Conversations

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, best-selling author and poet

Manzanar Street Scene

Nirvana
by Karthik Ramaswamy

WaterBridge Review: In your latest book, Queen of Dreams, your protagonist Rakhi, a young single mother, faces several painful discoveries about her own past history balanced against the horrible events that occurred on 9/11. Would you consider it your most political novel to date? And did writing it help you to sort out your own feelings about what happened?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Yes, in some ways it’s my most political novel, dealing most directly with an event of national importance and its aftermath. Yes, it helped me express the terrible pain I felt after 9/11 because, in addition to suffering the effects of this national tragedy, my community (and other communities like mine that “looked like terrorists”) had to suffer from hate crimes that erupted in so many parts of America.

WBR: There is almost always a mystical dimension to your work. Does it have any reflection on your own life? Are you a mistress of spices?

CD: I’m not a mistress of spices … more like a handmaiden of words! But I’ve always been interested in alternate realities and believe that we live in a world where many realities are nestled one within the other—if only we have the sensitivity to experience them.

WBR: You’ve also recently written a young adult book called The Conch Bearer. Did your interest in alternate realities help? How did the process differ from writing adult fiction? Was it a difficult transition?

CD: It was challenging, but I loved it. My two sons, ages 10 and 12, helped me by being my first readers and critics! I want so much to reach young readers, both of my cultural background and otherwise. I want to share India with them. And magic. The Conch Bearer is full of magic. I was very pleased with the response to the book and am writing part two of the trilogy. I think figuring out tone and vocabulary is difficult for me when writing a children’s book. Finally, I just think of what my children would like, and write that.

WBR: Is there a particular author, past or present, who has influenced your writing?

CD: Many—but Maxine Hong Kingston is one of the most important. In some ways, The Woman Warrior gave me the courage to write my own stories.

WBR: What are some of the books waiting for you on your bed stand?

CD: I’m reading Osho’s Moving to the Center, a commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I just read Purple Hibiscus, a first novel by a very talented Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, a children’s novel that always inspires me. I’m rereading the Indian epic, the Mahabharata.

WBR: If you could choose, who would be your favorite hero or heroine in fiction?

CD: Whoever comes into my books, I love them!

WBR: And what character in a book most resembles your own personality?

CD: None in particular. I think bits of me are in all my women characters.

WBR: While under the spell of so many different characters, is there a specific talent you would most like to have?

CD: Yes, to become a better writer—and a loving person. In our Hindu scriptures, a quality is described that can be roughly translated as loving the world, all of it, without exception, from a place deep within you. That’s what I’d like to have.

WBR: With your busy schedule of teaching and taking care of your family, how do you find peace of mind in your everyday life?

CD: Meditation helps me. I’m also blessed by being surrounded by kind and supportive people, especially my husband, who encourages me.

WBR: Other than traveling the world through books, is there anywhere you would like to travel to?

CD: No. I’m more interested right now in inner realms.

WBR: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?

CD: Maybe a painter. I used to paint for many years. I guess you can see that from Queen of Dreams.

WBR: How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?

CD: With family. I love family down time—maybe a movie on the VCR, maybe going to the beach. Sometimes we all lie in bed together and read. Sometimes late at night we raid the fridge and eat ice cream from the carton, fighting over who gets the spoon first.

WBR: What is your best personal quality?

CD: I’m not sure about this question and the next two! I think I don’t know myself well enough to answer them. But I’ll try. I think my best quality is that I want to keep improving myself.

WBR: What is your most aggravating habit?

CD: I can’t waste things. I go around the house turning lights off. (Sometimes even in other people’s houses!) I pack leftovers—even little bits—in yogurt containers and eat them the next day. I have to compare prices thoroughly before buying anything expensive. It comes out of a time in my life when I had no money at all and was trying to survive and go to school. It drives my family nuts!

WBR: And lastly, what is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

CD: Maybe giving birth? But then I didn’t know how tough (and wonderful) it would be to become a mother!