by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni says the immigration experience helped make her the award-winning and best-selling Indian-American writer she is today.
Her immigration story — which she calls "strong" and "powerful" — along with those of other immigrant women, are central themes in much of her work.
“I had grown up in a very traditional family, been very protected,” she says of her upbringing in Kolkata, India. “Then I was in America… to go to school,” recalls Divakaruni, sitting behind a table piled high with copies of her latest novel, Before We Meet the Goddess, inside Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre.
“I was living away from my family, I was working odd jobs… and I was really missing my culture. That made me see my culture in a way that I had never seen it when I was living immersed in it.”
The Houston, TX based author is in Toronto for Arranged Marriage, a theatre adaptation of her short story “Clothes,” published in her first book, also titled Arranged Marriage.
“It’s not so much about arranged marriage,” says Peggy Shannon, professor and chair of the Ryerson School of Performance, when introducing the play to the audience. “It is the immigrant story, the immigrant experience.”
The immigrant dream
Divakaruni says one theme the stage production of “Clothes” captured well is the idea of the “immigrant dream” — the hopes and expectations that are attached to moving to places like Canada and the United States — and what happens when they go awry.
“Both of these countries are wonderful in many ways. They offer many opportunities, but they can’t be perfect. No place can be perfect,” she says. “Sometimes that dream is going to fail and then what do they do? They have to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives.”
Such is the case for Sumita, the main character of Arranged Marriage, who moves to Mississauga, ON (the original short story is based in California) after her arranged marriage to Somesh. Months after arriving, tragedy strikes and she has to find the strength to go on with her life despite a dream deferred.
Even though people immigrating from South Asia to Canada or America today have a much easier time than Divakaruni did more than three decades ago, thanks to advancements like the Internet and well-established community connections, the author says challenges remain.
This is something she says she sets out to reflect in the characters and plots she creates.
“Missing your home country, missing your family, feeling like you’ve left a whole support system behind – you still feel those things.”
Touching on taboo topics
Through her writing, Divakaruni says she aims to do two things: break down barriers and prejudices between different cultural communities in North America, and ensure that her own South Asian-American community sees its reality reflected in serious literature.
This is why she does not shy away from topics considered taboo by some, such as alcoholism, infidelity, and abortion.
Her approach has not always been popular among readers, both in North America and in India. But as of late, more people are accepting that Divakaruni pushes boundaries.
One taboo topic she writes about at length is domestic abuse — an area in which she has been volunteering to help victims since university. Problems like this can be aggravated in immigrant communities because victims are away from their larger familial and friend supports, she explains.
“It’s very important for us to create a realistic and complex notion of our community,” she says. “Otherwise, we are giving in to stereotypes, either positive or negative ones.”
When this happens, Divakaruni continues, people will feel like they are the only ones experiencing such things and something must be wrong with them.
“I have this great quote that I love: ‘Good literature should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,’” she shares. “If we are complacent, [thinking] we have no problems, that’s a problem right there because we are not being realistic.”
In Before We Meet the Goddess, the chapters alternate between the lives of grandmother Sabitri who lived all her life in India, mother Bela who immigrated to the U.S. from India, and daughter Tara who was born in the U.S.
The novel details their complicated, and often strained, relationships with each other and the many challenges they face in their journey to figuring out what success is.
Similar to her earlier works, Divakaruni aims to empower women with this novel.
“All of these three women who are the main characters… they certainly have their challenges, but I think by the end of the book they’ve achieved something,” she says.
“I’m hoping that my books are empowering to women of all backgrounds as they’re going through their own challenges, hopes, and trying to reach for goals . . . [and] help the readers to examine their life and what it means to be [successful].”
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