Family secrets are at the heart of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's new novel, Oleander Girl
In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's new novel, Oleander Girl, a young Indian woman's engagement ceremony is shattered when the grandfather who has raised her falls mortally ill, and with this tragedy family secrets and lies are suddenly revealed. Korobi Roy soon discovers that she is not the person she always believed herself to be and only in the United States can she find the truth about her identity.
Divakaruni, the award-winning novelist and University of Houston professor, is embarking on a multi-city reading tour to promote the novel. Before she left, she offered CultureMap a peek at the book and answered some of our burning questions about its secrets.
CultureMap: You've dedicated Oleander Girl to your grandfather with the note that his life inspired the story. Can you talk about that inspiration?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I wanted to write about family secrets. I wanted to write about the clashes between the old and new in India. And then as I was writing I realized something like this happened in my own family, with my own grandfather.
I wanted to write about family secrets. I wanted to write about the clashes between the old and new in India.
I had pushed it into my subconscious because it wasn't something I was happy about. My grandfather was a wonderful man, as far as I was concerned. He was very nice to me always, but as I grew up I found out he had been quite harsh to his own children. He had disinherited a couple of my uncles. I realized that the grandfather in this book was based on my own grandfather, to some extent. I hadn't realized that until I was well into the book, and so then I thought: I want to dedicate this to him.
CM: In a previous interview with CultureMap, you described how your novel One Amazing Thing, about a group of people trapped in a building after an earthquake, was inspired by your family's experience evacuating from Houston during Hurricane Rita. Do you often use your own life experiences as inspiration but then completely transform those experiences into something new in a novel?
CBD: Yes, I think you're right. There will be something in my life, like with One Amazing Thing — and in this book my grandfather — but once I start writing that goes away and I enter the world of imagination. That space is so much larger, and anything can happen. If I stay close to my life, then I'm constricted by my life. If I can use whatever was in my life as a bridge to enter the world of imagination then a book can take off and do whatever it needs to do.
CM: One thing I found so interesting and unusual about Oleander Girl is that about half of the book is told in first person with Korobi as the narrator, but then the other half is told in third person. What were you trying to achieve with this mixing of narrators?
CBD: I've always been interested in perspective and points of view. What's so interesting in a story is that the same event appears so different to different people.
A lot of these characters in Oleander Girl just don't see life the same way and that causes a lot of conflict. But I felt this was really Korobi's story. She is the one discovering things more than anyone else. On one level it's a coming of age novel, so I wanted to show her point of view most closely.
CM: In many ways, Korobi's story follows Joseph Campbell's hero's journey model.
CBD: Yes, I love Campbell. I've read him over and over. It's really the hero's journey. She gets a call to adventure. It turns her life upside down. She has to make a decision. She had to leave the familiar world.
CM: Which brings us to the question of setting, because in Korobi's case she leaves the familiar world of India to venture into the strange, alien world of New York City about a year after 9/11. Why was it important to set the novel in that time?
How do we live together in a world of difference? How do we live together when things like religion and ideology are driving us apart?
CBD: I wanted to look, not at the immediate effects [of 9/11], but the other effects that have continued to accrue. How have people's lives changed after the immediate shock of the event? That's a major theme in Oleander Girl. How do we live together in a world of difference? How do we live together when things like religion and ideology are driving us apart? And I wanted to show that going on both in India and the U.S because in India that's the year of the Gujarat riots, the terrible Hindu/Muslim riots that caused a lot of devastation all over the country.
CM: Did you find that there was any element in the novel that was a departure from some of your previous work?
CBD: One of the things that really interested me in this book is how the action splits. Korobi goes to the U.S and her fiancé stays in India. Now the action has split, so the challenge then is how is the action going to come back together.
CM: There are points in the novel when Korobi calls home to talk to Rajat, her fiancé, and they still seem to have a strong connection, but it's like they are in two different worlds and talking around each other.
CBD: That's a phenomenon I've experienced. When you're in India and when someone you love a lot is somewhere else, maybe in the United States, it's like you're in different worlds. What's important to you is so far away from them. I know this because my mother and I would have conversations, and of course I was concerned about her life, but I couldn't really feel what was going on in her life, and she couldn't feel what was going on in mine, even though we loved each other. That was what I was trying to convey.
I hope to show how difficult it is for people who are living in different parts of the world, how difficult it is to communicate. The psychic distance is still a big deal. Even in this time of the internet, miscommunications happen. Distances are created. The human psyche is just a strange animal.
CM: In 2011, One Amazing Thing was the first book selected for the Gulf Coast Reads initiative that asked all of Houston to read the same book at the same time, and you participated in many discussions with readers about the book. What was that experience like?
CBD: That was wonderful. I really like talking to readers. I think that comes out of being a teacher. I like talking to audiences because that's what as I do as a professor, talking about books with my students. What's been so wonderful is that One Amazing Thing has been chosen in a lot of different cities as the one book or one read [projects]. I'm very excited about that because it's touching people, something is resonating about storytelling and creating multicultural communities.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Texas appearances include the San Antonio Book Festival on April 13, Brazos Books in Houston on April 15 at 7:30 p.m., Montgomery College on April 16 at noon, and Book People in Austin on April 17 at 7 p.m.