Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is easily one of the best multicultural writers around the world, writing about the subcontinent and its many facets. Before venturing into novels, Banerjee Divakaruni experimented with poetry only because she was convinced that writing poems would be easier than penning down proses but as luck would have it she slowly shifted bases and there has been no looking back ever since. This Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Writing at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program had no formal training in writing and often finds it funny thinking about the fact that she currently teaches in one.
In an exclusive interview with News18 that took place right before her amazing sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the author spoke about her conscious choice of having women as protagonists of her novels, why she wanted to subvert mythological characters like Sita and Draupadi, her love for multicultural authors and much more.
Excerpts from the interview:-
A lot of your writings are centred around women who are strong and yet have their own frailties. You also make it a point to get into great detail about their background; where they come from, their culture and so on. Is that a conscious effort to have women as the heroes and protagonists of your books? What is the reason behind it?
Yes, there is. You are absolutely correct! I love putting women at the centre of my novels and that is because when I was growing up and I think this is true even today there are a lot of novels where women characters are being written by men. I just feel that a woman writing about women has a deeper insight and understands those women’s characters. I do not feel the need to whitewash them anyway or show them to be unreal in the way they are heroic because I think women are just normally heroic enough. So, that is one of the things that I have always tried to portray, complex women who are working through many challenges in their lives.
I remember a certain interview, where you had previously mentioned that when you were starting out a lot of your choices were considered ‘radical’. Did that sort of shape the opinion sort of shape the initial writings that you were putting forth?
Yes, I think the choice of subject matter is. I was living in the US and I wanted to write about Indians that itself put me in the minority. I wanted to write about Indian immigrants and I wanted to write especially about women and how immigration changes them. My first books such as, ‘Arranged Marriage’ and ‘The Mistress Of Spices’ dealt with the challenges of immigrants. Now, many people did not want to read about the challenges of immigrants and many people in India also did not want it because the immigrant community was portrayed as the model minority but they were just normal human beings undergoing challenges, learning, growing but also missing India, trying to find their place. Especially for women, it was a big change from often many very domestic roles, suddenly to find themselves out in the world.
So, it was just the reality that I saw, that touched me but it was something out of the ordinary for many readers, so you know I got a little bit of flack for that but I think it made me aware right from the beginning that I must write what I believe in and I write to showcase women in positions of strength, going through difficulties and coming out having gained something and having become stronger and that story remains as valid today as when I started writing 30 years back.
You have also in a manner sort of redefined two mythological figures for us. It is through your words that we see Draupadi finding her inner voice in ‘The Palace Of Illusions’ and we also see you turning Sita into the narrator in your retelling of ‘The Ramayana’. Growing up were you always keen on subverting Indian epic mythological tales and is there a reason why you chose to have Sita and Draupadi as your forerunners?
Well, I was always interested in mythological stories and epics because my grandfather was a big storyteller and he would tell me these stories even when I was quite little. At that point, I did not think of women’s roles as such but I was always wanting to know more about Draupadi, like what is she thinking, and what is she feeling because we only get her actions and some words and that are also from a male gaze. As I grew up, I recognised that the men are always judging her, the men are always talking about who she is, she does not get to define herself and we certainly do not get her thoughts.
So, as I started writing it became a project for me because Draupadi and Sita are two major feminine icons in our culture and they are very important because one of them is who people tell us to be like; be like Sita and then the other one is Draupadi who we are asked to not be like. They were like two sides of the feminine reality as it were but I felt they were unreal so I wanted to write them from the inside, I wanted to really feel for myself and for my readers to see what is going on in these characters’ lives. As I went back and researched I found they were much more complex and stronger than the popular narrative had them made out to be. This I felt was somewhat dangerous and negative because the popular narratives had then said to other women that this is what you should be like and this is what you should not be like and I just wanted to change that story a little bit and I wanted my readers to think themselves about these characters and to identify with them.
Over time and again you have spoken about your love for authors coming from a multicultural backgrounds. Being one yourself, how do you think that has been an advantage and a disadvantage for you?
I have always loved multicultural writers because in some ways they gave me models to follow, they gave me permission to write my stories, and they made me realise that this is a multicultural world we live in. We have to realise that there are majorities and there are minorities and it is important to hear the voices of the minorities because their stories are often very interesting, very powerful, and could be very subversive sometimes which is also good and that voice is often ignored. So, people like Toni Morrison, and Amy Tan or not only women but Chinua Achebe writing out of Africa, all these people gave me a lot of strength.
Of course, I have to talk about my Bengali influences starting from Rabindranath Tagore to Mahasweta Devi and Amitav Ghosh right now, I have just learnt so much from these voices. These voices are very original and yet they are talking about universal themes. I owe a great debt to all these wonderful multicultural writers.
We Know about your books that have been turned into films, but there are a few that have not been yet. Amongst the ones that haven’t been, which ones do you think would make for great screen adaptations?
Some have been auctioned, so we will leave them out. ‘The Last Queen’ has been auctioned and it is the same with ‘The Palace Of Illusions’, so someone is working on those and I waiting very eagerly to see what they come up with. But, ‘The Forest Of Enchanments’ which is my story od Sita telling her own life, I think that would make such a good movie because here is Sita, a strong and complex woman at the centre of this amazing tale, ‘The Ramayana’ is an amazing story. I hope a director somewhere is listening to us.
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