Sharing Humanity: A Talk with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni about Her Latest Novel, One Amazing Thing
Over the last decades, tragedies – both human-made and those wrought by an ever-angry Mother Nature – seem to be coming at humankind with fast and furious regularity. The latest oil spill devastating the Gulf of Mexico promises to be the worst disaster of its kind in history. This short year alone, horrific earthquakes, erupting volcanic plumes, and tumbling mud slides have not stopped their violent paths.
And yet, somehow, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni manages to craft some of the worst tragedies into memorable, haunting stories of human connection. The last long conversation I shared with Divakaruni became a featured cover article for the November/December 2004 issue of TBR. Her just-published novel at the time was Queen of Dreams, which she wrote as a direct personal response to 9/11, haunted not only by the vivid images of what happened, but also by the repercussions felt throughout the country, especially in the South Asian American community.
In February of this year, bookstores across the country lined their bookshelves with One Amazing Thing, the latest from Divakaruni, an award-winning, multi-platform writer of short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), poetry (Black Candle, Leaving Yuba City), middle grade/young adult titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and adult novels (including The Mistress of Spices, The Vine of Desire, Sister of My Heart). At the core of Divakaruni’s new novel is a violent earthquake in an unnamed U.S. city, its aftereffects almost a character itself. Incredibly, the book was written long before the too-recent tragic earthquake disasters in Haiti, then Japan, Chile, and China. Divakaruni’s timing proved presciently shocking.
In One Amazing Thing, nine men and women are trapped in the basement visa office of an Indian consulate, and must gather their strength, both physically and mentally, in order to survive the devastating earthquake that wipes out all contact with the outside world. Two characters emerge as the group’s leaders: Cameron, an African American Vietnam veteran still fighting demons, is the most qualified to deal with the group’s physical safely, while Uma, an Indian American graduate literature student inspired by the heavy copy of The Canterbury Tales she carries in her backpack, turns to storytelling to distract the group’s growing anxiety. “‘We can take our stress out on one another,’” Uma admonishes after a desperate incident, “‘… or we can focus our minds on something compelling … we can each tell an important story from our lives.’” Uma assures her audience, “‘I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing.’”
And so the stories unfold: Grandmother Jiang’s first love in the Chinese quarter of Calcutta, Mr. Pritchett’s beloved kitten that shuts down his little-boy heart, Malathi’s gleefully brave revenge on an abusive wealthy woman, Tariq’s firsthand experience of post-9/11 injustice against his innocent family, Lily’s discovery of her prodigious musical talent, Mangalam’s emotional destruction, Mrs. Pritchett’s longing to escape her overprivileged life … and finally Cameron’s desperate search for a lost child and Uma’s own need to understand true, lasting love.
As the waters rise, the gas leaks, and disappointments prove almost crippling, nine strangers who once expected to change their lives in faraway India, share a life-altering experience right here at home. [… click here for more]