Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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The best-selling Houston-based writer sets her new novel, The Palace of Illusions, in the fifth millennium BCE. Based on India’s epic Mahabharat poem, it examines love and war from the perspective of Princess Panchaali. (Read an excerpt.)
The Palace of Illusions is a re-imagining of the Mahabharat (an epic poem from the fourth to fifth century BCE)—is there a parallel you can draw in Western literature?
Yes, there are many. I think writers from both east and west have long been fascinated by the ancient tales and the opportunity to reinterpret them. I’m thinking of books such as John Gardner’s Grendel, which turns the Beowulf legend upside down, or Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, which places the Agamemnon myth in the context of Civil War America. Or more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which does something similar to my project, focusing on one of the major female characters in the Odyssey.
What concerns or fears did you have about tackling such a beloved text?
The Mahabharat is so vast and complex—I didn’t want to lose out on the richness, and yet I knew I had to concentrate on one unique angle [Panchaali’s life and thoughts]. I knew I had to be inventive while being true to the original text. I didn’t want to dilute the feel of that amazing, magical, mythic world. Yet I knew I had to make it accessible and relevant for modern readers. These concerns were all in my mind as I wrote.
Now that the book is in print, what do you wish you could change?
Nothing. I did the best I could with the resources I possessed, and hopefully I learned something in the process, which I can apply to future books. In my mind, my work with Palace is done. I’ve moved on to my next creative project.
You left your native India at the age of nineteen. What was your first impression of America and how has that changed over time?
I came into Chicago in winter—I’d never been so cold in my life! I was very homesick, and a poor student at that time. America seemed so different and so filled with amazing things—and almost all of them were out of my reach. I didn’t understand any of the comedy shows on TV. It seemed like an alien world. I was quite intimidated by “Americans” as I imagined them to be. I had all kinds of preconceptions about them, mostly from movies I’d seen in India.
But as I lived on in America, I got to truly know the people of this country—so many kind and wonderful people, people of so many races—who helped me in so many ways. Who became my friends. I realized that underneath our different accents, habits, foods, religions, ways of thinking, we shared a common humanity. Over the years I’ve really appreciated all that Americans have taught me about being a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good friend. This is what I most appreciate about America: meeting so many people of so many races and social backgrounds.
You’ve written eloquently about the immigrant experience. what do you make of the ongoing debate about undocumented residents?
It is a difficult, complex problem. I understand and feel for both sides of the issue.
As a novelist, do feel your primary obligation to your reader is entertainment or enlightenment?
Both! Great writers—Shakespeare, Tagore, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood—manage to do both. That’s my goal, too.
War is a key theme in The Palace of Illusions. What parallels would you draw between war in the year 6000 BCE and the year 2008?
One of the things that inspired me to write about the Mahabharat is that, unfortunately, the human situation hasn’t changed in so many thousands of years. We don’t seem to be able to get away from war, to find a better solution. Palace, I hope, enables readers to see and feel the huge cost of war—in terms of who dies, the guilt and trauma of those who cause death and suffering, and the sorrow of those who must live on when their dear ones are victims.
I feel pretty strongly about this—my brother is in the army and was sent to Iraq three times. A number of his friends died there. Two great and terrible truths of war are these: War is easy to enter into, but difficult to end. And ultimately, in war there are no winners. I think as Americans today who have fellow citizens fighting and suffering and dying in Iraq, we are experiencing these truths.
Is it discouraging to be a voice of reason in a society dominated by shrill rhetoric?
I’m not sure I can claim to be a voice of reason. I’m often swayed by my passions, things I believe in strongly. And I think it would be a generalization to say that our society is dominated by shrill rhetoric (well, maybe right now, with the elections coming up!) but there are many sane and wise voices out there; many wonderful books being published that inspire me.
You teach creative writing at the University of Houston. Is it energizing to work with young writers? Has it affected your own work?
I love teaching! It is absolutely one of my favorite things. And of course it helps, because at UH we have such smart, dedicated, and talented students. They keep me on my toes—they force me to keep up with new fiction and ideas, as much as I can. They inspire me and push me in new directions. They challenge my beliefs about fiction. They make me revisit the classics and see them in different ways. It’s so satisfying when one of my students goes on to win a prize or publish a book—and many have done so. The only downside of teaching is that it does use up a lot of creative energy. On the days I teach, I can’t write. But overall, I think I’m a better writer because I’m a teacher. And probably a better human being.
Will your next novel return to a contemporary setting?
My next novel is a book for children, ages ten and up. I’ve been working on a magical trilogy for children, The Brotherhood of the Conch, set in India. The first book of the trilogy, The Conch Bearer, was chosen as a Texas Bluebonnet Award book. This had a contemporary setting, while the second book, The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, took readers into India’s historic past. The third, Shadowland, takes the characters into a dystopian future where the air has turned brown and unbreathable and two major power groups, the magicians and the scientists, are at each other’s throats. With the help of magic skills and quick thinking, the two protagonists, Anand and Nisha, will attempt to improve the situation—and in the process save their own world. By the way, I’m quite passionate about writing for children—giving them multicultural heroes to relate to, familiarizing them with folk tales and beliefs of India, creating books with positive values, and plain having fun.
Do you also find it more of a challenge? I’ve been told that young readers have higher expectations than adults and can be harder to write for.
It’s a different kind of challenge—I have to work with a limited vocabulary, I have to be more direct if I want to make a point, I have to have a really good plotline going to keep their interest. But overall, I don’t think they are any more demanding. A well-read adult audience actually has higher expectations because they’ve read the classics, the great writers; they have those templates in their head as they’re reading my work.