A young woman leaves Calcutta to attend college in Chicago. She will live with an aunt and uncle she hasn’t seen since she was eight. Her expectations run high; she is shocked by how difficult their lives are. Yet when she steps out on the narrow balcony outside their humble apartment, she sees, “The skyscrapers of downtown Chicago float glimmering in the distance, enchanted towers out of an old storybook.”
A young painter works late into the night, and when things are going well, “a stillness would rise around her, warm and vaporous. Held within it, she would hear, word for word, the stories her grandmother used to tell.” Once upon a time, a brother and sister told each other stories, as she explains, “to keep our minds occupied as our evenings stretched before us bare as a desert. . . .Were the stories we told each other true? Who knows? At the best of times, a story is a slippery thing.”
The mutable nature of stories, the way stories are open to interpretation, the way we tell and retell stories to learn what it means to be human and to free ourselves from what oppresses us, this is where the power of stories reside, and this what Chitra Divakaruni, a consummate, best-selling storyteller, accomplishes in her enthralling short stories and novels, works at once realistic and magical.
I’ve been reading and reviewing Divakaruni with deep pleasure since 1995, when her American Book Award–winning short story collection, Arranged Marriage, appeared, on to her first novel, The Mistress of Spices, to her newest novel, Oleander Girl. Divakaruni has also written books for children, including The Conch Bearer. Now I’m very much looking forward to speaking with Divakaruni during ALA’s Virtual Conference next week. Each year Brad Hooper and I have the “food for thought” programs: lunchtime conversations with authors. Divakaruni and I will be on the air on Wednesday, July 24, 12:45 – 1:15 EDT.