What could be more amazing than finally meeting a fiction author you’ve admired for years?
Having grown up in Hong Kong, I remember perusing the shelves at Swindon Bookstore on Lock Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, the South China Morning Post bookstore, Central, Hong Kong, and public libraries, scattered throughout the city, in the hope of finding an American or UK-published author with skin similar to mine, a name that resonated with my background and characters I could identify with. I came across a cascade of authors with names like White, Sheldon, Rice, Andrews, Cleary, Tomlinson…the list goes on. And their stories were great! Spell-binding. Hooked me for years. But somehow I couldn’t see myself in the pages or the story.
Then I came across the name Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Not only did I connect with all three words in this author’s name, I felt a sense of belonging. Oneness.
Ms. Divakaruni was one of the first authors that broke ground in my world as a wannabe writer.
Imagine my reaction (some 20 years later) when I heard that Indian-American award-winning author, poet, activist and teacher, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, was scheduled to give a lecture at the Goizueta Business School, Emory University, Atlanta, on September 23rd – I was ecstatic! (OK, maybe ecstatic is an understatement.) You see, Ms. Divakaruni’s books have been translated into 29 languages, her work has appeared in over a hundred magazines, her novels ‘Mistress of Spices’ and ‘Sister of My Heart’ have been adapted to film, and The Economic Times has chosen her as one of The 20 most influential Global Indian Women. I could go on and on about her accomplishments, but her website and Wikipedia do a much better job than I ever could.
The theme of her lecture was ‘Celebrating Diversity and Building Bridges’ and that just threw me over! I couldn’t believe it. You see, I write fiction to ‘Bridge Cultures and Break Barriers.’
Did I mention ‘oneness’ somewhere? I was determined to attend the lecture. I HAD TO!
“I never thought that I would be a writer.” Ms. Divakaruni said. “Immigration made me into a writer.” Having grown up in Kolkata, India, Ms. Divakaruni didn’t think she had any stories to tell. In fact, she felt she “led an ordinary life. It was only when I moved half way across the world that I began to see my life with a new perspective.” That new perspective, she said, was a result of being far away from her country. Not only did she question the things she took for granted, but her love for her country and the resulting heartache at missing her homeland drove her in a new direction.
“As I began to write, I began to remember.” The act of writing, Ms. Divakaruni said, brings about a magic. It works against forgetting, moves toward rekindling, honoring and validating old memories. However, new memories of immigration, diversity and multiculturalism seeped in her work.
I listened as Ms. Divakaruni spun the magic of her words, not on paper, but through the gift of love and laughter to us, her audience. As I looked around, the rainbow of faces, skin colors, tones and colors of eyes, I realized there wasn’t a norm. No black, white or brown to set the standard.
So here’s my question: if you don’t have a norm, where does diversity come from? What are you diverging from in the first place? As far as I could tell we weren’t diverging but converging toward a center of gravity:
Ms. Divakaruni’s novels.
Ms. Divakaruni’s stories.
Ms. Divakaruni’s passion for storytelling.
Did I mention ‘oneness’ somewhere?
Perhaps Ms. Divakaruni sums it best when she said:
“Immigration and diversity are what makes America great.”