Imagined Homelands

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


"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

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.

But even as Queen of Dreams embraces the surreal, it questions whether Rahki's mother was in fact a dream teller. And it questions Rahki's sense of reality, including whether her perceived betrayal by her ex-husband, Sonny, ever really happened. Why is it important for the novel to question reality?

We like to think of reality as being objective, but it's really a very subjective phenomenon. We don't think it is, because most of the time we live around people whose subjective reality matches our own. I think 9/11 was a big eye opener for us. It was such a powerful and painful lesson in how different people saw America.

When those people crashed the planes into the World Trade Center towers, they were operating under a different reality. Their subjective reality, what they believed, was very different from what the people who were in those buildings at that time believed. And when those two realities clashed, enormous violence and pain resulted.

That's an extreme example, but that same principle functions in a different way between people in a more domestic context—between Rahki and her mother, for instance. When I was writing this novel, in the aftermath of 9/11, this idea was very strong in my mind: what is reality, really? Aren't we all living out different fantasies of what we think is real?

Queen of Dreams depicts 9/11 and its cultural aftershocks, including a scene in which bigoted whites attack South Asians in America. Why did you decide to protest jingoistic violence in a novel, rather than by writing an op-ed piece or even a short story—either of which would have reached the public sooner than this book, published three years later?

Right after 9/11 occurred, I did write a number of pieces for magazines and newspapers. I wrote something for Good Housekeeping titled "Being Dark-Skinned in a Dark Time." And I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times about how putting up an American flag became a double-edged sword for people who might look Middle Eastern—and how I felt when I put up a flag at my house.

How did you feel?

As an American, I wanted to show my support and my patriotism. I wanted to put up a flag. On the other hand, letters were being circulated in my community that said "Put up a flag for your own safety." Then I felt, Why should I have to put up a flag for my own safety? Why should I have to prove I'm not a bad person, just because I look a certain way? And so it became a very ambivalent gesture. I did put up a flag, but every time I looked at it, I was visited by these very different feelings. I know a lot of people in my community felt the same way.

So I did those immediate pieces of writing, which were much more autobiographical. But the question of what happened—and how, in difficult times, a visible minority becomes a target—continued to concern me. I felt very strongly about it. I had to find a more permanent literary space to put it in. So, when I started writing Queen of Dreams, I knew I wanted to bring 9/11 into it. The book may be coming out three years later, but the concern was there right from the beginning. It takes time to digest experience and transform it into a literary, non-autobiographical form. And this is how long it took me.

There's a history of advocacy in American letters. Crusade novels include Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, a cry against the evils of slavery, and Upton Sinclair's exposé of the meat-packing industry, The Jungle. Do you see your fiction as a form of social advocacy? Do you want it to be that?

That's a complicated question. I think that advocacy can't be the starting point of a novel. For me, the starting point has to come from deep inside, where I feel very strongly about something—not necessarily something that has happened to me, but something that is happening around me. And then the story takes over.

I hope the end product will make people more compassionate and more empathetic, and lead them to examine their behavior and perhaps change things. But I can't start a story thinking, Now, I'm going to write about a woman in a domestic abuse situation, because I want people to change how things are being done.

So your fiction is not a call for change?

Let me put it this way: I definitely hope that my fiction will lead to change, both in attitudes and behavior. But I know that goal can't be my starting point. As Emily Dickinson said, you have to tell the truth, but you have to tell it slant. You can't hit people over the head with it. I think art suffers when you have an agenda.

As a writer of magic realism, you're in distinguished company. Some of the American writers working in the genre include Isabel Allende, Sherman Alexie, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jonathan Safran Foer—all of whom are members of expatriate or minority communities. Any thoughts on why, in contemporary American fiction, magic realism is often considered the province of "ethnic" writers?

I'm not sure I have a definitive answer for that. Perhaps it's because magic is such a big part of what we grew up with in our home cultures. It's certainly true in Maxine Hong Kingston's case. The magical parts of The Woman Warrior come directly out of mythical stories that she was told when she was little. I think it's the same with Sherman Alexie. He uses magic, but I think he's also ironic about it. And the Indian literary tradition, at least one branch of it, is filled with magic and myth and tale-telling. It's something that I grew up with and am very attracted to as a way of getting at the truths of this world.

A May 2002 Newsweek article proclaimed magic realism to be passé. Days later, Robert McCrum wrote in London's Observer: "For just over a generation, magic realism has been the default position of the world's new fiction, the modish literary style to which aspiring novelists in English, Czech, German, French or Spanish, of course, would resort in the perpetual struggle to make an ordinary narrative seem extraordinary." Your rebuttal?

I think certain books require magic realism. It's organic to the book, to the world that is being written about. That is the reason one should use it. Queen of Dreams is a very different kind of novel, with a strong interest in mystery and changing realities. Therefore it needed a different kind of telling. And my next novel will be different in a whole other way.

What do you have planned for your next novel?

Oh, I can't talk much about it! It's very much in the baby stage; it has to be nurtured. But I can tell you this much: what I'm planning is different from anything I've written. And I'm kind of scared.

Speaking of new trends in your fiction, the men in Queen of Dreams are more sympathetic than some of your other male characters. While Sonny and Rahki's father share a past of chemical abuse—Sonny used drugs and Rahki's father has gone on quiet drunks—both are empathetic, capable of love, and yearn for connection to their families. Was their creation as such a conscious thing?

I'm not sure it was conscious. I think these male characters grew organically out of the story. And I'm very pleased at how they've turned out. I really like those two men. Earlier stories needed different kinds of male characters—perhaps because of the women characters and the situations they were in.

Who these characters are I think is very much a product of their changing community. As you mentioned earlier, it's not the same type of basic survival issues that they're dealing with anymore. The issues are more complex. Women in this novel have reached a certain level of empowerment before the novel begins—and therefore their relationships with men are different. There are still conflicts, of course. There is still pain and suffering. But I think you're absolutely right to say that these men have become present in a whole new way.

You practice Vipassana, an ancient Indian form of meditation that leads to enlightenment. Do you believe in reincarnation?

I do.

Is that a happy belief or is it frightening?

Oh, it's an absolutely happy belief. If you mess up this time, you get another chance.

If you come back around again, do you think you'll be a writer?

Well, you know, I'm trying very hard not to come back again.