4 minute read

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Biography

Nationality: Indian-American. Born: Chitra Banerjee in Calcutta, India, 1956. Education: Calcutta University, B.A. 1976; Wright State University, M.A. 1978; University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. 1985. Career: Professor of creative writing, Diablo Valley College, 1987-89; Foothill College, Los Altos, California, 1989—. Awards: Memorial Award (Barbara Deming Foundation), 1989; Writing Award (Santa Clara County Arts Council), 1990; Writing Award (Gerbode Foundation), 1993; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award; Bay Area Book Reviews Award for Fiction; PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction; Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize; Pushcart Prize.



The Mistress of Spices. New York, Anchor Books, 1997.

Sister of My Heart. New York, Doubleday, 1999.

Short Stories

Arranged Marriage: Stories. New York, Anchor Books, 1995.


Dark Like the River. 1987.

The Reason for Nasturtiums. Berkeley Poets Press, 1990.

Black Candle: Poems about Women from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Corvallis, Oregon, Calyx Books, 1991.

Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems. New York, AnchorBooks, 1997.


Editor, Multitude: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers. Boston, McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Editor, We, Too, Sing America: A Reader for Writers. Boston, McGraw-Hill, 1998.

* * *

Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has recently published poems, short stories, and novels, all of which generally focus on similar themes: the roles of women in India and America; the struggle to adapt to new ways of life when one's cultural traditions are in conflict with new cultural expectations; and the complexities of love between family members, lovers, and spouses. Divakaruni's work is often considered to be quasi-autobiographical as most of her stories are set in California near where she lives, confront the immigrant experience—specifically, of Indians who settle in the U.S.—and evaluate the treatment of Indian-American women both in India and America. Divakaruni is also an editor of two anthologies, Multitude: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers and We, Too, Sing America: A Reader for Writers, that include stories concerned with similar issues.

Divakaruni's volumes of poetry, Dark Like the River, The Reason for Nasturtiums, Black Candle, and Leaving Yuba City, each uniquely address images of India, the Indian-American experience, and the condition of children and women in a patriarchal society. Also exploring the relationship between art forms, Divakaruni writes poetry inspired by paintings, photographs, and films. And, as in her novels, she focuses intently in her poetry on the experiences of women pursuing identities for themselves.

Arranged Marriage, Divakaruni's collection of short stories that focus on Indian and Indian-American women caught between two conflicting cultures, seems to have developed from her poem "Arranged Marriage" in Black Candle. Both the poem and the stories are concerned with the emotions of women whose lives are affected by the Indian tradition of arranged marriages, though Arranged Marriage explores a broader scope of issues, including divorce, abortion, racism, and economic inequality. Relying heavily on techniques such as doubling and pairing, the stories expose the adverse conditions of women living in India, though the collection also suggests that life in America is as difficult as in India, and indeed perhaps more so because of the contradictory feelings immigrant women often experience as they are torn between Indian cultural expectations and American life. Arranged Marriage considers both cultures equally, critiquing and praising particular aspects of each.

The themes Divakaruni explores in her poems and short stories are developed in her novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart. Stylistically experimental, The Mistress of Spices combines poetic language with prose in order to, as Divakaruni suggests, "collaps[e] the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in [an] attempt to create a modern fable." Tilo, Mistress 's main character, is a young woman from a distant time and place whose training in the ancient craft of spices and initiation in the rite of fire allow her to become immortal and powerful. Traveling across time and space, Tilo comes to live in Oakland, California, in the form of an aged woman and establishes herself as a healer who prescribes spices as remedies for her customers. Although the novel appears to diverge thematically from the concerns in her poetry and short stories, Mistress does address similar issues, and as Tilo becomes involved in a romance that ultimately requires her to choose between two lifestyles—a supernatural immortal life and a more typical modern life—Divakaruni's themes of love, struggle, and opposing cultures become apparent.

Divakaruni's most recent novel, Sister of My Heart, is an expansion of and a variation on the short story "The Ultrasound" in Arranged Marriage. In the novel, two cousins, Anju and Sudah, who feel as though their lives are inextricably tied together, rely on each other for love, approval, and companionship. The women grow up together in the same house in Calcutta and have many similar experiences that bind them together, which leads them to feel as though they are sisters of the heart. However, when secrets regarding their births are revealed and the cousins are later physically separated because of arranged marriages, their unique relationship is tested, and the women struggle in the face of doubt and suspicion. Although one woman remains in India and the other moves to America, they experience similar traumas involving pregnancy and marriage and so come to rely on each other again for strength and support.

—Stephannie Gearhart

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Craig David Biography - Became Teenage MC to Herman Edwards Biography