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Sisters and Spices


The author on fiction as activism, feminism in Indian epics, and cooking to conjure a sense of home.

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, writes characters so vivid they emerge from the page as if in high definition. The inhabitants of her many novels—Sister of My Heart (1999), Oleander Girl (2013), and the upcoming Before We Visit the Goddess (2016), among others—yearn, rage, scheme, and grieve in resplendent detail. While Divakaruni’s characters primarily hail from the South Asian-American diaspora, their identities and relationships as friends, lovers, family members, and citizens feel universal and vital.

Divakaruni was born in Kolkata, India, and came to America in the late 1970s to pursue a master’s degree in English at Wright State University, followed by a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. This immigrant experience was pivotal, she notes, to her emergence as a writer. “I did not think I had a story to tell,” she writes on her blog. “Moving to a very different culture and learning to live on my own made me see the world much more clearly…. I thought about India more than I had ever before. I realized what I appreciated about it; the warmth, the closeness of extended family, the way spirituality pervades the culture. But I also recognized problems [with regard to] how women are often treated.”

Divakaruni’s feminism is multilayered: many of her novels focus closely on the unexpected power of women in the face of cultural restraints, and her politics have spurred her work in activism. She considers her dual pursuits not just connected by a common focus, but one and the same. “Writing is definitely activism,” she says in the interview that follows, “especially if one’s passions outside of writing intersect with one’s interests within writing.”

In The Palace of Illusions (2008), Divakaruni reimagines the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, from the point of view of the story’s female character, Panchaali. Whereas the mythic tale casts Panchaali as a secondary personage, Divakaruni places her at the center of her narrative, illuminating her fiery intelligence as well as her flaws. Divakaruni’s reimagining “weaves myth into a modern idiom,” as The Guardian’s review has it.

In the intensely sensory world of Divakaruni’s writing, food, too, is often at the heart. In her forthcoming novel-in-stories, Before We Visit the Goddess, she laces together tales of three generations of women, tracking her characters’ emotional development through their shifting bonds to food and cooking. In other work, food appears as a manifestation of immigrants’ longing to connect with their past. In The Mistress of Spices (1997, and adapted as a film starring Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai), Divakaruni assigns each spice distinct powers, some good and some ill. An anthology released this year, Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World, revisits her short story “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,” in which an Indian widow moves to California to be with her son, but hungers for the bittersweet comforts of home.

I spoke with Divakaruni over the phone as she was recovering from a shoulder injury. Despite her obvious discomfort, her passion hummed down the wire as we discussed her ongoing literary exploration of Indian culture, and the radical act of telling women’s stories.

Sujata Shekar for Guernica

Guernica: What is your earliest memory of storytelling?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I spent childhood vacations with my grandfather in a little village three hours outside of Kolkata. At night, he would bring me and my cousins together, light a kerosene lamp, because there was no electricity, and tell us wonderful stories from folktales, fairy tales, and epics. Sometimes he’d tell family stories, or make up ghost stories. I enjoyed it at the time but didn’t realize what an effect it would have on me. It made me understand the power of storytelling, and how, through stories, so much is communicated and passed on from generation to generation.

Guernica: What did your family think of your decision to study literature?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: It was actually perfectly fine with my family that I study literature. That wasn’t because they were like, “Wow, she’s going to become a professor, and isn’t that wonderful.” They were basically like, “She’s going to get married, and it doesn’t matter what she studies.” Growing up at that time in a traditional Indian middle-class family, it was assumed you’d finish college, get married, and bring up children. And of course they wanted educated mothers to bring up children. In a strange way, to not have those career-related expectations helped me because there were no boundaries set. When my husband got close to college age, his father said he would become an engineer, and that was that.

Guernica: Sometimes a lack of expectations can be its own kind of freedom.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Absolutely. It worked out for me. And part of the reason was I then moved to America. Not so much that I moved to the West but that I moved away from family expectations, and I could grow in whichever way I wanted.

Guernica: You co-founded your nonprofit, Maitri, in 1991. Tell me about it.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: At Berkeley, I started volunteering at the Women’s Center, and became aware of women’s issues, including violence against women. When I graduated, I volunteered with Support Network, a mainstream organization. I noticed South Asians didn’t come in often. One South Asian woman who came in was very distressed at the thought of going to a shelter. Though she went, she didn’t stay. She called the husband who abused her to take her back. I realized we needed an organization that was culturally sensitive to these women, where they’d feel comfortable sharing their stories. Even if they had to go into a shelter, they’d know we’d be there holding their hands through the process, doing simple things like making sure there was culture-specific or religion-specific food.

So we started Maitri—small, grassroots, about five or six of us. I put in an extra phone line in my home, and it took off. There was a need in the community. At first there was some resistance, but then people saw what a lot of good it was doing for women who felt completely isolated and at the end of their ropes. This was a chance for them to start a new life. Now that I’m living in Houston, I’m on the advisory board of a similar organization called Daya.

Guernica: You also give voice to women in your fiction, which you’ve called a necessary and radical act.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I think writing is definitely activism, especially if one’s passions outside of writing intersect with one’s interests within writing.

As a writer, I want to investigate situations that won’t easily break down into: these are the good people, these are the bad people, these are the oppressors, these are the oppressed.

Guernica: Do you believe a character’s consciousness in fiction is colored by his or her gender?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: That’s a complex question, because some characters would be more androgynous by nature and maybe by nurture. But as I’ve continued to write, I’ve made it a point, for my own growth, to write from the point of view of both men and women. I’m also interested in how some women can be unsympathetic to women’s issues, especially as they grow older and attain positions of power over other women. That relationship between women, and the power struggle that ensues, is interesting. I want to explore the fact that things are not as simple as saying, okay, men are the bad guys, they’re the only villains.

The women who grow older and more powerful and who begin to suppress other women do it out of all kinds of sad complexities in their own lives. As an activist, I’m clear about what needs to be done. But as a writer, I want to investigate situations that won’t easily break down into: these are the good people, these are the bad people, these are the oppressors, these are the oppressed. It’s complex. But I want to write about it and make people aware of it because awareness is an early step toward change.

Guernica: You also write for children and young adults. How do you tailor this awareness so that it speaks to them?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Well, that’s why I write for children. There’s been a big push recently [by groups such as We Need Diverse Books] toward the need for more diverse books and reading more diversely. It’s important for children of minority cultures to see themselves portrayed in literature. In Victory Song, set during the Indian independence struggle, I show that children in their early teens, even ten-year-olds, played a part. They were often carriers of messages because they could go places adults couldn’t. Or in my trilogy The Conch Bearer, I created this fantasy adventure inspired by Indian folktales. I want not just for South Asian kids to read my books, but for others to relate to South Asian heroes and heroines. Books for adults, too, like Sister of My Heart, have been included in high-school reading lists.

Guernica: Immigration, and its effect on traditional values, is another theme in your work.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: More of my recent writing is set in the present. In Oleander Girl, a young woman comes to America for a specific reason. She falls in love with someone and has the opportunity to stay on. But she chooses to go back [to India]. Even in earlier novels, like Vine of Desire, some of the women stay and some choose to go back.

The promise of America was always oversimplified in immigrant consciousness. Once people came, they realized it was much more complicated. But if you look at how many people are still applying, coming on H-1B [work] visas, and waiting and waiting for their companies to get them a green card, the dream of America is alive and well in these people’s lives.

The one big difference from when I came is that I knew very little about the US then, only what I could get from books, movies, and a few magazines. But the Internet has changed that. People are much more aware, maybe not of the nuances of things, but they are certainly better informed about life here.

Guernica: So it’s easier now.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Much easier. There is a sense of community. When I wrote Arranged Marriage, many of the women in that book were isolated. They came as spouses, moved wherever their husbands’ jobs took them. They felt they had left behind their entire world. They couldn’t FaceTime or Skype, it was expensive to call, they were cut off from near and dear ones. That larger support network they would have had back home was removed all of a sudden. That isn’t so for women coming here now. They have access to generations of wisdom, from recipes to how to bring up children to husband problems. There are also fewer chances of abuse, because domestic abuse flourishes in isolation. We are seeing less abuse, at least in the newer generation. There is more accountability.

When I came to school, I knew nobody. Young people who come now have entire alumni networks. Change is a good thing, so long as we are aware of the direction in which we are changing.

I long ago said, and I firmly believe, that I cannot be an ambassador to an entire country.

Guernica: Indian diaspora writers are sometimes derided for not being authentic enough, or told that their stories flip-flop between slumdog and millionaire tropes.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: That was more in the past. In recent years, people are more aware of and sympathetic to my enterprise, which is basically to tell the stories of lives as I see them. Lives whose trajectories I find valuable and want to share. I want to be as truthful as I can to these characters. I long ago said, and I firmly believe, that I cannot be an ambassador to an entire country. I always tell people, “I’m delighted you’re reading my books, but please remember there are other writers, wonderful writers, whose view of India is quite different. I want you to read them, too.” Because otherwise it’s like saying you’d understand America by reading one American writer. All we can do as writers is be honest, courageous, sincere, and portray the world we best know. And it’s important to be aware of the changing nature of that world, and incorporate that as much as possible into one’s writing.

Guernica: Do you travel back and forth to India?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I go back to India quite often. I keep in touch with Indian news. If we wrote some of those stories, readers would be like, “Ha, this could’ve never happened.” They’re so weird and strange and tragic and terrible, some of the stories of violence against women that I’ve been reading. People would be like, “No, no, you’re just exaggerating.”

Guernica: Can you tell me about your other artistic endeavors? You used to paint.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: For years. At a certain point I realized if I wanted to get good at one form, I had to give it all my time. And so I became a writer, or solely a writer. And I have not regretted that at all. I’m appreciative I spent so much time on art, because it’s given a certain visual quality to my writing. I think in terms of shapes and colors. I didn’t realize this in my earlier work, but a reviewer pointed out the many color symbologies in my writing. Now I’m much more aware. I try to see what I’m doing with color.

Guernica: Your mother tongue is Bengali. How does that impact your use of language?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: It has definitely influenced my writing. I put appropriate Bengali words in among the English ones because I want that weaving of languages. Concepts from Bengali are sometimes difficult to translate but I want them to have a role. It’s complicated. How do you bring them in without putting little explanatory notes? How do you write so you are at once inviting everyone into your book but also creating a special texture that people of your language background would especially appreciate?

Guernica: Is there a translation process?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Often when I’m writing description, I’m thinking in English, but when a Bengali character is speaking, I’m hearing them in Bengali and then writing that down. So I want to be authentic to the way they’d speak without making them sound quaint. In Bengali, what they’re saying is not quaint—it’s natural, intelligent, subtle, deep. I don’t want to lose that nuance. I want to give a sense of the language and the cultural thinking that is different from the Western way. That’s a challenge.

Guernica: You use dreams in your fiction a lot. In Queen of Dreams, they’re a significant plot element.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: When you use a trope or device, you have to circumvent the problems it might bring: make sure the dreams are not a shortcut to narrative, but that they come from deep within the culture or character and are intrinsic to the story. Queen of Dreams is about a dream interpreter. In my extended family, there were people who believed in this. They’d consult dream interpreters if they had recurring dreams. And the interpreter would tell them what the dream meant and what to do about it.

In Queen of Dreams, this dream interpreter woman comes to America, but when she tries to tell people what their dreams mean, she is faced with hostility. And her daughter doesn’t understand either. [The daughter] tries to figure out this wonderful magical thing that she wants to do, too, but at some point her mother has to say that either you’re born with that talent or you’re not, and you’re not. This creates a lot of conflict between mother and daughter.

So it’s about something that is passed on from generation to generation, through the lives of people who are narrating the dreams and those who are interpreting the dreams, and the life of one of the main characters who feels like something’s lacking in her because she can’t interpret dreams.

Guernica: Can you talk about the use of food in your fiction?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Food is an important symbol. It’s particularly important for immigrants as the one thing they hope to be able to carry forward that’s relatively easy to recreate, although it was much harder in the early days when there weren’t many Indian groceries. Immigrants learned to make substitutions, like using Bisquick for gulab jamuns, tricks like that. I’m interested in food in my personal life, too. But food exists on many levels in my books. It reflects changes in our culture as we take shortcuts in how we cook our food, how it remains a comfort regardless.

Guernica: Is there a cookbook in the works?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: No. But I often put recipes on my blog. I’ve modified my mother’s recipes to make them short and easy. That’s my mantra for cooking.

I just finished a collection of stories, actually a novel-in-stories, Before We Visit the Goddess, about three generations of women. One of the things in the book is how their attitude toward cooking and food changes as they go through their lives. It’s reflective of their personalities, and also the world in which they find themselves.

Guernica: Are we going to have recipes in there?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: [laughs] We’re going to have references to recipes. And I’ll put some of those recipes on my blog.

Guernica: You began your career with poetry. You’ve since written two story collections, several novels, a picture book, novels for young adults, now a novel-in-stories…

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I also wrote a libretto, River of Light, for the Houston Grand Opera a year and a half ago. We wanted to create an opera about Indians living in Houston, so I wrote about a young Indian woman who meets an African-American man, and they become friends. It [was] staged in Houston [last year, at the Houston Grand Opera]. Later this year, it’s going to be staged in California [at Festival Opera], so I’m quite excited.

Guernica: Which form is the most challenging for you?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The novel. No form is easy if you want to do a good job. But certainly novels are the most challenging. There’s so much more space to work with and therefore you have to use it well: it’s a whole world you’re creating. But I enjoyed the format of the novel-in-stories I just wrote. They’re stories, but they’re all connected, and they’re from different viewpoints—set in different times. But together they form an arc. Unlike in a novel, you’re not expected to explain every important moment, you can skip years if you want to that are not necessary to the arc you’re creating, so long as you’ve established a pattern and you stick to that pattern. Most of my recent books have had multiple narrators. I like the operatic quality of many voices coming together. That’s another kind of diversity I want to promote, that there’s not just one story. As readers we do manipulate story sometimes, but more often, we believe the point-of-view narration because that’s how we experience it. I want to show the conflict there.

In my ideal world, men would be reading as many books by women as by men, as well as books in which the main character or narrator is female.

Guernica: Your novel The Palace of Illusions retells the Mahabharata from the female character Panchaali’s point of view.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I was quite concerned before that book came out. I had no idea how it would be received. But I’m thankful and blessed that it’s been the most popular of all my books. I regularly get people writing in about how much they appreciated it, men as well as women, which makes me happy. In my ideal world, men would be reading as many books by women as by men, as well as books in which the main character or narrator is female. This may be the idealistic writer in me talking, but I believe that what we read makes a difference in terms of the person we become.

Guernica: You’ve spoken of rewriting the Ramayana from the female character Sita’s viewpoint, too.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I’m still researching that project. Again, I have to be careful, because I want to tell the story in such a way that people do not shut down as soon as they hear about it. I want to invite readers in and then seduce them with my point of view. Sita’s story is more complicated than Panchaali’s. It all has to come together in my mind before I write.

Guernica: Is there yet a version of the Ramayana written from Sita’s perspective?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Not in the ancient texts. There are folk retellings, and modern feminist texts—a Bengali novel called Sitayan. There’s a fifteenth-century Ramayana by Kashiram Das, who’s going to be one of my main sources and who’s quite pro-Sita and pro-feminist. As with the Mahabharata, I’ve found there are many versions of the Ramayana, and they don’t always agree. So long as the writers stuck to the main points of the story, they felt free to add on or reinterpret the characters and their actions. It’s a healthy way of looking at our epics and our literature.

Guernica: Which has also led to the story-within-a-story structure that has developed over time, and which you use in your fiction.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I like that format. There’s not one linear way of storytelling. Stories look back on themselves, and the stories become more powerful when they have that kind of looping back, repetitive, almost incantatory aspect to them. That’s another aspect of Eastern storytelling that I try to incorporate. You start with one story, and then you’re into another, and another. It’s important to have all these diverse viewpoints. There’s something very Indian about it.

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