Author’s tale of immigration proves relevant at community reading event
By Lou Fancher
Every person, regardless of country of origin, relishes safety, craves love and wishes to be respected. And most people have counter-urges, too; a need to take risks, step beyond comfort, maybe even experience — and perhaps suffer — being a foreigner in a foreign land?
Some people do this literally by immigrating to another country. Other people make it temporary, through travel. And then, there are those who do it by reading; attaching themselves to a character or narrative that serves as a literary avatar for their less-adventurous selves. When these stories — real, fleeting or imagined — are shared, there’s often a sense of deep community.
This is the hope and mission of Danville-San Ramon CityReads, the annual 5-week program that has people — immigrants, travelers and homebodies — in the Tri-Valley sharing one book.
The 2016 selection, Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “Oleander Girl,” tells the tale of Korobi, a young woman whose mother died in childbirth and who leaves the familiar culture of her birthplace, Kolkata, India, to travel to the United States in search of her father.
Her past is a partial mystery shrouded in her grandparents’ traditional and ancient lineage and secret-keeping. Her present and future identity are to be found in post 9-11 America, a time that pushed the contrast between old and new ideas, tested the bonds between older and younger generations, and magnified the wounds made by truth-telling and by deceit. Even the poisonous, flowering shrub after which Korobi is named conveys duality: the fragrant, colorful flowers of an oleander plant belie its lethal toxicity.
The CityReads program culminates Nov. 3 with an author appearance and book signing by Divakaruni at the Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center.
Danville Library Manager Seng Lovan says “Oleander Girl” was chosen with considerable input from the community. “It’s wonderful when our readers and book clubs are excited to be involved. In addition to suggestions, (we) read and consider literary reviews, the readability of a book, and whether or not we feel the story or author may resonate with the local community,” Lovan said.
During the program, 300 free, paperback copies were given to participants to read and pass along to friends and family. Twenty-four copies on loan were available to library patrons, as well as downloadable e-books and audio e-books.
Divakaruni is a writer of award-winning essays, short stories, poetry, children’s picture books and adult novels, several of which have been made into films or adapted for stage or television. Born and raised until age 18 in Kolkata, Divakaruni earned a master’s degree from Wright State University in Ohio and a PhD in English at UC Berkeley. Since 1988, she has been a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston.
“In this climate, a false immigrant story is being presented to us and is designed to divide us,” she says. “The immigrant story is more important than ever. If we endanger diversity, that will take away what is most beautiful about this country.”
Divakaruni recently made the difficult choice to become a United Sates citizen — India is one of the few countries that doesn’t allow dual citizenship. When she first came to the United States, the internet was not yet developed. She wrote letters to her family in India on blue aerograms and waited for replies.
“I still keep the letters from my mother. They have a vibe: I can imagine her hand touching the paper that my hands touch,” she says.
The connection with a story shared is similar, if less tactile. “We need to feel the common humanity we have with people who think, dress, pray, and do other things differently. We need voices to counter the story being fed to us,” she said.
Divakaruni’s stories rise from mysterious places her mind best accesses while in her home office. She prefers complete silence to “go deep inside” and says that outside noises “pollute” her imaginative space. Although her author appearances frequently cause her to be “an intrepid traveler,” she is primarily a homebody and relies on a nurturing environment to unblock a fictive dreamland.
“The days when I’m blessed, writing just happens. Other times it’s pushing. When blocked, it’s not a story just rolling off my fingertips,” she said.
Even on good days, there is much stopping and starting; testing character motivations, questioning instincts about plot. “I tell my students you have to do hard thinking, daily plodding.”
For “Oleander Girl,” she said, the sad, real-life coincidence of a massive, cultural riot in India and 9-11 pushed her thoughts to hatred between Hindus and Muslims, distrust and violence between people in America — but also to a hero’s journey.
“It’s an archetype that repeats, especially in mythic texts. Heroic desire and danger are strong impetuses. Complications occur and when they do, a character is not just the individual,” she said. This larger world, when it appears, is when she knows she has a novel to write.
The immigrant web, as she calls it, is no longer a story, but a movement. While much of contemporary literature is concerned with symbolism in language or examining social morass, Divakaruni holds onto plot and character.
Ultimately, she writes to impel readers to share with her in a feeling she had long ago. Her grandfather, a wonderful storyteller, caused her to lean forward, spellbound by a complex creation-in-progress, and ask, “What happened next?”