Chitra Divakaruni brings the immigrant experience home

March 1, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin --

Chitra Divakaruni, poet and novelist, writes about women and the immigrant experience.

"I write for women and intelligent men," she told an appreciative audience at UC Davis on Wednesday night.

Divakaruni was the second female writer to appear on campus hosted by the Women's Resources and Research Center in a speaker series to raise money for the Yolo County Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center's new battered women's shelter.

"Having been involved in domestic violence (issues) in the Bay Area for many years, I know how important (the shelter) is," she said.

Divakaruni grew up in Calcutta and spent summers in a neighboring country village where her grandfather lived. For her first 19 years, she lived a traditional Indian life where it was not permitted to question a woman's role.

"I didn't really see my culture until I came to America and discovered what it meant to be a woman of color in the United States. This gave me the impetus to write, to explore new identities.

"Badly and tentatively I began writing early poems. You think I'm being modest but I'm not. I destroyed those sentimental and bad poems recently so no archivist could find them," she said.

Divakaruni read selections from her latest book of poems, "Leaving Yuba City" (1997). She said her interest in Indian history began when she left India and no longer had its culture available to her as part of her daily life. When she began researching the earliest Indian immigration to California, she found that many Indian men came here to work on construction of the railroads and a community settled in Yuba City. The restrictive immigration laws at the time allowed for men to come here, but not women, not their wives or sweethearts. Some women had to wait for 30 years to be reunited with their husbands.

"Coming to America for me was an amazing experience that began to change me from the minute I sat in the airplane...but the experience took years to process. I was full of fear, excitement, opportunity. I have been here now for almost 20 years but I still make discoveries."

Those discoveries and explorations were collected in a book of short stories published in 1995 called "Arranged Marriage."

She published her first novel, "Mistress of Spices," in 1997. It also looks at the immigrant experience but through a prism of myth and magic.

For this book, Divakaruni said, "I went back to the tales I was told in Bengal and the lore of spices I learned in the village...and I mixed it with the reality of immigrant life now. I tried to bring together the language of poetry and prose, which in my native language of Bengali is not so separate."

But Divakaruni had not written a novel before and was not sure how to structure such a book. She also had a serious illness to cope with following the birth of her son. Her health was so seriously jeopardized that she recalled having a near-death experience in the hospital.

"I looked down not at a pattern of fields as from an airplane but at a pattern of my many lives, lived and potential. We live many lives and remember one.

I wanted to express this in my writing but didn't know how to until I heard a voice say: 'I am a mistress of spices,' and that became the first line of my novel."

Divakaruni said this voice, this muse, helped her write the novel. "And if I did it wrong she made me go back and rework it." At the conclusion of the book, the muse fled.

"People sometimes ask me for whom I write," she said. "That's a difficult and complicated question. If I ask myself what my mother will think, then I'm frozen and blocked. I try to have the work create its own reality. I write for the Southeast Asian community, yes, but my vision of India is only one and not a comprehensive one. And I write for other (ethnic) communities too and hope there will be a sense of discovery as they read my work."

Divakaruni says she constantly feels that she is caught between two cultures. She came to America in 1977 and earned her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. She is married to a man from the south of India and they have three children. She teaches at Foothill College.

"Our mothers' roles, for better or worse, were very defined," she said. "I haven't found one answer but I try to follow Socrates and live the examined life, and question a lot."

The Bay Area's Gail Tsukiyama will speak at UCD on March 11. She will read from her latest book, "Night of Many Dreams." For tickets, phone (530) 752-1915.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

To Order "Arranged Marriage : Stories" (paperback) from Amazon [ Click Here ]
To Order "The Mistress of Spices" (Audio Cassette) from Amazon [ Click Here ]
To Order "The Mistress of Spices : A Novel" (paperback) from Amazon [ Click Here ]

Picture of Chitra Divakaruni Chitra Divakaruni, poet and author of "Leaving Yuba City," writes about women and the East Asian immigrant experience "for women and intelligent men." She spoke at UC Davis in February of 1998. Divakaruni, the second of four women writers invited to Davis for a fund-raising series of lectures, knows about domestic violence issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read Elisabeth Sherwin's recounting of Divakaruni's words about her life and works in "Chitra Divakaruni brings the immigrant experience home," the March 1, 1998 PRINTED MATTER column.

Photos and captions by courtesy.

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