Shaun Farrell interviews Chitra Divakaruni
Shaun's Quadrant—June 2005

In 2000, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was one of the judges for the prestigious National Book Award.

Her novel The Mistress of Spices has been optioned by film maker Gurinder Chadha for an English film. Her novel Sister of My Heart has been optioned by film maker Suhasini Mani Ratnam for a Tamil TV serial.

Chitra is an award-winning author and poet who has been published in over 50 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. Her writing has been included in over 30 anthologies and translated into 11 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese.

Born in Calcutta, India, she came to the United States in 1976 when she was 19. She earned a Master's degree in English from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. While attending college, she supported herself with many odd jobs, including babysitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, slicing bread in a bakery, and washing instruments in a science lab.

She has spent most of her adult life in Northern California, about which she often writes. She divides her time between Houston and Northern California. Chitra currently teaches in the nationally ranked Creative Writing program area at the University of Houston. She serves on the board of Maitri in the Bay and on the Advisory Board of Asians against Domestic Abuse in Houston.

There is extensive information on Chitra's website.


Shaun Farrell: Magic and mysticism are important themes in your work. What is magic to you?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I think the world is magical in its essence - there are layers of existence beyond the one we commonly experience, based on the sense and logic. Magic is one way of entering that world, or entering your own depths. That is how magic works in my novels Mistress of Spices and Queen of Dreams.

SF What is the difference between an American idea of magic and an Indian idea of magic?

CBD: The Indian way of magic is closer to the Native American's (at least as far as I understand it). The spirit world helps you understand your own spiritual essence, your powers. Through them you transcend the limitations of the body. Ultimately it is a way for you to unite with the world essence.

SF You recently published a children's fantasy, The Conch Bearer. The book, however, is very accessible to adults. What inspired this story?

CBD: I'm glad that adults as well as children are enjoying the book. That was one of my hopes - that adults and children would talk to one another, using the book as a starting point. I was inspired by the mythical tales of Bengal, the part of India I come from.

SF Did you at all have Harry Potter in mind when you wrote it, since those books are loved by children and adults alike?

CBD: I've enjoyed the Harry Potter books very much, but the western books that most inspired me in this respect are Lord and of the Rings and Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials.

SF Was magic important to you as a child?

CBD: Yes. I wanted it in my life, much as Anand, the boy hero of The Conch Bearer does.

SF Your books are always focused on the characters, and the characters are always very realistic. What process do you go through when you create a character?

CBD: I sit very quietly and try to visualize them, to hear them speak. Then I try to understand what motivates them, what they want.

SF As a poet, how conscious are you of meter, rhythm, and other devices commonly associated with poetry when you write fiction?

CBD: I'm most aware of the rhythm of language, of sentences having a cadence. I'm very conscious of the images I use. I often try to get an idea across as an image.

SF Much of your work deals with the immigrant experience and what it is like to move to a foreign land. Can you talk about that and why that is important to you?

CBD: Well, immigration has been central to my own life experience. Immigration is what made me see my culture with new eyes, once I moved halfway across the world from it. It made me want to write so I could start understanding my experiences in America. I continue to write in order to understand.

SF I know that after 9/11 you were concerned with prejudice against Indian-Americans. Where do we stand now, as a society, regarding that issue?

CBD: Many of the overt expressions of prejudice have died down (except maybe in the security areas in airports, when dark skinned people or people with strange names are pulled out of line most often for checking). But deep down, some suspicion of the "other", the "alien" (the term by which the government described immigrants until recently) still remains. We need to work on it, all of us together, to understand each other, to celebrate each other's differences. Literature is a great venue for that. Books invite us into other cultures, into lives of people from those cultures.

SF What role does reading fiction play in the formation of cultural identity?

CBD: Reading fiction - the challenging kind - opens up our minds to other possibilities, of the world being a different way from what we're being told it must be. Magical fiction particularly helps in challenging our underlying beliefs about the nature of the world. It makes us imagine grandeur and heroism in a special way.

SF America is often called a melting pot. We are a media-driven culture, constantly bombarded with images. Have we created an environment that threatens to destroy cultural uniqueness?

CBD: Yes, if we aren't careful - the chain stores and multinational corporations and homogenized TV programs are paving the way for that. It's a major theme in Queen of Dreams, where the heroine's tea shop is threatened by a mega chain café that opens up across the street.

SF Who do you like to read?

CBD: I read very widely, very different people. This helps me grow - as a writer and a human being. I particularly like reading old Indian literature - our epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharat, for example.

SF What are you reading right now?

CBD: The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. I love this book. Very spiritual.

SF What are you working on right now?

CBD: I've just finished the second part of magical children's trilogy, titled The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming. It continues the adventures of Anand and Nisha, who are the main characters in The Conch Bearer.

My next project (just started) is a novel based on the Mahabharat, retold from the women's point of view.

SF What else would you like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know about you and your work?

CBD: The Mistress of Spices is being made into a movie by the directors of Bend It Like Beckham. I'm pretty excited about that right now. And The Conch Bearer is up for two big awards, the Texas Bluebonnet Award and the Rebecca Caudill Award - so maybe your readers would be so kind as to send positive magical mental energy to the book?

SF I'm sure they will, especially if they read it and see how wonderful it is! Chitra, thank you so much for your time.

CBD: You're welcome!

Copyright © 2005 Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.