Chitra Divakaruni is an award-winning author, poet and teacher whose books have been translated into 29 languages. Her themes include women, immigration, the South Asian experience, history, myth, magical realism and diversity. Here, Chitra speaks with Millicent Bennett--her editor for her forthcoming novel, Oleander Girl--about her fascination with point of view, her addiction to social media, and how she got to where she is today in her writing career.
Millicent Bennett: Your stories and novels tend to have international themes, offering studies of characters who are torn between two worlds. What would you say draws you to these kinds of stories?
Chitra Divakaruni: I grew up in two cultures, Indian and American, and both have shaped me into who I am today. In fact, experiencing the contrast between them is what made me interested in writing. I wanted to share what I was undergoing, both wonderful and challenging, as a recent arrival in America. Moving to a very different culture makes you see the world fresh, through “newborn” eyes, without as many preconceptions. It also makes you see your birth culture differently, giving you an acute understanding and appreciation of what you took for granted all your life. These are the things that draw me to such stories--and my upcoming novel, Oleander Girl, is such a story, though with a twist.
Millicent Bennett: You are wonderfully engaged with your fans on social media and through your blog. How do you manage to stay so connected while working on the essentially private, lonely work of novel writing? Do you find that you need to strike a certain balance between the private and public worlds, and, if so, how do you do it?
Chitra Divakaruni: I have discovered, rather to my surprise, that I really enjoy social media, particularly my author page on Facebook. It is a wonderful way to connect with readers from all over the world, answer their questions, and learn what they respond to in my books. We often have literary discussions of many kinds. I can also ask them questions and get useful feedback. Recently, when Free Press was deciding between two possible covers for Oleander Girl, I asked my FB friends to vote for their favorite, and the answers really helped us make the right decision. I do have to forcefully limit my time on social media--I find it quite addictive.
Millicent Bennett: Korobi is clearly the central character of the story, the one around whom much of the plot revolves. Her sections are, understandably, in the first person, yet you’ve also chosen to tell the story through the third-person perspectives of several other characters. What did this structure allow you to do that a straight first-person narrative wouldn’t have? Alternately, do you feel there was anything lost in telling it this way? Did the structure come naturally from the outset, or did it evolve as you went along?
Chitra Divakaruni: I’ve always been fascinated by point of view and by the fact that the story changes depending on who is doing the telling. In Oleander Girl, each of the major characters has a different (and contrasting) take on the events that are unfolding--for instance, Korobi’s decision to go to America--and many of the conflicts that arise are due to this. I like multiple points of view in a novel because that gives the reader insight into each character and makes each character multilayered and complex.
Millicent Bennett: Your novels have been translated into many languages, optioned for films, and chosen for community reads series across America. What is it about your writing that gives it such broad appeal?
Chitra Divakaruni: I have always loved literature of many countries, so it gives me great pleasure now to think of readers from so many regions of America, and from so many other countries, reading my work. It bolsters my belief that good books cross geographical and cultural boundaries. Perhaps people relate to my work because I focus on the intricacies of human psychology, and on the interaction between character and destiny, and these are elements that readers of many different backgrounds are interested in.
Millicent Bennett: I’ve only been lucky enough to work with you on your most recent novel, but you’ve been writing for a long time. Can you tell me a little about what inspired you to begin a career as a writer and how you got where you are today?
Chitra Divakaruni: The immediate life event that pushed me into becoming a writer was the death of my grandfather, to whom I was very close when growing up in India. (By the way, the grandfather character in Oleander Girl is partially based on him--a fact that I did not realize until I was close to finishing the novel). I was a graduate student in America at that time and couldn’t go back for his funeral. I was very sad about his passing and started writing about him so that I wouldn’t forget him. For years I was a closet writer, very shy about sharing my work. A big breakthrough came when I took a deep breath and joined a writers group, the Berkeley Poets Cooperative, and started getting feedback on my writing. I slowly began to publish poetry and short stories--with many rejections along the way! Then my wonderful agent, Sandra Dijkstra, offered to represent me, and took my first collection to New York and sold it to Martha Levin, who was at Anchor Books at the time. And now, in an amazing turn of events, Martha is my publisher again, for Oleander Girl, at Free Press!
Visit Chitra Divakaruni's website at www.chitradivakaruni.com to learn more about her and her forthcoming book, Oleander Girl.