Chaucer in earthquake city! Divakaruni's latest has victims relate life-changing moments
Author is one of many great ones at four-day festival
by Rob Neufeld
`”Everything will be all right,” thought author Chitra Divakaruni as Hurricane Ike pummeled her family to the edge of death in Houston in 2008.
Graced by stories
She’d aided Katrina refugees in 2005, and then experienced Hurricane Rita herself, stranded in a car during an evacuation. Her family wasn’t going through that again, so they stayed put with Ike. Divakaruni felt, as her house was being blown apart, an extreme calm and sense of protection
Such a predicament transfers to nine characters in Divakarni’s new novel, One Amazing Thing, as they face death in a basement office buried by an earthquake. The cast is determined by the place—the Indian visa office in San Francisco—and the meaning of “all right” is ambiguous.
Divakaruni is Wednesday night’s featured author in Western Carolina University’s eighth annual Spring Literary Festival, a premiere event in this region. She is joined by Jill McCorkle, Patricia Smith, Silas House, and other standouts in the four-night series (see box). One Amazing Thing
, Divakaruni’s eleventh novel and sixteenth book, is a suspenseful disaster tale and a brilliant showcase of storytelling power. The first character, Uma Singh, an American graduate student from Kolkata (Calcutta), brings to the unlucky site of her entrapment a copy of The Canterbury Tales
by Chaucer. Later, faced by her group’s intemperate reaction to disaster, she proposes that people take turns telling stories.
Each story is a revelation (“one amazing thing”) and a salvation. The survivors are able to feel “all right” and bridge cultural boundaries with compassion.
At the first telling, we read, “They arranged the chairs into a circle. Malathi (the office receptionist) came out with a tin of Kool-Aid fruit punch. (Where had she hidden it? What else was she hiding?)…Cameron (the survival leader) switched off both flashlights.”
The companions “were ready to listen to one another,” Divakaruni writes. “No, they were ready to listen to the story, which is sometimes greater than the person who speaks it.” Gather in the dark
When Divakaruni had been a girl, she had spent summers at her mother’s parents’ place in Gurap—a rural village a couple of hours from Calcutta. “Every evening when it got dark,” Divakaruni related in an interview with the Citizen-Times, “my grandfather (Nibaran Ghosh) would light a lantern, and he would call all of us cousins, and we would all come into his room. We’d sit around the lantern, and he would, in the dark, start telling us stories out of our folktales and fairy tales and epics.”
In her youth, Divakaruni had been immersed in her own Bengali culture. Leaving it for America as a teen, she became enamored of multi-culturalism.
In the claustrophobic setting of One Amazing Thing
, Divakaruni assembles: Uma, the westernized student; Cameron, an African American Buddhist and Vietnam War vet; Malathi, a Tamil-speaking receptionist and aspiring beauty salon owner; Mr. Mangalam, the failed Hindu office manager; Tariq, an Indian American Muslim and radical recruit; Jiang, a Chinese Christian widow; Lily, Jiang’s 13-year old Goth granddaughter; Mr. Pritchett, an accountant with a bruised past; and Mrs. Pritchett, a dutiful wife going through a life change and headed toward a vacation in a converted Indian palace. Karma
The value of the characters’ storytelling is heightened by the sickening progress of the disaster. After a couple of startling shifts downward in hope and living conditions, Mrs. Pritchett says, “God hasn’t forgotten us…He knows our entire histories, past and future both, and gives us what we deserve.”
The meaning of fate—and karma—is open to interpretation not just for the reader, but also for each participant in the drama. In Mrs. Pritchett’s case, she had experienced how the merest of incidents—witnessing an elderly man flick dirt off his blind wife’s coat after he’d seated her in a restaurant—caused a landslide within her. She missed tenderness in her life; and, had, in her youth, missed a chance at self-fulfillment.
Others reveal similar ambushes by disproportionately small incidents.
Tariq, the Muslim boy, had achieved a new sense of manhood in a transformational moment with Farah, an intellectual Muslim woman visiting his parents from India. At first, cocky about his American streetwise ways, he’d resented her; and he’d made her cry by telling her to “go back home.” He’d apologized and then seen the frailty beneath her strength. “The thin, curved rod of her collarbone reminded him, illogically, of a fledgling bird. That was when he started to fall in love.” Real-life applications
In addition to being mesmerizing, One Amazing Thing
is provocative. I can hardly think of a better book discussion choice.
When Divakaruni thinks about storytelling applications in practical life, she thinks about book discussions. She recalls the hurricane refugees, victims of domestic abuse, and inner city students whom she has helped through story-telling. She involves her family members, who continue her traditions. And she promotes library programs and diverse conferences, where special spaces are provided and magic shared. Book reviewed
One Amazing Thing
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Voice/Hyperion hardcover, 227 pages, $23.00)
See the interview
See WCU event site