I see my writing as an extension of my activism: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni talks about her new novel and writing in the current political climate.books Updated: Apr 11, 2017 19:03 IST
Prolific author and professor at University of Houston, Texas (USA), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has written acclaimed novels, books for children, and anthologies of poems. Two of her novels, The Mistress of Spices, and Sister of My Heart, were adapted to the big screen, and the former was even short-listed for the prestigious Orange Prize. Her books stand out for their strong women characters, but Divakaruni doesn’t just write about women; the author also works with several women’s groups to help educate and spread awareness about women’s issues. In an interview with HT Café, Divakaruni talks about her new book, Under the Sorrow Tree — a retelling of Ramayana — and her portrayal of Sita.
Your books have strongly scripted women and mothers. From goddesses to cows, the female figure is worshiped excessively. What’s the reasoning behind this?
Our society is bound to get stronger when we recognise the value that females in all forms add to our society. The problem arises when the female is worshiped in the abstract (such as in the form of a goddess or as Mother India), and that sets an image that is different from the real women people see around them every day. In some contexts, worship can be dangerous, as it implies that women have to live by a different, higher standard than men. If we can translate “worship” into valuing and respecting the real women around us, providing them with education and safety, and a chance to live and grow the way they want to, India will become that much stronger. My hope is that when people read and discuss strong women characters in literature, this will have a positive impact on their attitudes towards women in everyday life.
Readers love reading about mythology and mythological fiction is steadily on the rise…
I think it’s is great. India has such a strong culture of epics and mythology — it is wonderful that readers continue to be interested in it. Mythology is timeless. If new takes on mythology help us learn lessons or consider themes that are important in India today, our lives can only be enriched.
As a feminist writer who lives in the Donald Trump era, how do you reconcile some of the ideas that America has been struggling with lately?
It is indeed a struggle. I will definitely continue writing the stories of women and immigrants — these stories are even more important today in America, as there is an increase in prejudice towards these groups. My hope is that my books can dispel some of these prejudices, which arise out of ignorance.
How difficult is it to write in contemporary global political climate?
It is somewhat more difficult, but it is never easy to be a writer if you are writing about issues and problems that you feel strongly about. My ideas about women’s empowerment, the realities of immigrant life or racism in America, or the prevalence of domestic violence in our community, have offended some people in the past. But one has to continue writing about what one believes to be important.
How did you think of retelling the Ramayana in your new book?
I have always been interested in women and women-centered stories. I have already written Palace of Illusions, which focuses on Draupadi as the narrator of the tale. I wish to do the same with Sita, allowing her to describe her experiences, her feelings, and her understanding of what happens in her life and her philosophy of life. The narrator changes the tale. So, I’m hoping that my book will allow people to think about the Ramayana in a different way, and to see Sita as a stronger character than she is traditionally portrayed.
You are on the advisory board for non-profits such as Maitri and Daya. Is your activism integral to your role as a writer?
Yes, doing what I can to help women is very important to me. Seeing women move out of abusive relationships and begin a new life is very satisfying. I see my writing as an extension of my activism, and my activism as an extension of my writing. Each enriches and helps the other.
You were first known as a poet. How different is writing fiction from poetry?
Writing poetry helped me become aware of language, imagery, and how to express thoughts and ideas dramatically through images. It is a skill I have tried to incorporate into my fiction. Fiction is more about character growth and creating a world in which a character lives and moves. I do believe that writing poetry has enriched my fiction. I still write poetry once in a while, but fiction is now my first love.
You wrote about Indian immigrants in the US more than two decades ago. How has life changed for Indian immigrants now?
Life is easier, because people immigrating to the US know more about it before they come here, because of the Internet and because of stronger networks. In some ways, it was harder when I moved here in the 1970s.We did not have such a large community here then, and we had to struggle harder to establish ourselves in a foreign land. On the other hand, the political climate right now has grown uncertain, and hate crimes are on the rise. It is sad and worrisome, and something that we as the Indian American community are trying to battle.
What is your advice to aspiring authors?
Read widely; read like a writer, with a pen in your hand and jot down things that you like and may be able to learn from. Secondly, write regularly. Find a writers’ group or a class if you can — being in a community of writers and having their feedback really helps you. Lastly, revise a lot. Revise ruthlessly until the work is as good as you can possibly make it.