PW: So much of your work explores the rich and complex relationships between women, but in Queen of Dreams, a daughter could not have unlocked the mystery of her Indian-born mother without her father. Was this a deliberate decision and direction you took as a writer?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: As with much of my work, it isn't that I set out to do this, it's just where the story evolved organically. The mother is a mystery to the daughter from the beginning, and it's only after she dies that her words come to the daughter through the journals, but they have to be translated by the father. More than the male or female relationship I think what I was looking at was how in leaving our home culture we lose a lot of it and often we need help. We need translators.
You return to the theme of the immigrant experience—particularly the South Asian immigrant experience—and the awkward relationship to identity for their children. Has your view on this changed as your own American-born children grow up?
One of the things that I am learning is that each generation will have its own negotiations with identity. And one generation can not necessarily help the other generation with it.
You use 9/11 as a huge lever in the story. Were you worried that it might come off as contrived or was it something you just could not ignore?
I just couldn't ignore it. A lot of the things I write about 9/11 are actually what happened in our community [the San Francisco Bay Area]. It was very painful and very scary. There was an additional backlash against our community and against other communities that looked different and "suspicious." So this really had to be a big part of the story. What it did for me as an individual was bring up the questions that Rakhi has to face: If I am not American, or if people don't see me as American, then what does that do to my identity?
What do you think we've learned from 9/11?
I think we all learned that when we are afraid it's easy to want to blame, and the people we want to blame are the people who don't look like us. So one of the real hopes I have with this book is for us to explore that question and make us think about that question: Who is American and who should we identify with? Is it right to blame anyone when something terrible happens? And what are you to do if you belong to a visible minority who then become the victims of fear and hatred? How do we continue to live in America as Americans?
What I want to create in this novel is what makes the dream world, and the world of painful realities, and the world of ancient traditions, and daily home life—I wanted to mix them all into the novel. I wanted to point to the complexity of human experience and then the whole mysterious level of what is real and what isn't. Sometimes what is "real" because it takes place in the physical world, like 9/11, is so unreal on the level of the soul. Then other things, which in terms of the physical world seem so magical and unbelievable, on the level of the soul seem very real. I hope that worked for the reader.