Chitra Divakaruni: Defying Cultural Boundaries with Universal Stories

NEW YORK, May 7, 2013 — A good story defies cultural barriers because it's driven by something that everyone can relate to: human nature. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose latest novel is Oleander Girl, explored this idea and many others in a discussion led by Raakhee Mirchandani of the New York Daily News.

Coming to writing later in her life, Divakaruni says that "the great books have been my teachers," and that she's "attracted to myths and epics because they are timeless." Sure enough, in Oleander Girl the heroine follows her own version of "the hero's journey in search of self" that one finds so often in the classics and other stories. But although the theme may be a familiar one, Divakaruni's novel is by no means ordinary. With vibrant descriptions of intercultural tensions in Kolkata and New York at the turn of the 21st century and complex, compelling and sympathetic characters, she proves that "it's not what you write about, it's how you present it. If people can look at it as unique, you've done a good job."

One of the most significant features of Divakaruni's writing is the importance that she places on the power of women. She does what she can to "place the woman in the center so that she can tell her story," and has them prove that "when they're faced with trouble, they reach inside [themselves] and find some kind of strength." In this way she gives women a voice that historically has been ignored.

Her style also jumps among many different viewpoints, emphasizing that "One of the most amazing things about the human experience is that we go through the same things, but in different ways." While Divakaruni writes, she becomes her characters — be they old, young, female or male — and uses the connections she discovers there to weave bonds between cultures, genders, and ages, truly celebrating what makes us human.

Reported by Katherine Landau

Video: Highlights from the discussion (1 min., 35 sec.)

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