Everyone’s Included: An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, New York Times bestselling author of 'Oleander Girl'

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, New York Times bestselling author of ‘Oleander Girl’

Within her novels, New York Times bestselling author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni brings to life the South Asian experiences, culture, and diversity in both America and India. Her latest novel, Oleander Girl, explores the conflicts between the old world and new, the difficulties of finding love in a broken world, and the courage needed when we travel to strange, unfamiliar lands.

Any idea about how many Community/All Campus Reads types events you’ve done over the years?

Maybe thirty or thirty five. I’ve had a great time with all of them!

What do you like about the Community/All Campus Reads structure as a literary event format? Any thoughts on how they could be more effective, from an author’s perspective?

I really like the idea of an entire community–in the city or on campus–reading the same book, having the same literary experience, able to discuss the same issues and connect over the same book. It’s rare to have that kind of experience in our fractured, busy urban lives nowadays.

Books in Common has seen a lot of interest in your novel One Amazing Thing. In your opinion, why does One Amazing Thing work so well for school and community reading programs?

One Amazing Thing has done very well in Common Read programs because of several reasons.

1. The cast of characters is very diverse–Caucasian, Indian American, African American, Chinese American, etc. There are people of many religious backgrounds–Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian. And of different ages, from a teenager to a grandmother and everything in between. Thus people of many backgrounds can relate to the book and empathize with it.

2. The idea that everyone has a story to tell–that we all have at least one amazing thing that has occurred in our lives–has also resonated in communities. Cities have created websites where people have shared their stories; colleges have created writing assignments and video projects for people to write or record their stories; people have acted out their stories in plays. Organizations have created forums for people to share stories with each other. I’ve received many comments stating that this activity has brought the entire community together.

3. The book is a good length for a reading that’s not too easy nor too difficult. Book groups as well as college classes can read it; it can easily be assigned in a course.

4. The book has several timely themes. One of the more important ones is that it is crucial for us, living in the multicultural America of today, to learn to get along with each other. If not, we’re liable to harm each other–we see this scenario early in the book, in the aftermath of the earthquake that traps the characters in the basement of a high-rise building. The book thus forces readers to ask themselves how well they deal with difference, how comfortable they are with the “other,” and what they might do to improve this. Many cross cultural disciplines, from psychology to social science to business to health to earth sciences, can thus use the book for discussion.

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at Community/Campus Reads events you’ve participated in?

Students have come up to me several times to say that they don’t like to read but my books pulled them in. Several college students told me that mine was the first novel they’d read to the end. Several have shared their one amazing story with me. Administrators have told me that reading the book has brought parts of the campus community–departments or offices–closer to each other and allowed them to articulate issues of race and prejudice that they would have felt uncomfortable bringing up. In many cases, it has brought the city and the campus closer together as firefighters or other emergency personnel have come on campus to give presentations.

Perhaps my most memorable experience was when a college freshman came up to me and told me he had been thinking of dropping out of college, it was too big and overwhelming, and too different from the way he, as the first in his family to go to school, had been brought up. But when in his English class they wrote and shared their One Amazing Thing stories with each other in small groups, he began to connect and not feel so out of place. He made a couple of good friends within his group, and they gave him the moral support to hang in there.

Anything else you’d care to add?

I enjoy speaking to audiences, and it has been a pleasure to discuss my novels with eager, involved listeners and to field their questions about my books. Many have corresponded with me afterwards, joined my Facebook author page and participated in discussions about reading and writing, and gone on to read my other books. I feel truly grateful to have been a part of large community reading programs and to have, in this way, shared my culture and touched the lives of so many people.

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