During the first part of 2001, Indian author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruniwas working on a book about the immigrant experience in the United States. But before she'd completed it, there came a terrible interruption: the attacks of September 11. "I knew I had to write about it," says Divakaruni, author of the best-selling Sister of My Heart and The Mistress of Spices.
She'd already decided the novel would explore "alternate realities," and she'd begun researching dreams and dream interpretation. After some time, she realized how the attacks fit with her story. "On one level it was very real," she says, "and on another level it was unbelievable -- it was like a nightmare."
The novel, called Queen of Dreams, has just been published. It explores that nebulous space where events, experiences and dreams collide. "When something happens in the world, different people don't see it as the same thing," says Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston. "Different people are convinced of their realities," she says, "and their realities don't really match up." In part, Queen of Dreams examines the conflicting ways people saw themselves and the people around them -- especially visible minorities -- after 9/11.
It also tells the story of Rakhi, a young mother and divorcée living in Berkeley. As a painter and a small-business owner, she leads a more Westernized life than her immigrant parents, but she longs to be closer to her mother, who's a dream interpreter, and learn more about her own heritage. But Rakhi's mother and her eerily accurate dream interpretations remain just beyond Rakhi's understanding. When her mother dies suddenly, her secrets do too, so Rakhi turns to the dream journals her mother left behind, trying to decipher their cryptic meaning and understand how her past, present and future fit together. The events of 9/11 interrupt her quest.
Fittingly, Divakaruni chose to tell Queen of Dreams in multiple voices: here Rakhi speaks, there her mother, here a narrator. As it switches voices, the book also flits back and forth in time. Yet Queen of Dreams is a flowing read in spite of these shifts, thanks to the grace of Divakaruni's prose, which itself has a dreamlike quality and is spiced with glimpses of the Indian cultural heritage she and her characters share.
Divakaruni, who came from India at age 19, speaks deliberately to the immigrant experience, its surprises and disappointments, and the way it changed after 9/11. Her characters' cultural identity is very much in flux. "I'm really interested in chasing the life of the Indian immigrant community here," Divakaruni says. "As the community is changing and their themes are changing, my themes become different as well."
Houston eventually may lend its reality to one of her novels. Divakaruni has set much of her work in Berkeley, where she lived for 20 years before taking up part-time residence in Sugar Land. She says it takes quite a while for her to absorb a place enough to feature it prominently in her writing. Still, she's "taking notes on Houston," she says, with a knowing chuckle. "I'm a good eavesdropper."