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Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Conversation With Chitra Divakaruni

When Chitra Divakaruni’s first book of short stories “Arranged Marriage” was published in 1995, it created a media frenzy. It was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewer Award for Fiction, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. A highly successful book, this was the beginning of many more successful novels and collection of short stories by Chitra Divakaruni.
Divakaruni was born in India and lived there until 1976, until she was nineteen, at which point she left Calcutta and came to the United States. She continued her education in the field of English by receiving a Master's degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
Her work is widely known, as she has been published in over 50 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and her writing has been included in over 30 anthologies including Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her works have been translated into 11 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese.
Her biography on the Emory University website states that much of Divakaruni's work is partially autobiographical. Not only are most of her stories set in the Bay Area of California, but she also deals with the immigrant experience, which is an important theme in today's world, where the immigrant's voice is rarely heard. She writes to unite people, and she does this by destroying myths and stereotypes. As she breaks down these barriers, she dissolves boundaries between people of different backgrounds, communities, ages, and even different worlds.
Divakaruni's writing often centers on the lives of immigrant women. "Women in particular respond to my work because I'm writing about them, women in love, in difficulties, women in relationships. I want people to relate to my characters, to feel their joy and pain, because it will be harder to be prejudiced when they meet them in real life," says Divakaruni. Her interest in women began after she left India, at which point she came to reevaluate the treatment of women there. At Berkeley, she volunteered at a women's center and became interested in helping battered women. She then started Maitri with a group of friends, which eventually led her to write Arranged Marriage, a work that includes stories about the abuse and courage of immigrant women.
Her first novel Mistress of Spices was published in 1997 and was recently made into a motion picture. “I wrote in a spirit of play, collapsing the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in my attempt to create a modern fable," says Divakaruni about her first novel.
Her second collection of short stories, The Unknown Errors of our lives was published in 2001. One of the stories from this collection “Mrs. Dutta Writes A Letter," was selected for Best American Short Stories, 1999. In this touching story a widow living in her son's California home discovers that her old world ways are an embarrassment to her daughter-in-law.
Chitra's last novel, Queen of Dreams, was released in September 2004. The novel follows Rahki, an artist and divorced mother living in Berkeley, California. When her mother, an interpreter of dreams, passes away, Rahki must confront a forgotten past and an increasingly complex life in post 9-11 America.
An acclaimed poet as well, Divakaruni has versatile writing talents and has also published three young adult novels - Neelas Song, The Conch Bearer, and The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, of which she says her two sons were the best critics. Her poems have won a Pushcart Prize, an Allen Ginsberg Prize and a Gerbode Foundation award. Her latest novel is “Palace Of Illusions.”
For twenty years Divakaruni lived in the California Bay Area and taught at Foothill College. In 1997 she moved to Texas with her husband and two boys, where Divakaruni currently teaches in the nationally ranked Creative Writing program area at the Univ. of Houston. She divides her time between Houston and Northern California. She serves on the board of Maitri in the Bay and on the Advisory Board of Asians against Domestic Abuse in Houston. Divakaruni spoke to Visi Tilak of the Indian American about her love for books and reading. Here is an excerpt from her interview:
What are your criteria for selecting books to read?
-- I like meaningful books. I rarely read only for entertainment. I feel I should learn something from the book about human nature and our world

What is your favorite genre for reading?
-- Fiction and spiritual books.
What kind of fiction do you like and why?
I like all kinds of serious literary fiction. I also enjoy quality children's fiction since I write that also.
Why and what do you like about literary fiction?
Literary fiction creates a honest picture of the world as the author sees it. It is concerned not only with subject matter but with creating a fine piece of art. That is why it lasts and can be read again and again because of its many layers. It ultimately promotes life-enhancing values, even when it brings them out through tragedy.
Which is your all time favorite work of fiction?
This changes all the time. I have many favorites. One favorite is War and Peace by Tolstoy. It is very relevant to today's world. A book I like very much by a writer of Indian origin is Amitav Ghosh's, Glass Palace about the Indian immigrants in Burma. I learned so much about history and humanity and his style is wonderful.
What are some contemporary works of fiction that you have read recently? What did you like about them?
I have read and enjoyed Zadie Smith’s, White Teeth. I love her exuberant language & sense of humor as well as the way in which she deals with serious issues related to diverse cultures living together. Her characters come to life.
I also read and enjoyed Louise Erdrich's novel, the Painted Drum. It is very poetic & evocative language, and a real sense of the vanishing/threatened Native American culture. Her characters are very moving. You begin to care for them.
What do you like about
spiritual books?
I appreciate how they deal with eternal truths. They give me much to contemplate about the nature of existence and they help me put the problems in my life in perspective. I attend Chinmaya Mission's spiritual study classes and have been fortunate to study several of the Upanishads with Swami Chinmayananda's commentaries and the Gita with both his commentary and Swami Ramsukhdas's commentary. It is important to have a good commentary when dealing with the ancient texts as they are often cryptic.
Which is your favorite non-fiction book?
The Bhagavat Gita. It always helps me with whatever situation I am encountering in my life.
What about contemporary non-fiction?
I have not read much non-fiction recently, being busy with my own writing, but I read and enjoyed Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. I really appreciated his easy to read style with powerful descriptions, from bar-dancers to housewives to movie moguls to gangsters, also I enjoyed learning many things I did not know of life in Mumbai. He did some very detailed journalistic research for the book.
Also, I enjoyed the Power of Now, which is a very clear, clean simple book by Eckhart Tolle about living in the present moment, being aware of one's mental workings, a technique which has the power to transform one's life. It is also a wonderful spiritual book with very practical suggestions.
What are your "go to books" that motivate you when you run into a
writers block? How do they motivate you?
I read other South Asian writers -- Bharati Mukherjee, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, Samrat Upadhyay--they are often writing of similar issues and that inspires me. Tagore and Sharat Chandra and Mahasweta Devi are always inspiring because of their deep understanding of human nature & their concern with society.
Name some other genres you may read once in a while... What do you
like about them?
I read fantasy & science fiction. When well written, they are very imaginative & often deal with the issues of our times through the vehicle of the future/other world. Some of my favorites are Lord of the Rings and Fahrenheit 451.
What genres would you completely avoid reading? Why?

I don't like reading violent books about serial killers, murderers etc. I don't think it is very healthy for the mind. It is distressing that so many of such books with random violence, perversion, torture etc. are so popular nowadays because one comes away from it de-sensitized to such things and one's ultimate values might be affected.
There are so many movies that are based upon books. Name one
that you think was made well and complemented the book. Please explain
why this was your favorite.
-- I love Satyajit Ray's Charulata, based on Tagore's novel Nasta Neer. The actors brought the story alive and made it very poignant.
When is a book is made into a movie, should readers watch the movie
after reading the book? Why?
-- It helps to read the book first. It allows you to create your own images in your head.
Many readers like to listen to music while they read. Do you?
No. When I read I like to focus on that. When I listen to music I like to focus on that.
Your thoughts on the movie version of Mistress of Spices? Have you seen it? Did you like
it? Did the movie adhere to the book plot?
Yes, I saw it at the premier in Toronto, at the international film fest where it got a standing ovation. I enjoyed it. I thought the photography, music, sets and much of the acting was very good. The beginning was very striking. It did change many things from the plot (for example, in the book Tilo the main character is an old woman) and leave out some sub-stories, but I guess that has to happen in movies. Overall I think Paul Berges did a good job with this first movie.
Your new novel “Palace Of Illusions” is a departure from your usual style. Where did your inspiration and the idea for this novel come from?
I have been fascinated by the story of Panchaali from my childhood. How unusual her situation is, as a wife of five husbands. How courageous she is under the most difficult circumstances. And yet--she is very human and makes many mistakes, gets angry and the wrong times, is revengeful and capricious. I wanted to write a novel where she is the central character and the narrator of her life's events and what they mean to her.
This, unlike your other novels is very historical and research intensive. How did you go about it?
I read/studied several different versions of the Mahabharat, in English and Bengali as well. I read a number of scholarly books on the epic, and then I read some of the novels based on it.
How much of this novel is fiction?
Most of the major events and characters are from the epic itself. I have filled in the sections not mentioned in the epic through my imagination--the private moments of Panchaali's life, her thoughts, etc. In several places I have taken something briefly mentioned in the Mahabharat and elaborated on it (for example, the incident in the swayamvar where Panchaali rejects Karna as her suitor).
Panchaali is a very strong and admirable character, and her power and strength come to life in this novel. What about her do you admire most?
I most admire her ability to know her own shortcomings as well as her courage in trying to change them.
Are you working on your next manuscript yet? What is it going to be?
It will be a children's magical adventure titled Shadowland. It is the final book of the Conch Bearer trilogy.
Your hopes for new and upcoming writers?

This is a good time to write, lots of publishers are open to Indian writing right now. I hope people will branch out and write about many new things.
What are some books you would recommend to aspiring writers? Why?
There is a very nice book on writing called bird by bird by Anne Lamott. It helped me a great deal when I started to write.

Interviewed by Visi Tilak