At her USF lecture “My Writing Journey,” award winning author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni read excerpts from two of her books, “Leaving Yuba City” and “The Unknown Errors of Our Lives,” and also told listeners that she never thought she would grow up to be a writer.
“I fell into it in an unexpected manner. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t think I had the talent,” said Divakaruni during a lecture at the TECO room in the College of Education building on Thursday night.
Divakaruni’s lecture, sponsored by the USF Humanities Institute and co-sponsored by the Florida Suncoast Writers’ Conference, touched upon her personal experiences, such as immigrating to the U.S. as a young woman, and said such an event inspired her to become a writer.
“Immigration does change our lives and our relationships,” Divakaruni said. “In the United States, the definition of what it means to be a woman and a good woman changed and because of this relationships changed with friends, family, spouses and ultimately with myself.”
Divakaruni grew up in Calcutta, India and moved to the United States when she was 19 years old. She spent the first few years of her American life living in Dayton, Ohio with her older brother and father. She received her master’s degree in English from Wright State University and then attended the University of California in Berkley and received her Ph.D. in English.
“I saw my life in a more clearer manner then ever after I moved to the United States. It put things in perspective,” Divakaruni said. “I thought about things you normally don’t, like family and culture. That gave me a mindset to start writing.”
In addition to her move to the United States, Divakaruni said another, more personal event helped to fuel her desire to write.
While Divakaruni was in the United States, her grandfather, the first storyteller in her life, died. Unfortunately, Divakaruni was unable to attend the funeral in India. “He made me love stories and poems,” she said.
Divakaruni said one morning she was lying in bed trying to visualize her grandfather’s face, but she couldn’t remember what he looked like. According to Divakaruni, instances like these made her realize that she was forgetting so many things from home while she was here in the United States.
“I started writing as an action against forgetting, in order to remember. There is something special and magical about writing. Most people think if you’re a writer that you’re born that way,” Divakaruni said.
Divakaruni then began writing sentimental poems, which she said she destroyed because she didn’t want people to see how bad they were. After that, she said she began writing about more personal things, like growing up.
“I started as a closet writer, but as you write more you get better,” Divakaruni said.
The one major event that pushed writing to be a major part of her life was a meeting with a lady at a woman’s domestic violence shelter where Divakaruni worked.
Divakaruni said that she never saw any Indian women in the shelter and that made her happy. But one day she received a call about a South Asian woman in the office. At the shelter, the woman showed Divakaruni her lacerated back and kept saying that she wanted to go home.
“‘I’m sorry I came in here. It was the wrong thing to do. You have to let these people let me go. I have to go back home. I can’t make it on my own,” the woman at the shelter said according to Divakaruni.
Divakaruni said she eventually persuaded the woman to stay at the shelter, which was private and only allowed outbound calls. That was the last day that Divakaruni saw the woman because she called her husband from the shelter to pick her up the next day. Although she hasn’t heard from the woman since, Divakaruni still remembers two things the woman said: “Who cares what happens to me?” and “Who in this country really knows who I am?”
“She was right, even I did not know her story,” Divakaruni said.
After the incident, Divakaruni decided to write stories about people like the woman at the shelter so that people can know their stories and, at the same time, care for them. In particular, Divakaruni said she wanted to write about people and culture that were familiar to her.
“I focus on the Indian community because that is what I know,” Divakaruni said.