. Yes, alas, I do receive bad reviews – fortunately not too many, but the ones I’ve received have been seared into my brain! But ultimately, once I get over being upset, I try to really look objectively at critical reviews and see what I can learn from them. One has to consider the source of the criticism – sometimes it’s just a person who doesn’t agree with my ideas or has an agenda of his/her own. Those I don’t take too seriously. But if it has to deal with craft issues, I always want to use criticism to become a better writer. That said, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for ONLY good reviews for Goddess!
Have you noticed a difference in the level of engagement/understanding/nuance in reviews from reviewers of color – or even Indian American reviewers – vs. others?
Yes, I have. Reviewers of color are sometimes more perceptive – perhaps because they have personal experience with some of the issues I write about. Sometimes they “get” what I’m trying to do better than people who may not have lived or considered the issues I’m writing about. On the other hand, reviewers of color, especially Indian American ones, can sometimes be more touchy about the issues I’m writing about because they have strong opinions about these issues. All in all, it’s a double-edged sword!
Goddess is certainly one of your most toothsome tales. How are your culinary skills compared to that of Sabitri – especially with the pastries?
Alas, as my long-suffering family will testify, I am much better at writing about delicious food than creating it. I am more like the granddaughter, Tara – my goal is to get from chopping board to dining table in 20 minutes! I do like to cook, but very sporadically. I am fond, however, of creating new recipes – some of these are on my blog. But the many failures – well, we won’t talk about those!
I see from your website you’ve already had an extensive tour with more stops to come! You’re so experienced in these things now after 17 titles! What do you look forward to the most when you’re on book tour? And what are your least favorite parts of all that travel – besides all that travel?
I’m actually a pretty nervous traveler, so I’m having to gear myself up for all this trouble. Flying has become particularly difficult nowadays. I always worry that I’ll miss my flight and won’t get to the venue on time. I have nervous dreams of being in the weirdest places when I should actually be at a reading. But what I do love about the book tour is doing the actual events – presenting the book to new readers, seeing them respond positively to something that I’ve been working on for such a long time. I also love doing the question and answer session after the actual reading. After being alone so long with the book, it’s great to connect.
What’s the one thing you’ll share with all your audiences?
I think one thing that’s personal that I will share with audiences this time is that the central question of the book, “what does it mean to be a successful woman?” really came out of my own growing up years. My mother was a single parent for much of my growing up. She had to struggle a lot to bring up my brothers and myself in a culture where a single parent was looked down on. She was very concerned that I should be a successful woman, though possibly her definition of success is different from mine. So I have been thinking about this issue for a long time. Perhaps, in a way, the hard-working women in this novel are written as a tribute to my very hard-working and courageous mother.
You’ve certainly made Amma – and so many others – proud! And if someone asks you, “Are YOU a successful woman?” …
I’ll say to them, well, that depends on how many copies of my book you buy!