Interviews October 2004

Imagined Homelands

Chitra Divakaruni, author of Queen of Dreams, talks about the immigrant experience, magic realism, and incorporating 9/11 into her fiction
book cover

Queen of Dreams
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Chitra Divakaruni
352 pages, $21.95

"What has impelled my writing so far," says the Calcutta-born author Chitra Divakaruni, "is the desire to put women in the center of stories, to have their voices be the voices of interpretation, their eyes the ones that we see through. There just hasn't been enough of that in the world, if you look back at literary history."

Beginning with her first book of short stories, Arranged Marriage (1995), Divakaruni has remained faithful to her feminist impulse. Bound up in tradition as though it were an ill-fitting sari, her female characters have often struggled with domestic abuse, despair, and displacement. The heroines in her first three novels—the fantastical The Mistress of Spices (1997), followed by Sister of My Heart (1999) and its sequel, The Vine of Desire (2002)—all depart South Asia for the United States. These Indian women acclimate to their new land and expanding opportunities even as their oldest ties—to family and tradition—are pulled taut and begin to fray.

Divakaruni's new novel, Queen of Dreams, introduces a more established heroine: Rahki, the desi (American-born) daughter of Indian immigrants. A California-based painter, small business owner, and divorced mother, Rahki experiences both the advantages and angst of an emancipated, middle-class existence on the West Coast. Yet she remains preoccupied with an imaginary East—an India mysteriously abandoned and then left undescribed by her parents.

Though a work of magic realism, Queen of Dreams is concerned with the real issues confronting the second generation in today's Indian-American community. Divakaruni explored some of these themes—the strains on filial loyalty in the face of changing values, the sense of a lost Eden—in her most recent collection of stories, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (2001). One of the tales in that book, "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," about the irreconcilable differences between an American family and its immigrant matriarch, originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and was selected for The Best American Short Stories 1999.

Divakaruni immigrated to the United States in 1976, at the age of nineteen. A former resident of San Francisco's Bay Area, she now lives with her husband and two sons in Texas, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Houston. We spoke recently by phone.

Susan Comninos

Author photo
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Chitra Divakaruni


Your previous novels have all featured Indian heroines who came to the United States as part of the 1970s wave of emigration from South Asia. What led you to create an American-born narrator for Queen of Dreams?

Having explored so many of the stories of women coming over here, I wanted to explore another side of the diasporic experience: What happens to the next generation? That's a very timely question, because with the Indian community in the states getting older, the experience of the second generation is becoming more important.

A lot of young people who have grown up here have seen India only as visitors. Or, in many cases, they have not seen India at all, if their parents didn't make a real effort, or perhaps couldn't afford a trip back home. So there's this connection and yet lack of connection to the homeland.

And a lot of times, I think, as with Rahki, there is a sense of "All right, I have an idea of this place in my mind, and it's a very special idea, and perhaps I'm afraid to go and see what the real thing is."

How do you feel about some among the second generation in your community having overly romantic notions about India?

It's an ironic progression of what brought their parents to the United States. Their parents came with a similarly romanticized view of what the West would be. And of course California, where I situated Rahki, is the West of the West—the most romanticized, mythic place of all.

Rahki has these magical and romantic ideas about India, and her parents—especially her mother—are always trying to dispel them. I thought that was an unusual takeoff on what normally happens. Usually, children have these wonderful ideas about India, and their immigrant parents, who have a real emotional connection to the homeland, are all for furthering them: "Yes, yes, it's just as wonderful as you think it is." Of course that will lead to problems if the young person ever returns to India.

Now we're seeing, in reverse, the same sort of romanticization. Our tendency as human beings to idealize a place is passed on from generation to generation. It's just the place that becomes different each time. So the East romanticizes the West and the West romanticizes the East.

So the only thing that remains consistent is fantasy?

It's more than fantasy. It's the human desire to find that ideal place. We're always looking for Utopia. And we place our Utopias in different locations.

Berkeley as you paint it is at once Utopia and dystopia. Based there as an artist and an owner of a tea shop, Rahki enjoys an independent life. But she's querulous, and perhaps not the most sympathetic of your characters. Women in your earlier work endured beatings and the pressure to abort female fetuses; Rahki struggles with romantic disappointment, artistic frustration, and imperfect parents. Was it fun to create a heroine not wrestling, for once, with basic survival issues?

Yes. Of course, the more serious survival issues are still relevant. But now, a large part of our community here is well established—middle-class or upper middle-class, or really affluent. So its concerns are bound to be different. It has the concerns of a more settled community, of a second generation that doesn't have to struggle, because the parents have already struggled and made sure their children have what they need to survive.

Do you have the same amount of sympathy for the privileged among the second generation as you do for the immigrant women that you've depicted in your previous novels, who are far more dependent on the men in their lives and far more constrained by traditional Indian society?

Yes, I think I do. Maybe sympathy isn't the right word; maybe empathy is a better word. I do understand the second generation. I have nieces and nephews and now two children of my own growing up here. Although sometimes their concerns are very different from mine, I do understand. When Abhay, my 10-year-old, is really upset about something that happened in school, who am I to say that it's not as distressing as when Sudha, a heroine in Sister of My Heart, wants to marry someone and her family says no?

I think we feel anguish in different ways. For the person who's experiencing it, that anguish is very real. And I want my readers to feel that. I hope that Rahki's anxieties and fears—and the quest she's on—are meaningful for readers.

Rahki's quest to know more about her mother—to find out how she became a dream teller in India and learned to predict the future—takes the story into the realm of fantasy. Why do you like to use surrealism in your novels?

Growing up in India and reading Indian literature and being told stories when I was young, I loved that element of the magical and mysterious. So I naturally gravitate toward that. And I like the extra dimension that it introduces. It's especially suitable to Queen of Dreams, which is a novel that explores the mysteries in life, the fact that things happen for which there is no explanation. As much as we would like to figure things out logically, that's not always possible.

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