Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an immigrant—a word filled with notes of hope, pain, desire and freedom. During this election season, the Trump campaign has also tried to equate the word with "terrorist." Divakaruni's novels, poetry, essays and non-fiction are mostly from the point of view of immigrants exploring new places with fresh eyes and open hearts.
Divakaruni was born in Calcutta, India, in 1956. She received her B.A. from the University of Calcutta in 1976, soon after moving to Ohio and attending graduate school at Wright State University before earning her Ph.D. in English at UC Berkeley in 1985.
She has won the American Book Award, The Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize and the PEN Oakland Award, among dozens of others. Her new novel, "Before We Visit the Goddess," was published in April, released to almost universal acclaim.
Amazingly, fiction writing wasn't on her radar from a young age. "I started writing several years after I moved to the United States," says Divakaruni. "So, I think that immigration and moving into a whole different culture, a whole different world, made me into a writer. I think in some ways it gave me perspective on India and a new fresh look at America."
In 2016, Divakaruni is very aware how important the conversation about immigration can be. "I think right now in this election year it's a huge issue," says Divakaruni. "But I think it's always been important because it's such a big part of what America is. The diversity, the multi-cultural milieu of America have made it a very special place. People also forget how much immigrants have contributed to America. It's kind of ironic when you think of it: Because of the Native Americans...aren't we all immigrants to America?"
Every few years, chunks of the American people seem to forget tolerance. "It's not like we forget it," says Divakaruni. "I think sometimes when there's turmoil...it was the same after 9/11. When there's turmoil people are looking for scapegoats and are afraid of people who don't look like them or don't have the same cultural habits as them. I think in the wake of such times it becomes a difficult issue. The question gets asked, 'What are we going to do with these immigrants?' I think it's forgotten that these immigrants are Americans."
Conversations about hot button topics like immigration or women's rights seem to be devolving the closer we get to November. "I think the problem with discourse right now is that instead of saying, 'OK, we're going to look for terrorists,' the discourse has become, 'We are going to look at every immigrant who looks different and therefore makes us feel uncomfortable.'"
But what can be done when such vitriol is being spewed into the news cameras every day? Divakaruni has a few ideas. "There's a bunch of things we could do," she says. "We could vote for the right people. Meanwhile, I think as individual citizens we can speak out against xenophobia, we can promote understanding of other cultures. In years like this, books about immigrants become important for people to read."
The importance of books can never be overestimated. "Books give us a sense that these people are just humans just like everyone else and want the same things," says Divakaruni. "They love their families. They want to be safe. America is like the promised land to most of these immigrants."
Divakaruni puts the election into perfect and simple terms that every American, regardless of political affiliation, could stand to hear: "In this election, more than any I've seen in my 30+ years in America, if we vote for the wrong person it will change America hugely in the wrong way," she says. "I don't think we've had candidates that could have done that in previous years. It could really change the nature of America and what America stands for. And that's kind of scary."
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni:
Bridging Differences in a New Culture
Friday, Nov. 4, 6pm
Willie Hall, COCC Coats Campus Center