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“Immigration Made Me Into A Writer”: Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

WordSpring 2016 Preview #3

Once again, The Haberdasher is pleased to present a series of interviews with presenters from this year’s WordSpring Creative Writing Conference. We will feature conversations on craft, process, inspiration, form, and publishing right up to the conference, April 23rd.

For your Friday reading pleasure, leHab’s Jasmeen Bassi interviews Chitra  Banerjee Divakaruni.


C. Divakaruni

C. Divakaruni by Laura Silva

“Immigration Made Me Into a Writer”

by Jasmeen Bassi

I had the great honor of interviewing the talented, Chitra Divakaruni. Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author and poet, as well as an activist against domestic violence, and a teacher of writing. Divakaruni’s need to explore the ways immigration transformed members of the Indian American community inspired her to become a writer. After several years of writing late at night, she was finally able to share stories that needed to be told. That needed to be heard.  In her stories, Divakaruni creates strong female characters who are brave, ambitious, passionate, and daring. Women who are survivors. Divakaruni’s stories truly encourage her readers to embrace diversity and celebrate different cultures. Her goal is to make her readers realize, no matter what our culture or skin color, we’re all part of the human race. Divakaruni’s writing is for everyone because it has a little bit of everything. 

Jasmeen Bassi (JB): When did you first start writing, and what intrigued you about literature and storytelling? And did you always plan on becoming a published author?

Chitra Divakaruni (CD): I did not start writing until several years after I immigrated to the US. Immigration made me into a writer because I felt a great need to explore the ways in which immigration transformed members of the Indian American community—and how we transform America. At first, I did not think I had the talent to become published. I worked on my writing by myself late at night for several years.

JB: Who are your writing influences, and how have they helped you grow as a writer? Can you list a few of your favorite books and authors?

CD:  These are some of my favorite books that have helped me grow as a writer by teaching me how to create compelling characters, conflicts and settings: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Tagore’s Home and the World and A Wife’s Letter,  Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

JB: What is the most memorable experience you have had as a published author? And what advice can you give aspiring writers that wish to be published?

CD: My most memorable experience was when a young woman came up to me and said that after reading my story “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter” (from the collection Unknown Errors of our Lives), she really understood her grandmother, who had moved from India to live in her home. She told me that she used to be very impatient with this old woman before, but after reading my story, she understood how difficult it must be for her to live in a whole new culture, and she changed her whole attitude toward her grandma.

Advice to writers: read widely, write regularly, edit ruthlessly.

JB: What is your goal as an author when it comes to your readers? What do you hope that your readers take away from the stories that you tell?

CD: I hope my stories encourage people to celebrate difference and embrace diversity. We are all part of the human race, no matter what our culture or skin color might be.

JB: In your short story, Clothes  you’re able to capture the immigrant experience quite beautifully through Sumita. In creating Sumita, did you reflect back on your own experience of coming to America? In other words, what is your process when it comes to creating a new character? Do the people in your life inspire your characters? Or do you create characters with a message in mind?

CD: Sometimes I will read a book, watch a movie or overhear a conversation. Then my imagination will take over and I will begin to create a character. Sometimes I draw upon my own experiences, too. 

JB: In your books, you courageously push past the social conventions of the Indian/South Asian culture in order to create stories that are not only meaningful, charming, but loud (bold) with a message. For instance, in your book Palace of Illusions, you create a strong female narrator in order to reveal what it takes to be a courageous woman in South Asian/Indian culture. Panchaali is not only a great heroine for Indian women, but she is a great example of what a strong woman is. Panchaali is truly a hero for everyone because she is able to breakthrough social norms with a fury and passion that touches the hearts’ of the readers. Have you ever felt like you had to hold back when it came to telling your stories because of the social expectations put on South Asian/Indian women?  In other words, did you ever have to channel your inner Panchaali when it came to your writing?

CD: It’s very important for me to create strong women characters, to break through social barriers and expectations that hold women back. Sometimes I worry when I’m writing a character or situation like that. Sometimes I am afraid of the backlash. But I write those things anyway, because it’s important that they should be done. I think my many years of volunteering in the field of domestic violence have made me feel strongly about such issues.

JB: In your poem “Indian Movie, New Jersey,” you’re able to marvelously capture the feeling of what it means to come home to one’s culture, and how sometimes we forget the beauty that exists in our culture because we’re either ashamed or disconnected.  

The sex-goddess switches

to thickened English to emphasize

a joke. We laugh and clap. Here

we need not to be embarrassed

by mispronounced phrases

dropping like hot lead into foreign ears.

The flickering movie light

wipes from our faces years of America,

sons who want mohawks and refuse

to run the family store, daughters who date

on the sly.  – from “Indian Movie, New Jersey

As a bilingual writer in western society, have you ever felt pressured to write like a westerner? In other words, did you ever feel as if you had to conform and only write about the American culture?

CD: Sometimes, in my early years, I felt that kind of pressure. People would say, we can’t relate to what you’re writing. We don’t understand it. But I always took that as a challenge to write a better story, something so good that it would pull everyone into it. 

JB: What message can you give to those who wish to express their artistic talents, but are too afraid to push past the cultural and traditional norms they’ve been raised to follow?

CD: If you want to be an artist, you must be brave. Keep pushing. Give your all to your art. At first it will be hard. Then beautiful things will begin to happen. That’s how it was for me.

JB: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could pick one book, one character from your books, and one famous author of your choice to bring along, who and what would you bring?

CD: I would pick Panchaali from Palace of Illusions. She’s a strong character, always full of surprises. And a survivor. I might choose Jane Austen. I really like her dry humor.

JB: Lastly, can you give us a sneak peek of your  workshop “Powerful Methods for Engaging Readers of Fiction“?

CD: I will be sharing several writing techniques that I believe can help writers bring their stories to life and entice readers into their fictional world.

In addition to her participation in WordSpring 2016, on Saturday, April 23rd, Divakaruni will also be giving a reading Friday, April 22. For more information visit:

We will have more interviews with WordSpring presenters over the weekend, so come back by if you’re looking for writing inspiration, or if you’re deciding which of the seventeen WordSpring 2016 workshops to attend.



About The Haberdasher

Created by writers for writers, The Haberdasher, or le Hab, is your Peddler of Literary Art for Northern California and beyond. In addition to writing tips and literary debates, we also feature critical reviews and author interviews.


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