Photo by Emma Dodge-Hanson
The great American novelist Bharati Mukherjee had left Montreal by the time I embarked -- this was in the mid 1980s -- on my research into the writers working here in English. She and I corresponded in the fall of 2010 when I invited her to participate in the 13th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, and on April 28th we met to discuss the onstage conversation scheduled for the final day of the Festival. I had been reading her fiction and writing a review of her new novel, Miss New India, for The Globe & Mail. I sent her a few questions by email after our meeting, and here are her answers.
LL: Your most recent novels -- Desirable Daughters (2002), The Tree Bride (2004), and now Miss New India -- share some of the same family members and an interest in Indian history. Did you plan these novels together?
BM: When I was writing Desirable Daughters I had in mind a single novel about three sisters born into a Bengali Brahmin patriarchal family in Kolkata, and the very different decisions that each of the sisters makes as adults as they grapple with issues of “belonging” and “self-worth” when they are exposed to bewildering North American culture, two as students in the U.S, and one—the novel’s narrator, Tara Chatterjee—as the wife of a brilliant Stanford University graduate student, chosen as her bridegroom by her traditionalist father. It wasn’t until I was writing the last chapter of Desirable Daughters that I realized that I had just written the first in a trilogy of stand-alone novels that would provide as back-story the political, social and familial history of encounters with the British Raj that had shaped Tara’s personality and that propels her to undertake a “roots search” in her ancestral village (now in Bangladesh), before she can go forward with her life. I felt that I had to write The Tree Bride, which is both a prequel and a sequel. And I knew as I was deep into the story of Tara, who arrives in California as a student-wife, then becomes an immigrant and finally a naturalized U.S. citizen, that I was also longing to tell the stories of her California-born son, Rabi, and his generation who move easily between borders as they work out their questions about “belonging” and “personal happiness.” When I started Miss New India, Tara Chatterjee and her forty-something sisters didn’t seem to me be the most appropriate narrators for an intimate, visceral rendering of the “interiority” of the younger generation. The aesthetic solution for me was to focus on twenty-year-old Anjali Bose and her friend Rabi Chatterjee, and include, organically in the plot, characters like Rabi’s Bangalore-based Aunt Parvati and Uncle Auro who had played prominent parts in the two earlier novels.
LL: Do you hope that people reading Miss New India will have read the two earlier novels?
BM: It is the dream of an author foolhardy enough to write a trilogy that the reader read all three novels in the trilogy. But my trilogy is made up of stand-alone novels, which means that each of the three is complete in itself. I hope that if readers happen on Miss New India before having read the previous two, they will be intrigued enough to seek out those two.
LL: Would it be fair to say that Miss New India is also a new departure?
BM: Absolutely fair. I’m not sure I had any clear idea how big a departure Miss New India would be when I began the first chapter. This time I found myself writing of reverse immigration: North American expatriates, like Peter Champion the teacher and autodidact, who feels more at home in India than he does in his Midwestern American hometown; Rabi, who is discovering and relishing his Indian heritage; Parvati and Auro Banerjee, repatriates, who have returned permanently to India after years of working abroad. But to me, the most exciting departure became the discovery of the stories of scores of young adventurous women like Anjali Bose, who had rushed to IT “hub” cities, like Bangalore, and who recognized themselves as pioneers in a “new” India in which, unlike their parents, they felt entitled to pursue personal happiness, and were improvising “new rules” for happy survival.
LL: You have been writing about the culture shock experienced by immigrants from India in the United States for 40 years or more. Do you see yourself as being a pioneer in this exploration of the immigrant experience?
BM: My short and emphatic answer: Yes.
LL: What interests you most about Anjali /Angie in Miss New India?
BM: Anjali’s desire for personal happiness. A woman determinedly pursuing personal happiness is a revolutionary—and threatening--concept for her traditional parents.
LL: You have said, “I am an American, not an Asian-American. My rejection of hyphenation has been called race treachery, but it is really a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all its citizens equally.” How is this reflected in your fiction?
BM: The literary Establishment does not routinely refer to white American authors as European-American. But it is insistent on routinely labeling non-white American authors writing of American experiences as “Asian-American,” “African-Americans” etc. Because of the history of race-relations, “African-American” is an empowering label. My rejection of hyphenization is my way of declaring to the white Establishment that we non-European American writers are here to stay, and that some of us are choosing to provide our unique “take” on America through our fiction, and that each individual writer, and not the Establishment, should decide on the self-descriptor.
LL: You spent more than 10 years in Montreal. Did that have an impact on you as a writer? On your sense of yourself?
BM: My many years in Montreal, which is a unique city in North America, and which was especially so in the decade and a half I lived there because Quebec was forcing a change in the national Canadian foundation, had a profound, joyous, permanent effect on me. I would be remiss if I didn’t add that when I returned to Iowa after my long stay in Montreal I felt cosmopolitan and, thanks to my Le Château wardrobe, very sophisticated.