Above the door to Chitra Divakaruni's house in a development off a main highway of San Francisco's East Bay, a little sign in Bengali proclaims, "Hail to the Lord of the Universe." The house is an ordinary dwelling, and the sign a simple Hindu invocation. But in Divakaruni's world, nothing is really simple. The sign is as much a pledge to the world outside the house as it is to the writing muse that Divakaruni calls on from within. "Each time we enter the house, it reminds us," she explains, "that we live in a spiritual place, and we must make it so." As the title of her most recent collection of short stories, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (Doubleday; Forecasts, Mar. 12) hints, life to her is forever mysterious—always complicated by the conflict between destiny and desire.
"When I write a book, I try to make it the very best it can be," she says. "But once a book is done, I put it aside. I do my part of the job, and then let the universe do the rest because, when I look back, the best things, in terms of my career, have been serendipitous." By any measure, the prolific Divakaruni has been touched by a lucky star in her publishing life. Since her first book of poetry came out in 1991, she has written three more books of poetry, two collections of short stories (her first, Arranged Marriage, won the American Book Award in 1995) and two novels (including the bestselling Mistress of Spices); she's also edited two anthologies on multiculturalism. In addition, she has taught creative writing full-time, first at Foothill College in the Bay Area and then at the University of Houston until last year; she is the mother of two boys; and she cofounded Maitri, a Bay Area hotline for South Asian abused women.
Born in Calcutta, the only girl in a family of four children, Divakaruni, now 44, came to the U.S. to study for a master's degree at Wright State University in Ohio, and from there went on to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature. At the time, her focus was on teaching. But then her grandfather died back in her ancestral village in India, and she began to write poetry. "I was going through Berkeley on a scholarship," she recalls. "I didn't have any money, and I couldn't go back for his funeral. It was very difficult." One day, she woke up and couldn't picture his face. Shocked, she realized she needed to write her memories down so as not to forget them. "It was very personal," she says, "and poetry was closest to my psyche. Poetry focuses on the moment, on the image, and relies on image to express meaning. That was very important to me, that kind of crystallization, that kind of intensity in a small space."
Divakaruni is dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, her long dark hair tied in a knot at the back of her head; her voice is melodious, and she interrupts herself frequently with sudden laughter. "I started by writing some very bad, very sentimental poetry. And anything I wrote, I went, 'Wow! Straight from the brain of God through my pen into the world!'"
It was not long, however, before she joined the Berkeley Poet's Workshop and began sending poems to Calyx, a women's magazine in Oregon. Calyx liked them so much that its publishing arm offered to bring out a collection of her poetry once she had completed enough work. Black Candle was published in 1991. "Calyx has always kept it in print, and just reissued it, which is the wonderful thing about our small presses," says Divakaruni, who is keenly cognizant of how easily, as a poet, she found a place with a publisher.
Good fortune would accompany her into the realm of fiction. "My poetry was becoming more and more narrative," she says, "and I was becoming more interested in the story element, and the nuances of character change." But the format of short story writing was foreign to her, and so in 1992, she joined an evening fiction class at Foothill, where she had started teaching 20th-century multicultural literature the year before.
"I was still writing very much for myself," she says, "but my teacher, Tom Parker, said I should send my stories to an agent." Not knowing any agents, and having just had her first baby, as well as having just founded Maitri, Divakaruni didn't take his advice. Instead, it was Parker who sent her stories to Sandy Dijkstra. She laughs. "A few months later, Sandy called and said, 'I sold your book to Anchor,' and I said, 'What book?' because I only had three stories."
It was then that Divakaruni began keeping to the rigorous writing schedule that has governed her life ever since. "My writing time is my writing time, though my children may eat microwaved burritos and I may not clean the house," she says. At Foothill, she taught every morning, and then wrote in the afternoon, dropping a curtain over her office door so her students would know they were not to disturb her.
Her approach to composition is intuitive. She begins with half an hour of meditation and sometimes even comes up with good ideas in the process. "I realize that means it's a failed meditation," she says cheerfully, "but boy, I got this great idea! so I ask forgiveness." When she starts to write, she begins with a scene. "I believe in scenes. I know the characters, but I don't know a lot about them," she says. "The advantage is that the book unfolds organically; the disadvantage is that I have to go back for a lot of rewriting."
Divakaruni's revision process, by contrast, is highly structured. "I'll write a story over the period of a month, and then put it aside for eight or nine months," she explains. Then she does a "prerevision" in which she writes "This scene needs to be changed" or "This sentence isn't right" in the margins. Next, she lays the story aside. When she goes back to it again, she does a "How-to-fix-it" revision, making a second set of notes in a different color. "I'll say, 'I need to have this person come in and give this kind of information here, or I need this to happen here.' But I still haven't done it." Only later, when she feels she's digested what she's written down, does she go back to make the final changes.
"You can't hurry writing if you're going to do it well," she says. "Otherwise, what is the point of being a writer? If you're going to create art, the least you can do is give it your best attention and as much time as it takes."
The stories that eventually composed Arranged Marriage focused on the immigrant experience, particularly from the female point of view, a theme that has continued to inform Divakaruni's work. "It was while I was at Berkeley that I became aware of women's issues and the need for me to do something about them," she says. Although today her outlook has softened, and her interest has shifted to more general human themes of memory and desire, at the time, she says, she felt militant. "I really wanted to focus on women battling and coming out triumphant."
As a student in India, she loved Bengali women writers like Mahasveta Devi, who has now been translated into English. In Ohio, she came across Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which had a profound effect on her thinking. Today, the roster of writers she considers most influential includes Toni Morrison, Christina Garcia, Sandra Cisneros and Louise Erdrich (particularly her book Tracks, told from Native American perspectives). "The South Asian writers I read very carefully," she says, are writers like Bharati Mukherjee, whom Divakaruni admires for her focus on the immigrant experience, and Anita Desai.
"But," she cautions, "I don't believe you can be a writer saying I will now bring attention to some of these issues. You have to start with the story, the character, and then hopefully.... "
Arranged Marriage, published in 1995, won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award and the American Book Award. But Divakaruni's own life took a sudden turn for the worse. When her second son was born, serious complications led to her close brush with death. "I gave up. And I really felt I left the body, and was up there somewhere looking down." When she recovered, she felt strongly that she had returned for a purpose. "It was very positive, actually," she says of the experience. "And it gave me the sense that we're here in this body only for a little while, and then we go on, we go on to other existences and maybe other worlds that we don't know, and I wanted to write about this, fictionalize it in some way."
So her next book, Mistress of Spices, was born. She'd never tried writing a novel before and had never experimented with magical realism, but when one day she heard a voice—"you know how writers sometimes hear their characters?"—saying, "I am the Mistress of Spices," she knew she had the first line of what was going to be a much larger work than anything she'd previously written, and that it was going to be a magical tale.
The setting of the Mistress of Spices, a little Indian grocery in Oakland, became a metaphor for the world within a world so typical of the immigrant experience. "You know those little ethnic groceries, where you go through the door and you step into a different country?" she says. In order to put it all together, Divakaruni conducted research on the Internet and in the library, watched Indian movies, read Indian magazines, talked with people informally in Indian groceries and drew from her work helping women through Maitri.
Her own immigrant experience in Ohio also helped her express the feelings of loneliness and cultural separation that suffuse Mistress of Spices. Sent to Ohio to be under the watchful eye of her older brother, she often found herself isolated and neglected as he struggled to establish a life of his own as a doctor and father—a situation she describes more closely in "The Intelligence of Wild Things" in The Unknown Errors of Our Lives. Many immigrant experiences that she describes, however—those of the bullied teenager, or the Muslim taxi driver, or the Hindu grandfather—she did not know firsthand, and yet she speaks of them as though she had.
"These are my people no matter what their economic or religious background," says Divakaruni by way of explanation. "I think the way I do it is to listen while they are talking and really think about their lives. And then it has to come into you, be transformed deep down inside you, in your gut. You have to live that person's life, in a way."
To promote The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, Divakaruni is going on a four-week, 17-city tour. As she always does when she is in what she calls her "formal persona"—out at someone's house, doing readings, teaching—she will wear a sari. "The Indian part of my culture is very important to me," she explains, "and when I wear my Indian clothes, I feel a certain way, so it's as much for me as for anyone." Her readings are often well attended by the Indian community. "But," she says, "the response at times can get very heated if they feel I'm betraying the community by pointing out problems." Still, she considers it a worthwhile price to pay. The strong response means the book has touched them, made them think about their lives more deeply, and that means, she says, "the book has done what I hoped."
Going on tour and seeing all her backlist at the bookstores is one of the many reasons she's pleased she's stayed with Doubleday. "They think of me as one of their authors, someone they discovered and whose career they have helped grow," she says. Though she has had three different editors—all of whom she's liked—because the first two left for other houses, she and her agent, Sandy Dijkstra, decided it would be best for her to stay with Doubleday. "And that's where Sandy was very helpful, because she knows the editors really well, and she helped decide who would understand my work, and she was right."
Today, Divakaruni works with Deb Futter, who edited The Unknown Errors of Our Lives and who will be reading her next novel, a sequel of sorts to her second book, Sister of My Heart. But she cautions, "With each book, I try something different. If I didn't, what would be the point of being a writer any more?" In a recent piece for the New York Times series Writers on Writing, Divakaruni admits she threw out 200 pages of this newest novel after having served as a judge for the 2000 National Book Awards. "The whole experience taught me a great deal as a writer," she says, almost shyly. "And the writing comes from a different place, which is not a conscious part of myself—that's why I'm not egoistic about it." This perspective, which she comes to through the spiritual teachings of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and Baba Muktananda (whose pictures she has on her writing table and whom she includes in the acknowledgments of each of her books), is what enables her to pour everything she has into the book she's working on, and then, feeling that she's done her best, let it go. "I think of writing as a very sacred activity," she says. "I'm only the instrument."