Most of us crowded between sea and shining sea are from someplace else. If we didn't arrive here under our own steam, then it was our parents, or grandparents, or someone our grandparents' parents might vaguely remember hearing about, crashing the first Thanksgiving supper or crossing the frozen Bering Strait in a bearskin. We're a nation of arrivals.
In both her poetry and prose, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni illuminates the newcomer's experience, showing how cultures collide in startling and profound ways. Her narrators, often Indian women or girls, are forced to reconcile their traditional beliefs with the sometimes liberating, sometimes antagonistic attitudes they find in the U.S., attitudes that force them to question their own identities.
Divakaruni herself was born in India and arrived in Northern California at age 20. "One of my primary impulses for writing," she says, "was the experience of immigration, of finding myself in a whole different world." She's now published four books of poetry (Leaving Yuba City is the latest), a collection of stories, and won a slew of literary awards. Her second novel, Sister of My Heart, will be published in January.
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Her first novel, 1997's The Mistress of Spices, tells the story of an immortal woman who travels through time and space to Oakland, California, where she prescribes medicinal spices to combat her customers' modern-day ailments. The book has been hailed by critics, has found its way to the top of bestseller lists across the country and -- that most American mark of success -- is being made into a Hollywood film.
After spending the last 20 years in California's Bay Area, Divakaruni this year joined the faculty of the University of Houston's creative writing program. She says she's "slowly beginning to feel my way around the city," to make the connections that mean so much to her. Once again, she finds herself far from familiar surroundings -- and this time, it's Houston that's the strange land.
-- Seth Hurwitz
Divakaruni reads with Garrett Hongo at the Brown Auditorium, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, on Tuesday, October 27, at 7:30 p.m. Their readings are part of the Voices of Asian America series, sponsored by Inprint and the Asia Society Texas.