Words and Action
Indian American author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes powerful stories about South Asian immigrants and works hard to make their lives better.
“I have recently become very interested in mythology and epics,” says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, an Indian American author and poet who lives in Houston, Texas. “It seems that many of our current ideas about male and female roles in India are influenced by the epics and, perhaps, by our misunderstanding of these texts.”
Myths and stories, gender roles and culture, questioning and change—these are just a few of the compelling themes that Divakaruni explores in her popular and award-winning novels. Her first story collection, “Arranged Marriage” (1994), which examines the life of women who have immigrated from India, both from within and without, was honored with the American Book Award in 1995. In 2005, her novel “The Mistress of Spices” (1997), which traces the story of an Indian immigrant woman with magical powers, was turned into a movie by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha. Two of her other novels might also be made into movies—“The Palace of Illusions” (2008), which is based on a feminist retelling of the “Mahabharata,” and “One Amazing Thing” (2010), which discusses how immigration shapes American identity.
Divakaruni has so far published over 20 books of long-form fiction, short stories and poetry. She has no plans to stop anytime soon.
To maintain her prolific pace, Divakaruni adheres to a regular writing schedule, sitting down at her computer for roughly three days a week when she is not working as a creative writing professor at the University of Houston. A wife and mother of two sons, she lives a full life and still manages to devote considerable time to pursue another key passion: activism.
Divakaruni has spent years working with nonprofit organizations and considers this involvement to be vital to her life and identity. She serves on the advisory board of Maitri, a San Francisco-based group she helped found in 1991, and Daya, a Houston-based nonprofit. Both organizations help South Asian and South Asian American women struggling with situations of abuse, trafficking or domestic violence.
Divakaruni first became involved in activism during her years as a graduate student, when she volunteered at a women’s center at the University of California, Berkeley, and later at domestic violence shelters in the San Francisco area. “I became aware that there was a great need for such services in our Indian American and South Asian American communities as well,” she says. “There was a very sad case in our community, where a young woman tried to commit suicide because she felt she had no one to help her. That is what led me to co-found Maitri.”
Divakaruni’s activism and writing intersect in powerful ways. “It is very important for me to write stories of women, and to place women at the center of my stories as the protagonists,” she says. “It is important for me to show complex women in many different roles, often undergoing difficulty and emerging stronger as a result of it.”
“Through both my activist work and my writing, I hope I am raising consciousness about the complex field of changing women’s roles and the continued support women require so that they can live with dignity and independence,” she continues. “Often, women write to me to say that my work has given them courage and inspiration to go through their own problems. It always makes me very happy when I read this. I believe my writing is an important part of my activism, and my activism fuels my writing.”
For aspiring writers hoping to make an impact with their words and action, Divakaruni recommends taking creative writing classes, which are now offered both in Indian and U.S. universities, and available online. “Having regular instruction and a writing community to share your work with are extremely valuable for young writers,” she says.
Divakaruni advises reading a great deal and a wide variety of books. “Although I did not become a writer until much later in my life, I was always an avid reader,” she says. “I am certain that all the reading I did had a definite and positive impact on my writing. Great books became my teachers as I struggled to form my first few works.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.