After Hurricane Katrina you too were evacuated from your home and ended up spending time with other evacuees. Was this the inspiration for One Amazing Thing?
Yes, that was a part of it. We were evacuated from our home and were stuck on the freeway for hours. That led me to wonder about how people deal with pressure in their lives. But I was also working on the Palace of Illusions at that point, so I didn’t start working on One Amazing Thing until I was done with that.
Your style in this book is very minimalist, and quite different from your previous books, especially Palace of Illusions. Would you say that this was a conscious choice?
I thought it was appropriate to the subject matter. Their world (the characters’) is closed down and claustrophobic. Their world has now become minimal.
I was experimenting with a sparse style as I though it was appropriate for this scenario. Yes, so this book is minimalist and is shorter than other works.
But I would also like to say that not all voices are minimalist. Some voices (of the characters) are very detailed.
Was there a conscious attempt on your part to tell a different story?
With each book, you take on a different challenge. With Palace of Illusions, you go 5000 years in the past.
In that, the challenge was one woman’s life. In this book, there is no single hero. I wanted a novel where everyone was a hero; an ensemble novel where every voice was equally important in this novel.
Most of my novels have had either single or dual protagonists. But in this one, everyone is a protagonist. Also, I want every reader to get their own understanding of what grace is under pressure. For me, grace under pressure is when everyone comes together as a community; everyone is a protagonist and antagonist.
What about the immigrant experience lends itself to story telling? Is it the multiple identities we navigate?
Immigration is an adventure. But this book is not only about immigrants. There are non-immigrants too in this book, more important than they have ever been before (in my books).
The stories come from an examination of self; let’s look at our lives and recount one amazing thing, as in wow, look at what happened, what an incredible thing. Not necessarily good or bad, but just an amazing thing. My hope is that after reading the book, the reader will find him/herself contemplating on his or her own life.
What aspects of immigrant life are different from the time you first came to the United States? How has that affected your writing? It seems that immigrants are branching out into varied careers, there’s the influence of Bollywood …
Immigrant life and communities have definitely changed over time. And you can see that reflected in this book. While Sister of My Heart was set in the 80s, One Amazing Thing is right now. You see that change reflected in Uma’s life. She studies literature, and her parents return to India after retirement. That’s a big trend now, parents going back to India. Children now have a different relationship with India. There are entire generations that are born and grown up here. I wanted to show that through Tariq. Until 2001, he considers himself American, but after 2001, that identity becomes complicated.
But even beyond the book, I am very interested in the immigrant experience. It is interesting to see how much branching out there is, in careers for instance. People are now especially interested in the arts. So many immigrants are writing today. Self expression has become more important than ever before. When we came here, there was a sense of survival, how we fit in and integrated with society. But now, the current generation is confident in a whole new way. It is perhaps because of their parents too.
People marry outside of their caste or communities. We see that in Uma’s relationship. Her boyfriend Ramon, who is Hispanic, is accepted by her parents. They even give him an Indian name, Ramu!
As far as Bollywood is concerned, some people are more into pop culture and some into traditional culture.
There are Indian Americans that study traditional Indian music, dance and art. It’s difficult to know a culture until you have lived in it for a while. Young people have realized this and embrace the pop culture aspect of it.
It’s also interesting that people are going back to India. Even in our generation there was a desire to go back. The idea was that we would go back eventually. Back then the opportunities were so few, but they are tremendous now. That’s why Uma’s parents go back.
Have you seen any changes in your readership over time, given your repertoire?
In readings and public events, there has been a mix of Indians and non-Indians, although I find that there are now many more younger readers than before. I have many readers from other countries too because my books are translated into other languages. I have a Facebook page and a blog now. With social media, it’s becoming easier to keep up with my readership.
In general, the majority of my readers tend to be Indian or Indian American. My primary readers come from my generation.
I now also have younger readers through my children’s books. And the children’s parents too! I love that project—writing books for children, reading books to children.
Do you typically have an intended audience in mind? What kind of a reaction do you expect from your audience? Is it to entertain, to think, to reminisce, to take pride in their culture, community?
I prefer to write without any expectations. I write about a theme that I consider important, and I do the best I can.
I am often surprised by what folks say about my work. Different readers will get different things from a story. We each make it our own. All I can expect is that people read and enjoy the story.
With Palace of Illusions, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I wondered how people in India would respond to it. But I found that they really liked it. Changing the point of view of the story appealed to them. It has been the most successful of all my books so far.
I had many men tell me that they enjoyed the book, so you can never predict.
I always tell my students, never write a book with expectations. Just write the best book that you possibly can. Then the reader will definitely have a response. However, you can never predict what that response will be and that’s ok too.
Is it easier to get published these days if you’re Indian American? How is this different from when you started out?
It has definitely gotten easier. Let me say this, it’s never easy to get published, so one should really applaud every one who has gotten a publisher. But the success of a number of writers has definitely contributed to more Indian writing. That’s a good thing, a wonderful thing. Lots of people have been published in recent years, reflecting on a multiplicity of experiences.
What kind of advice would you offer fledgling writers amongst the readers of India Currents?
Read widely and carefully. You have to be in dialogue with any book you read. Keep a writer’s journal. Write regularly if you are serious about it. You have to keep practicing as practice makes you better.
Have you read any recent works by Indian authors or any Indian writing in general?
I recently read and enjoyed Tania James’ Atlas of Unknowns and Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India—both were very well written.
Is there any one book that you read over and over again for inspiration? Or because you just like it?
For a long time I have been reading the Mahabharata by Rajaji. I find it very fascinating because there are so many different versions of it. I often go back to Tagore’s works … I find them deep and amazing. I love reading about women’s voices from other cultures … Tony Morrison, Cristina Garcia of the Cuban American tradition … I like reading about their subjects, and their cultural insights.
Chitra Banerjee Divakurni is committed to issues of women’s empowerment and supports Maitri, a non profit in the Bay Area that helps families from South Asia affected by domestic violence and abuse among other things.
She also supports Daya, a non profit in the Houston area that works to prevent violence against women and promote healthy family relationships within the South Asian community.