Indian American writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning author, poet, activist and teacher. Her themes include the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, family, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world. Her books have been translated into 29 languages, and her work has appeared in over a hundred magazines and anthologies. Several of her novels and stories have been made into films and plays. She has won an American Book Award, a Light of India award, a Premio Scanno (Italy), and a Barbara Deming award, among others. Divakaruni teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston and writes for both adults and children. In 2015, she was chosen by the Economic Times for their list Twenty Most Influential Global Indian Women. Her latest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, is about the deep and complicated bond between mothers and daughters.
My fondest memory is my grandfather telling me stories from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat at bedtime when I was a child.
I almost died before I wrote my novel Mistress of Spices. The fact that I recovered was quite magical (the doctors had been afraid I might die), so I wanted to write a magical novel to acknowledge the fact that miracles do take place in our world.
Coming up with the idea for a new story is what is most exciting for me. All of a sudden, an idea will start taking shape inside my head, out of nowhere. Characters will start appearing. When this happens, I have to stop everything and write down these ideas! I remember when I was writing Oleander Girl, I stayed up all night outlining the novel!
For me, what’s special about poetry are the images – how you can express an idea or an emotion or an experience through them. With prose, I’m most interested in character development and the arc of a life – or sometimes of several generations, as in my latest novel-in-stories, Before We Visit the Goddess.
The mythical tales of our culture have been important to me since childhood.
As I wrote above, my grandfather introduced me to the stories, but I read and reread them many times as I was growing up. They address important ethical and spiritual questions. They are set in such magical spaces, and yet what happens in them is very relevant to our everyday lives. An understanding of mythology helps us live a better life with better values. Writing about the characters in my novel Palace of Illusions made me analyze my own values as a woman. I think ultimately it made me a more spiritual person. Right now, as I am writing my Sita novel, I am questioning my own values very carefully.
Absolutely. Reading and writing are totally connected. I always tell my students, if you want to be a good writer, you must read widely. I am interested in literary fiction, since that is what I write. I love reading books from many different cultures because it widens my knowledge of the world and of human nature. I read all kinds of books depending on my mood. I do like mythology and fantasy a great deal! I am planning to write a mystery novel sometime soon, so I have been reading a lot of mysteries lately.
An author’s responsibility is to write about important contemporary social issues and make the reader think carefully. However, the book has to draw the reader in and be fun to read, or else it’s not going to have an impact on the reader.
I was really touched by how many people had traveled long distances to attend my events. When I was recently at the Bangalore Times Lit Fest, a young man had traveled all the way from Nepal to see me because he had really enjoyed my books. Something like that makes me take my responsibilities as a writer more seriously.