A tale of storytellers under pressure

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A tale of storytellers under pressure

NEW DELHI - Award-winning author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel about people trapped during an earthquake gets new meaning in a year that has seen devastating quakes hit Haiti, Chile and China.

In “One Amazing Thing,” a group of nine people are trapped in the visa office at an Indian consulate in an American city. As they wait to be rescued, they tell each other stories.

Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston in the United States, won the American Book Award in 1995 for her short story collection, “Arranged Marriage.” Her novel “Mistress of Spices” was short-listed for the Orange Prize for women’s fiction.

The author usually focuses on the experiences of South Asian immigrants, but this time, Divakaruni’s characters are from different cultural backgrounds and have their own reasons for wanting to go to India.

In an e-mail interview from Houston, Divakaruni told Reuters about the genesis of the novel, her love of complicated narratives and her next project.

Q. Where did the idea for One Amazing Thing come from?

A. It was when I was volunteering with [Hurricane] Katrina refugees who had come into Houston in 2005 that I first started thinking about the whole phenomenon of grace under pressure, which became a major theme in One Amazing Thing. Some of the people I worked with were so angry. Some of them were devastated. But others were able to maintain calm, or even joke about things. I kept asking myself, Why? Why some and not the others?

A few weeks later I was experiencing a similar situation firsthand - Hurricane Rita was coming through Houston and we were asked to evacuate. As we sat on the freeway late into the night, paralyzed by traffic and wondering what would happen to us, I saw people around me responding in many different ways. The pressure brought out the worst in some and the best in others. Some were toting guns, snarling at people; others were sharing their meager supplies of water and snacks. That’s when I knew I’d have to write a novel about this phenomenon.

Would you describe it as a novel about karma, multiculturalism or the human will?

I think it is all of the above. Or at least it questions the notions of karma and what they mean and how much we as humans can control our lives through our wills. Since in this book right at the beginning the characters are trapped by an earthquake in a visa office situated in the basement of a high-rise building, destiny or karma is obviously a force.

But how they choose to respond to this disaster - that’s where human will comes in. The novel is intentionally multicultural in its character makeup. That’s a long-term interest of mine - how we relate to people we consider different from us. Also, I wanted to explore how people of many different backgrounds have ties to India.

There is a reference to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” as in the novel the quake survivors take turns to talk about their experiences. Was it a deliberate choice of genre?

Yes, it was... I’m intrigued by books which use the tale-within-a tale framework, or the device of many people in one place, telling their stories or multiple storytellers commenting on each others’ stories with their own. I think this complicates the narrative in interesting ways. In addition to The Canterbury Tales and “Wuthering Heights,” I was drawing on works such as “The Decameron,” “The Arabian Nights” and the Indian wise-animal tales “The Panchatantra,” which I particularly love because my grandfather used to tell me those stories when I was a child.

What is your routine for writing?

I prefer to write early in the day after I drop off my son to school. I do my meditation and then I try to write for several hours if I can.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

These are the things which work for me: Read regularly and widely; read as a writer (with a notebook where you write down techniques or sentences that impress you and how you might use them); keep a separate writer’s notebook to jot down story ideas so you don’t lose them; write regularly - give up some other things to make enough time for writing in your life. Form a writer’s group or join a workshop so you can get good feedback and ideas for improvement. And revise, revise, revise.

Have you started your next book?

Yes, I have. It is a novel where a young Indian woman who has always believed that her parents are dead discovers that her father is alive somewhere in the U.S. and she goes in search of him. I am thinking of it as a quest novel. Reuters
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