Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an Indian-American author, poet, and the Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Writing at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Her short story collection, Arranged Marriage won an American Book Award in 1995, and two of her novels (The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart) as well as a short story The Word Love were adapted into films. Mistress of Spices was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her latest novel is Before We Visit the Goddess.
Jhilmil Breckenridge (JB): Your work has been published in over 50 magazines, over 50 anthologies, and you have written several award-winning books. I am a huge fan, having fallen in love with Mistress of Spices, oh so many years ago! Since then, I have devoured all your books, hungrily buying them the moment I chanced upon them in Midland Bookshop, a small but well-stocked bookshop in Delhi’s Aurobindo Place Market. While researching your work for this interview, I came across the fact that you started your career as a poet. Tell me a little about that journey, your foray into poetry, and then into the world of romance and fiction.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (CBD): I started writing very tentatively, not knowing if I had any talent or not. At first, I loved writing poetry—I was drawn to its use of imagery, its brevity, and the sharp focus on sound to enhance meaning. But soon I found myself getting very interested in narrative and character growth, and that was when I moved on to writing short stories. Then I wanted to examine entire lifetimes, or, as in the case of Before We Visit the Goddess, several generations. So I started working on novels.
JB: Tell me about your writing process, how you get your ideas, how you make time to write, and any advice to any aspiring writers.
CBD: Ideas are kind of magical. Sometimes I get them from reading or listening to people, but at other times, they just appear mysteriously. I have a pretty regular writing routine. On the days when I don’t go to the university to teach, I write for several hours in the morning. And sometimes I write late at night when the house is quiet. I would advise beginning writers to create a writing schedule and put aside enough time for writing and revision.
JB: Your work appeals more to women, I think, because of the strong female characters and the female point of view. But tell me a little about your young adult fantasy series, as I have not read that work; has that been written to appeal to both young boys and girls, or does it have a female draw again, in your opinion?
CBD: The Brotherhood of the Conch, a fantasy adventure trilogy set in India, has a young hero, Anand, and a young heroine, Nisha, who are both very central to the 3 books. My hope in creating that duo is that young readers would relate equally to heroes of both genders. I think that is very healthy. It is a pity that so often in reading adult literature, we are gender-divided. I am always very happy when both men and women write to me to say they have enjoyed my female characters.
JB: Of all your novels, which has been the one which is closest to your heart? Which was the one which was easiest to write? Which was the one which you had to struggle with? And why.
CBD: Closest: Possibly this novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, because the central theme in it, what we pass on to our children, knowingly or unknowingly, is very dear to my heart, something I think about a lot now that my children are in their early 20s. Most difficult: Palace of Illusions, because I had to do a great deal of research into the Mahabharat before I could even start writing it. Easiest: none of my books have been easy to write! They have all been challenges in their own way, as I push myself to grow as a writer.
JB: In most of your stories that I have read, the women struggle, there is grief and angst. Do you think that this is the reason that women relate to your books, as grief and heartache is a universal theme?
CBD: Grief is the crucible in which our characters are forged. My characters go through their difficulties and come out often stronger, wiser and more compassionate. I think they give hope to readers who are going through their own griefs. Perhaps that is why people – men and women – relate to my books. The characters’ sufferings make them feel that they are not alone.
JB: Tell me about your childhood? Were the Bengali themes that feature in your writing a part of your life then? What rituals have you retained? What new rituals or traditions have you created with your family in the US?
CBD: I grew up in a pretty traditional middle-class Bengali family, so many of the rituals that I write about in Sister Of My Heart, Oleander Girl, and Before We Visit the Goddess were a part of my life. Certainly the tradition of cooking was very central to my childhood—my mother was a very good cook and proud of it and tried to teach me many things, especially particular sweets that were eaten during particular seasons. With my children, I have tried to pass on the same foods and festivals (or at least easier versions of them), and especially what is the meaning behind them. But more than anything else, I want them to grow up to be kind, good human beings in the world—it’s the humanistic rather than the cultural tradition that I’m most interested in.
JB: You always give your readers a strong sense of place, be it through imagery, scents, music. Tell me how you achieve this and why you think it is important to storytelling.
CBD: Sense details have always been important to me. I believe that is one of the best ways to pull the reader into the world of the story. I try to be very specific and accurate and also to choose my details carefully so each detail has at least two meanings—one to set the scene, and one to explain something deeper, such as culture or character or a certain theme in the story. For instance, Sabitri, the grandmother in Before The Visit that Goddess, is a wonderful maker of sweets. The descriptions of sweets that she creates operate on many levels—they have sense details, certainly, but also they become symbols of her creativity and success.
JB: Please tell me about your latest book, Before We Visit The Goddess, its theme, how it departs from your other work, how it is similar, and what your readers should expect.
CBD: Goddess is similar to some of my earlier work in its concerns about family relationships, strong women working through difficult circumstances, questions about success and heritage and the particular complexity of mother-daughter relationships. But in its form, it is different from my other work because it is a novel in stories. I’ve never written a novel in stories before, and I was delighted with the process. I think this is a wonderful, though somewhat a challenging format to read, as it does not follow the traditional novel structure. The stories leap from one emotionally resonant moment to another. Sometimes, to keep this symphony of emotions going, I have chosen to present the lives of three generations of women—Sabitri, her daughter, Bela, and her daughter Tara—in a non-chronological manner. Also, there are several narrators who, I think, help to bring out numerous ironies in the novel. My hope is that readers will find this original method of storytelling exciting and satisfying and give the book a little extra reading time.
JB: Please tell me a little about Maitri, the helpline you founded for South Asian women of domestic abuse. Why did you start it and how involved are you with it now?
CBD: I’ve been involved with activism in the field of domestic abuse and trafficking for about 30 years now. I started this organisation because I felt strongly that South Asian women in crisis situations needed a place to go to where they would be understood and not have to explain their culture in the midst of their distress, where they would be among sisters. I’m one of the founders of Maitri, but it has grown beyond my greatest dreams. In 25 years, it has helped thousands of women in their journey towards safety and a sense of self-worth by providing shelter, financial help, and legal counsel, among other things. I remain on their advisory board. I am also on the advisory board of a similar organisation in Houston called Daya.
JB: When can we expect your India book tour?
CBD: In January 2017, I’m planning to speak at the Kolkata Literary Festival and the Jaipur Literary Festival, and also to visit several of the major cities of India. I am very excited to meet readers and present Before We Visit the Goddess to them.
JB: What is on your nightstand right now? What are you reading? Who is (are) your favourite author(s)?
CBD: I am currently reading the Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and enjoying its mix of gritty realism and magical tales. I have so many favourite writers. It’s hard to name them all. Certainly Amitav Ghosh is one; so are Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, and Louise Erdrich. And Bengali women such as Ashapurna Devi, Mahasweta Devi and Bani Basu. Tagore remains a perennial inspiration.
JB: What motivates you to keep writing?
CBD: My belief that books can transform lives.
JB: What is your daily routine?
CBD: I like to keep it simple: Meditation, writing or teaching, exercise, community work, and family time. Of course, when I’m on book tour, like right now, all of this falls by the wayside!
JB: What makes you smile?
CBD: Nature. Sometimes I’ll be looking out at squirrels scurrying about on the branches of the oak tree outside my window, and find that I have a big smile on my face.