Award-winning and bestselling author, poet and activist, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has enthralled readers worldwide with her novels focusing on the South Asian immigrant experience, and spiced with history, mythology and unforgettable characters. We caught up with the prolific author to discuss her latest, Before We Visit The Goddess.
INDULGE: What inspired Before We Visit the Goddess?
CHITRA: I started researching this book soon after my mother passed away. At that time, as I contemplated her life and our relationship, I also thought a lot about heritage: what it is, what it means, and how it can be,simultaneously, a wonderful gift and a weight around one’s neck. We pass on so many wonderful cultural and family values through heritage, but unless we are careful, we can also pass along our prejudices and our fears of the world. I also thought a lot about the importance of being successful as a woman – that was a lesson that my mother had imprinted upon me. She brought up my two younger brothers and me as a single parent, with great difficulty, for many years in India, and she had always told me, “I really want you to be successful so that you don’t have to struggle like I’m doing.” I knew, however, by observing my mother’s life – and to some extent my own – that success comes with a price tag. All of these thoughts and concerns went into Before We Visit the Goddess.
INDULGE: Your book is about many things including the contrast and relationship between generations. What do you think the younger generation could learn from the older and vise versa?
CHITRA: I definitely think both the generations need to learn from each other. It is a mistake to think that only the younger folks have lessons to learn from the older generation. I know this because I learn so much from my children — they often have such an open, hopeful, adventurous way of looking at the world. From them, I’ve learned not to take life too seriously and enjoy each day as it comes. From the older generations I’ve learned about how to handle changes, difficulties, and disappointments – and how to forgive. The older generation has also passed on traditions, cultural memories, and wonderful recipes that have enriched my mind– and my books – in many ways. Before We Visit the Goddess is full of traditional dishes of Bengal, the part of India, where I come from. (Some of the recipes are on my blog, http://www.chitradivakaruni.com/blog/). I’ve tried to show this inter-generational weaving of lessons learned through the three generations I present in the novel – Sabitri, the resolute grandmother, Bela, her adventurous daughter, and Tara, her rebellious grandchild. At some moment or other in the novel, they each learn something surprising and crucial from the other.
INDULGE: How do you get inspired?
CHITRA: I read a great deal – in fact, you might say I’m addicted to reading! Reading a good book often inspires me and sets my mind spinning with ideas and possible plots. Sometimes reading about something that’s going on in the world, particularly as it relates to immigrants or women or families or contemporary American culture, in the newspaper will do the same thing for me. And as you can see in Before We Visit the Goddess, an important life event will also sometimes spark off a novel.
INDULGE: Your novels always have strong female characters, women with strong, unforgettable voices. What can the women of today learn from your characters that can perhaps help them with the challenges they face in today’s world?
CHITRA: Writing about women has been important to me for over two decades, ever since I started doing activist work in the field of domestic violence and abuse. My books are not lesson-heavy–I don’t think a good book should be that way. I hope my readers will pick up things indirectly by identifying with my characters, feeling their joys and sorrows–and laughing with them. What I like to depict and explore in books (and particularly in this novel) is how sometimes challenging situations bring out a strength in us that we never knew we had. How they transform us in ways we could never have imagined. A challenging situation is not just a problem; it can also be an opportunity. I think that’s what I’d love for my readers — both men and women – to keep in mind.
“Before We Visit the Goddess” (Simon & Schuster) is available here.
— Ghalib Dhalla.