San Francisco Posts

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, “Before We Visit the Goddess”


Earlier this week I interviewed Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni via email about her latest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, published by Simon & Schuster. The review-cum-interview article has been published by newly launched literary website, Bookwitty.com on 20 May 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/573df5efacd0d0353bea32f7 . I am c&p the text below. One of the things I did not point out in the review but continues to bewilder me is the use of a Rajasthani woman on the book cover when all the books by the author focus on Bengali women.

 

One day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away…

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni occupies a capital place in global publishing as is evident in her moves between publishers from Picador to Penguin Random House and now to Simon & Schuster. She may be of Indian origin and her stories are very Bengali oriented but they have far greater international appeal. She moved to the USA in the 1970s but remains culturally sensitive to Bengali women’s stories. For years now she has worked with women’s organizations that help survivors of domestic abuse and trafficking. As she told me, “I am on the advisory board of Maitri in the San Francisco area and Daya in Houston. Maybe for this reason, it is important for me to write about strong women who go through difficult situations and are strengthened further by them. This is certainly true of my newest book, Before We Visit the Goddess. I never use the stories I come across in my activist work – those are confidential. But I am sure on some level they have influenced me as a writer and a human being.”

Her early works focused on the known world of Bengali women in the villages and cities, interpersonal relationships, on the home, inside the kitchen, women to women, and the importance of gossip. One such work, Mistress of Spices (1997) was turned into a film in 2005 with noted Bollywood actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

A decade later, the path breaking The Palace of Illusions ( 2008) was published. It is a feminist retelling of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata from the point of view of the King of Panchala’s daughter. It was a bestseller and according to Pan Macmillan India, now years after publication it continues to sell steadily at around 15,000 copies every year. This was a watershed moment in Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s life as a writer. The Palace of Illusions is now to be made into a film directed by the legendary Aparna Sen, which Divakaruni says she is very excited about. She also began to write young adult fiction such as Brotherhood of the Conch series (2003), in reaction, she told me at the time, to racist abuse she experienced with her sons in the US post 9/11.

She quickly returned to writing her trademark literature. Her later novels are written with a stronger voice and with an assertion of her multi-cultural makeup. As she says, “I have many identities, but ultimately labels are just that – labels. My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas. … I would like to think of myself as a global, multicultural writer with roots deep in India – and now Houston.”

She writes with great sensitivity to youth especially immigrants coming to the US. The confusion they face, the hostility, the racism, negotiating their way through life but also the unexpected benevolence of humankind that exists.

Before We Visit the Goddess is Divakaruni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. In the fashionable mold of contemporary fiction with a five-generation saga, it predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women, Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much, much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakaruni’s novels is the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories woman experience and the cultural differences of living in India and the US.

“My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas.”

To her credit, Divakaruni creates charmingly and deceptively simple women-centric novels. She never presents a utopian scenario focusing only on women and excluding any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly help them develop into strong personalities:

“I believe in the right of women to live a life of dignity and make their own choices about important decisions in their lives. Therefore, I believe in women’s education, empowerment, and financial independence. These themes are all very important in Before We Visit the Goddess.”

It could be, for instance, the timid homemaker Bela’s insistence on taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise, winning, or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbor, Kenneth, who helps her to establish herself successfully as a food blogger. Without being over-sentimental, Kenneth is tender and radiates pure love.

Divakaruni wrote about her character, “The young gay Caucasian male, Ken, became one of my favorite characters as I was writing him. I hope his unusual relationship with Bela will surprise and delight readers.”

Even the bright Tara who, besides a stray phone call or two, disappears from her family’s life after her parents’ divorce lives an adventurous decade. This includes working at a second-hand shop, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive”, or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Texas with equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. What is admirable about these women is that despite humiliation and hardship, they strive to get ahead.

The stories also work beautifully if read aloud. To my delight, I discovered that Divakaruni does just that with passages from her stories while drafting them, since “you become aware of the rhythm of the language you use”.

The structure of her prose is like a fluid stream of consciousness, evident in the manner in which she plays with the epistolary form and breaks it up in the first chapter when Sabitri is writing a letter to her granddaughter, Tara. Divakaruni believes that with women, “our thought-connections are often emotional ones.”

It is exactly this emotional resonance she wishes to explore and exploit in Before We meet the Goddess, deeming it a “novel-in-stories”. It is “a form that allows me to go through three generations of lives, their ups and downs, in an agile and swift manner, a non-chronological manner. This is important for me, because in some ways this is a novel about memory and how it colors and shapes our understanding of our life. Each chapter in the novel is a stand-alone story, focusing on a moment in the lives of these women, an emotionally significant moment, perhaps a moment of transformation – either good or bad. The stories have many narrators – not just the three women, but the man important in their lives – even if just for one day. Such a structure allows me to organize the novel according to emotional resonance.”

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without making any of the experiences sentimental, such as young Bela’s pain, or the loneliness, and whimsical and wretched behavior of Leelamoyi, Bela’s wealthy benefactress. Her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but she also develops the inter-generational differences magnificently. She did her research, she said, by conversing with young Indians including those who have moved to or are studying in the US, and speaks via Skype to classes in colleges that teach her books. She is active on social media and “loves interacting with her readers”.

At a time when debate rages in the US as to whether the word “India” should be replaced with “South Asia” in school history textbooks, Divakaruni’s novel is more than auspicious. According to The New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.

Divakaruni’s books have always elegantly examined multi-cultural identities and what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi (people from the Indian sub-continent or South Asia who live abroad). In her masterfully crafted Before We Visit the Goddess, young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians — not ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) anymore but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently, she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had any for generations. So a posting to India is as much of an exciting new adventure as it would be for anyone else visiting the country for the first time. Divakaruni’s latest novel examines these many layers of cultures, interweaving the traditional and contemporary.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

20 May 2016

Salil Tripathi, “Detours: Songs of the Open Road”

Detours( Noted London-based Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s third book, Detours, is a collection of his column/essays on travel writing. This book is meant to be savoured. I was able to read one, maximum two, essays at a time. There was so much to absorb and appreciate in each essay in terms of the rich cultural experiences, the noises, colour, smells, details about the landscape, socio-political characteristics of the places he visits at that particular time with some history deftly blended in. Every single element seems to have his attention for detail. For instance, each chapter heading is carefully selected, it is appropriate for what follows in the essay but also resonates with the reader at many levels. It is rare to find such craftsmanship in a book today. Salil Tripathi has been a man of letters for some decades giving him immense practice in relying upon words to share, comment, dissect and analyse an experience but he does so without ever being dull. So reading Detours is infinitely pleasurable since not for a second does one miss the lack of photographs, sketches or any other form of illustration to support the travelogue. Just focus on the man and his words. This is armchair tourism at its finest!

I am posting an extract from the introduction reproduced with permission from the publishers.) 

As I started working on the essays, I looked back at the great travel writing I had read—Mark Twain, Eric Newby, Salil TripathiPaul Theroux, Ian Buruma, Pico Iyer, and William Dalrymple are among the writers through whose words I began to look at the world differently. I had also read many entertaining accounts, of an American or British writer abroad—like S J Perelman or George Mikes—and enjoyed the tragicomedy that followed. But getting off the beaten track and travelling on roads not taken to reach quieter places seemed so much more enticing. I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes—not as if it was an empire-striking-back, for that would be too presumptuous: how can anyone born in India claim to speak on behalf of a billion people? Rather, mine would be an attempt to look at the world through a sensibility that had been shaped by India and later tinged by other cultures.

I hadn’t left India until 1975 when I was still thirteen, on a tour organised by my school to Nepal. In 1979 I spent a few weeks in Scotland on a student exchange programme. In 1983 I went to the United States to study and returned home in 1986. I moved abroad in 1991, when I left for Singapore, and then in 1999, for England. Each journey affected in some way how I saw the world. My work—as a correspondent first, and later, as a researcher/advocate for human rights organisations—has taken me to fifty-five countries (including India). I’ve learned something new from each visit; I’ve made lasting friendships in many cities and towns around the world. It is impossible to write down each experience. This book attempts to reveal the world I have seen.

The book is divided into three parts: War & After, Words & Images, and Loss & Remembrance. The first section, War & After, deals with places that have been deeply affected by armed conflict or have had human rights challenges—Bogotá, Jakarta, Berlin, Yangon, Mostar, Phnom Penh, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Singapore, Lagos, and Istanbul. In the next section, Words & Images, I write about places that I have understood better because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid: Bombay (now Mumbai), Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Nairobi and Naivasha, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, Granada, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, Kyoto, Srimongol and Shilaidaha, Shanghai, and New York. The third section, Loss & Remembrance, is the most personal; it is, in a sense, about Karuna Sirkar, my wife who died in 2006. I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits; or the places where I went with my sons Udayan and Ameya after her passing, as the three of us tried to pick ourselves up to understand the meaning of our shattering loss: Ludlow and Proctersville, Collioure, Geneva, Stockholm, Venice, Beachy Head, Ålesund and Oslo, and San Francisco.

Salil Tripathi Detours: Songs of the Open Road Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., 2016. Hb. pp. 380. Rs. 695 

16 Feb 2016

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!