When I recently caught up with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, she was in one of her rare lull periods at home in Houston, Texas, having finished almost three solid months of book touring for her latest novel, Oleander Girl. Like her latest protagonist, Korobi Roy, a young woman from Kolkata who crisscrosses the United States on a personal quest, Divakaruni, too, took to planes, trains, and automobiles, from one coast to another and back again to reconnect with her readers.
“It’s great to be home,” she confesses, “although I’m getting very little done.” She has less than a month left before classes start again – she teaches writing at the University of Houston – and has started “just a little” that waiting next novel. She’s recently gone digital, tinkering with a new personal website, which she proudly “overhauled” completely on her own. Her two college-age sons are home for the summer, so for a few more weeks, they get most of her attention – and her home cooking!
Since she published her first collection of poems, Black Candle, in 1991, Divakaruni has managed a near annual output across multiple platforms, from poetry, to short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), to middle-grade titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and her best-known, bestselling medium, adult novels including The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and One Amazing Thing. A novel and short story have been transformed for the stage, while two other novels and another short story have had film debuts. In the latest glitterati film news, her penultimate novel, One Amazing Thing, just got optioned by Hollywood.
Earlier this year in March, Divakaruni added her first children’s picture book to her growing oeuvre: Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, based on a favorite story her beloved grandfather shared in her youth, now vibrantly illustrated collage-style by artist Susy Pilgrim Waters. As celebratory as Divakaruni is, the timing of the book’s publication remains bittersweet for the whole family: Juno, the beloved family dog who has been Divakaruni’s personal muse for years – ”when I am mired in writer’s block, I rub her belly” – passed away a few months ago. Juno herself “inspired” Divakaruni to write this clever rendition of Grandma, about an audacious grandmother who braves the dangerous jungles to visit her daughter and grandchildren, protected from afar by her beloved canine companions. “‘What’s life without a little adventure?’” Grandma muses; clearly she’s channeling some of Divakaruni’s far-reaching energy.
That “can-do” attitude is clearly displayed in Divakaruni’s seventh adult novel, Oleander Girl. Korobi, who was protected, coddled, and carefully raised by her traditional grandparents since she lost both her parents at birth, decides, at just nineteen, she will venture beyond everything she has ever known in order to find out who she really is. Her grandfather has suddenly died, but his death finally frees Korobi – and her hesitant grandmother – to discover the truth about Korobi’s parents and their long-buried relationship. Although Korobi is engaged to one of Kolkata’s most eligible young men, she realizes she cannot enter marriage without having a better understanding of her Indian future, which is only possible by discovering her American past. The question looms: when she returns home, if she returns home, who will she be to the people who love her most?
The first thing I must know about Oleander Girl is how you chose the name – Anuradha Roy – for Korobi’s mother? A real-life Anuradha Roy wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. Is your character’s name mere coincidence?
It’s a coincidence. It’s a fairly common name in Kolkata – I had several friends in school who were Anuradhas! And Roy, too, is a very old name, which goes back a century at least.
When we talked almost a decade ago about Queen of Dreams, it was your favorite among your novels. You’ve had several titles since. Do you feel the same? I know choosing a favorite is something akin to naming a favorite child, so I’m asking as delicately as possible…
Yes, it’s tricky to choose a favorite. But right now it is Oleander Girl, because I gave myself some new challenges in this novel and was pleased at how they turned out. For one, I wanted a book that captured the pulsating heart of contemporary Kolkata, caught between the old and the new, and this was a challenge because although I visit regularly, I haven’t lived in Kolkata in thirty years. The other thing I wanted to do is to showcase multiple narrators of different genders. The main narrator (in first person) is Korobi, the heroine who goes on a journey across the world in search of a secret that will transform her. But I was particularly pleased at how the male voices – especially that of Asif, the chauffeur, turned out. It allowed me to weave together the complex class interactions that are such a big part of Indian society. [... click here for more]
Readers: Children, Adult