Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni believes in the power of story. The India born Houston writer and UH professor is the award-winning and best-selling novelist of 16 books including The Mistress of Spices, The Palace of Illusion, and her most recent book, One Amazing Thing. She just might currently be Houston’s most prolific and celebrated novelist.
Divakaruni and writer Gish Jen will be reading from their work for the Inprint Reading Series, Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. The evening will include an author Q&A and book signing. Divakaruni will read from One Amazing Thing but, as a special treat for her hometown audience, will also preview her latest work, Oleander Girl.
In the novel, One Amazing Thing an earthquake traps a group of strangers together in the basement visa office of the Indian consulate in an unnamed American city. As the injured and desperate characters await rescue, they begin to panic. A young graduate student named Uma, an American born of Indian immigrants, becomes inspired by her copy of The Canterbury Tales and suggests to pass the time, and keep that rising tide of panic at bay, that they all tell a story, one amazing thing, from their lives. And so they do.
In an interview with CultureMap, Divakaruni spoke about the use of stories within her work, the stories within her stories. She says, “Storytelling is a big theme in my narrative.” In many of her works, “people are always telling each other stories. People are always interpreting stories that are told to them, and seeing themselves within these stories.”
Explaining what story has to do with our everyday lives, she says “Stories have a very important effect on us as human beings, especially in terms of how we relate to each other. When we share stories or we have stories in common that is a very good way, a very deep way, of relating to and understanding people.”
Divakaruni grew up in India listening to family stories and “folk tales, fairy tales, legends and epics” told by her mother and grandfather. Now she sometimes worries that “here in America we’ve gotten away from the storytelling culture.”
She says, “I think in other cultures there maybe still more of a sense that story is important, that story is how we define and identify ourselves. But in America we’re losing it because there is other media that is bombarding us, and the telling of story from one person to another has not been as important.”
Though she places some of the blame on television and the Internet for our loss of patience for the art of storytelling, the “intimacy” and “face to face” interaction of storytelling, not just in America but now across the world, Divakaruni is a contemporary author who has fully embraced social media. She has a website, blog, facebook page and twitter account.
She does believe one must be careful about using social media because “you can become a total social media addict,” and for the lack of consequence internet anonymity can bring. Still these negatives are out weighed by social media’s “way of building community.”
She loves her public Facebook page because she can have a “real interaction” with her readers around the world. She feels those interactions are “quite meaningful and quite at a deep level.” When her mother died last year, she made a statement about it on her Facebook page and found the support she received from so many of her readers to be “very heartwarming.”
That online interaction and community draws her to the Internet, but when it comes time to write, she says “I have to turn off my Internet. . .When I write I have to become solitary. When I’m really writing, I can’t even talk to my family.” She observes:
“It’s a whole other dimension to the writer’s life, or to the artist’s life, that is hard for other people to understand, I think. It’s not that you don’t want to talk to anybody, but that you have to enter a different kind of world, and in order to enter it you have to exit the everyday world that you’re living in.”
The everyday world that Divakaruni lives in is Houston, but she believes it is a great city for writers. She says Houston is very supportive of writers and has a “great writing community.”
She cites the creative writing program at University of Houston, and later in the interview says that the students she teaches give her great hope for the future of writing. She also points to organizations like Inprint and the many great writers who come through Houston on book tours, and programs like Writers in the Schools. She hopes they’re creating the next writing/reading generation.
She believes Houston is such a great writing city, on another level, because it is “a very vibrant community. It’s a multicultural community.” The diversity of Houston helps to make us a strong storytelling town. Many communities within Houston, like the “Chicano, Vietnamese, and Asian communities in general have strong story-telling traditions,” and “just observing this big multicultural mix of people, that’s very rich material for stories.”
Houston is also a town “in which a lot of things happen that make good material for writing.” Even some of our worst of times can become the seeds of great stories.
Divakaruni knows this first hand as the inspiration for One Amazing Thing came when she was stuck on I-10 during the Hurricane Rita evacuation. With the hurricane getting closer and Divakaruni and her fellow Houstonians trapped, motionless on the freeway, what seemed like a very dire situation gave her the idea for her novel, “to explore how people behave in crisis situations with a group of strangers.”
Divakaruni seems to speak just as passionately about her work with two Houston non-profit organizations, Pratham and Daya, as she does about her stories. Her website describes Pratham as, “a worldwide nonprofit organization that is dedicated to removing illiteracy in India.” Daya is “A Houston-based nonprofit that works to prevent violence against women and to strengthen and promote healthy family relationships within the South Asian community.”
For 20 years she has been volunteering to help women who experience domestic violence because it is important to her “to do whatever little I can to see that a women can live an abuse-free life, that she doesn’t have to feel afraid in her own home.” She stresses how for most of us home is a refuge but for some women there’s no place where they can feel “safe and comfortable.”
As a writer, teacher, wife to husband Murthy and mother to sons Anand and Abhay, Chitra Banerjee Diavakaruni has certainly woven her own life story into the pattern of our city.