Before she was a writer, Chitra Divakaruni was a young woman in a new country, far from home. She was excited at the prospect of studying in America, but lonely – missing her family in Calcutta and the traditions of her culture.
That experience taught Divakaruni that she had stories to tell – stories that could bring people together and reveal the common humanity in everyone.
“In some ways, I think that immigration made me into a writer, because it gave me a subject to write about,” she said. “When I lived in India, I was so immersed in the culture that I didn’t really think about it. But when I moved halfway across the world, I began to think a lot about what it meant for me to be Indian, and also how immigration changes us.”
Now, an award-winning author and poet whose works have been translated into 20 languages, Divakaruni thinks a lot about her early days in America. As a creative writing professor at the University of Houston, she tries to use her experiences to help international students feel comfortable in their new environment.
“I am very concerned with their well-being. In order to be able to write, or to perform well in college, you have to be able to feel at home. You have to have a sense of well-being,” she said. “I try to create that for them as best as I can.”
For Divakaruni, it was a struggle just to make it to the U.S., because her very traditional family didn’t understand why she would want to leave home. Eventually, she was able to convince them to let her go.
In 1976, she moved to Dayton, Ohio, to attend Wright State University. From there, she went to the University of California-Berkeley, where she earned her Ph.D. in English.
To support herself while pursuing her education, Divakaruni took on a number of odd jobs, from baby-sitting and washing lab instruments to slicing Jell-O at a college dormitory. Initially, she was very lonely in her new life.
“There was no family support anymore – I had to do everything on my own, so that was a big challenge,” she said. “I think on Indian holidays particularly, I felt very disconnected, very cut off.”
But the loneliness forced her to make friends, and she soon found a community of people who were willing to open up their homes to her.
“What had been a problem really became a great strength, ” Divakaruni said. “Because I didn’t have a supportive family structure around me, I was forced to make new friends with people who were very different, and that has been a really positive part of my American experience.”
The experience led her to write, first poetry, and then fiction.
Divakaruni garnered wide critical acclaim with the publication of her first collection of short stories, “Arranged Marriage,” which focused on women from India caught between two worlds. That book went on to win the 1996 American Book Award.
“I think the stories in ‘Arranged Marriage,’ which are largely immigrant stories, did touch people because we are a country of immigrants,” she said. “We are a country of people always changing, always growing.”
Many of the stories in her more than 15 books relate to the experience of women or immigrants in a new country. Though she said her books are not autobiographical, many of her characters share similar concerns.
“I am concerned with how you make a new home for yourself in a place that is so far away and so different from your home culture,” she said. “I am concerned about how we as immigrants transform the places in which we find ourselves. I am very interested in ways women’s roles have changed as we move into different cultures.”
Ultimately, Divakaruni said she hopes her words challenge readers to think about what it means to be an immigrant, and about larger issues such as family and home.
“What I hope people get out of my books is that it will encourage them to think about important issues,” she said. “I also hope that they see that although we come from many different places, what we have in common is the humanity – we want the same things, we desire the same things. … I hope my books will dissolve boundaries and bring people together.”
In her writing, Divakaruni continues to be inspired by her students at the University of Houston, many of whom are immigrants themselves.
“I have just loved my students,” she said. “I learn so much from them. We learn about writing together.”
Divakaruni came to Houston in 1998, in part because her husband was looking for work in the oil and gas industry, and in part because of the reputation of the university’s Creative Writing program.
“It was just a wonderful opportunity to come and work with great colleagues and especially great students,” she said.
In her time at UH, Divakaruni said she has been pleased to see increasing diversity among faculty, particularly at the highest level with President Renu Khator, who is also from India.
“Her having come from a different background and really having overcome many difficulties in her own personal background makes her an inspiring role model,” she said. “She can also understand the struggles of some of our students who maybe come from different backgrounds where they haven’t been given the kind of support they need for college success.”
As the university’s reputation improves, Divakaruni said she is happy that UH has remained true to its mission of serving everyone with a desire for higher education.
“One of the things I love about UH is as it is striving to become more and more highly ranked in the country, it wants to still remain inclusive … particularly for students who maybe their family hasn’t been to college before,” she said. “I think it is so important to reach out to those students and make sure they feel at home here.”