(I did this as-told-to Aditi De interview for Man's World in 2003)
I’M A writer. A teacher of creative writing at the University of Houston. A social activist. And the mother of two sons, Abhay (10) and Anand (13). I also teach ‘India in the Writer’s Eye,’ a fiction course focusing on how you depict a culture differently, depending on who you are. I try to interweave these complementary roles.
My mother was a schoolteacher. So was my grandfather’s father. In fact, when I finished my Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, I started teaching literature. I fell into writing much later.
I come from a sheltered, traditional Bengali household in Kolkata, where I never thought about my Indian identity. Immigration was really an eye-opener. It gave me the passion to write.
I recall my mother saying, ‘The day you start at Presidency College, only saris for you.’ All my friends are wearing bell-bottoms! At 19, the minute I reached Wright State University at Dayton, Ohio, for my M.A. course, I got into blue jeans and a T-shirt.
On my second day in Dayton, I was walking on the streets with a relative, when a group of kids called out, “Nigger!” It was such a shock. (Passionately) For many years, I never even told anyone about it. A short story in ‘Arranged Marriage’ (1990) deals with that experience. I hope my books create a sense of the complexity of immigrant culture, for all readers.
Gradually, I became aware of the ambiguous experience of being a woman of colour living in the US. I now wear Indian clothes for all my formal US activities. I’m saying: ‘You will accept me on these terms. I am good at what I do, no matter what I wear.’
My community and my culture are central to my writing. I’m very much a South Asian American writer, whose Indian roots are important. I want to create a dual dimension between the mythic and contemporary reality of India.
I think all art is a search for the self. Kafka once said: “A book should be an axe to shatter the frozen sea inside us.” (Reflectively) If literature works well, we experience what our scriptures tell us: ‘We are all one.’
For the past 15-20 years, I’ve been influenced by Indian spirituality. In my recent novel ‘Queen of Dreams’ (launched here in March 2005), both the main woman characters are going through a subtle process of spiritual questioning. What is the meaning of life? How do I relate to the rest of humanity? How do I find strength within myself? How do I counter hate in the world? And the reality of 9/11 affects Rakhi’s dream of America.
In 1991, I co-founded Maitri (a helpline for immigrant women victims of domestic abuse). Their courage, grace and hope move me deeply. It’s very inspiring to see what they achieve with a little help.
For a year, I wrote a column about the immigrant experience in the US for ‘India Today.’ About inter-generational gaps, parenting roles, the problems of elderly parents as visitors. In ‘The Unknown Errors of Our Lives,’ (2001) a story deals with arranged marriages. Our young people benefit from the resources that America offers, as from strong family support. With rising US divorce rates, many are returning to marriage as a considered action within the family.
In the post-65 generation, most Indians Americans were professionals. From different communities, socio-economically they were a homogenous group, a model community. But after the 1984 Family Reunification Act, there’s a layer of small motel, gas station and 7/11 owners, factory workers and taxi drivers. This has caused a real schism within our community.
Instead of wishing these new immigrants were invisible, why can’t we make the American dream more real for them through integration? Such as providing scholarships before these less privileged youth join gangs? I think one of my future works is going to be about this.
I’m excited that my first novel, ‘The Mistress of Spices’ (1997) is being made into a film by Gurinder Chadha. She’s a strong feminist director, totally in tune with the immigrant experience. I’ve no problems with Aishwarya Rai playing Tilo. I thought she did a good job in ‘Chokher Bali.’
(My husband) Murthy and the boys are getting cameo roles when Gurinder shoots in California on the March 19-20 weekend. (Laughing) Since I’m in India for two weeks, my cameo will be the cover of ‘India Currents,’ on which I appeared a while ago! They’ve promised to put it in.
If you look at the history of literature, it’s mostly men telling the stories of men. It’s important for women to tell the stories of women. If only men would read more woman-centric novels, it would deepen their human experience.
Some men have been offended because I deal with women’s issues. ‘You make Indian men look bad,’ they complain. Often, women are equal participants in perpetuating certain situations. In ‘Sister of My Heart,’ (1999), the mother-in-law is very keen on having a grandson, not a granddaughter, as the first child of the family.
My books are about the problems Indian Americans face as a race in the US. Men who have experienced prejudice appreciate that. And those who’ve been activists react positively. Right on, they say.