HOLT UNCENSORED #45
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 17, 1999
INTERVIEW WITH CHITRA DIVAKARUNI
CAN ANYBODY DO IT?
INTERVIEW WITH CHITRA DIVAKARUNI
The house lights dim in one of the country's most historic theaters, and a hush fills the hall as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni takes her place on the stage.
She is resplendent in Indian attire, her brown eyes shining like great pools of dark light, her wide, bright smile adorable and infectious. Though comfortable with this crowd after years of living and teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area (she has recently moved to Houston), Chitra is excited at the prospect of an onstage interview.
Asked how it feels to be famous after two critically acclaimed books - "Arranged Marriage" (short stories) and a novel, "The Mistress of Spices" - Chitra insists she hasn't become famous at all, then blurts out in a half-kidding way, "Maybe after tonight!"
Everyone laughs. There’s something very thick-carpeted and cozy about the smallish, thousand-seat Herbst Theater. As the audience learns about Chitra's new book, "Sister of My Heart" (Doubleday; 322 pages; $23.95), the place takes on the feel of a giant living room in which everyone sits around drinking up the wisdom of a famous guest who's come to visit.
That peculiar combination of informality within a formal setting adds to the intimacy of the conversation onstage. Here authors are more open and forthcoming, and the audience learns more of their secrets. Chitra explains, for example, that although the compulsion to set things down on paper began with her first trip to the United States at age 19, she didn't start writing seriously until the age of 30.
"Before leaving India, I decided to read all I could of American literature," she recalls, "so I went to the USIS [United States Information Service] Library. The only book there was the collected works of Flannery O’ Connor, which I read from cover to cover.
"I thought, 'Oh, this is what America is like.' But then I ended up in Ohio, which was, to put it mildly, a shock. I wore Indian clothes, and people would stop their cars, not on the same side of the street but a safe distance away, and point. 'Look! Look!' they would say." She stops and laughs. "It made me feel right at home."
Thus did the writer's career begin, though invisibly at the time. "I think in people's lives, different moments act as catalysts, and for me the catalyst was facing this kind of racism. The first impulse is to bury it, but you always know it's there. It doesn't go away. So I thought, 'how can I make sense of this moment?' Writing became a way, though it took years."
The interview is produced by City Arts & Lectures (see below) as a benefit for the Women's Foundation, whose co-founder, Marya Grambs, acts as onstage interviewer. Her questions keep bringing up a huge issue that many people (okay, Holt Uncensored) have been pondering for years: Why is it that fiction by immigrants, especially by women, has hit such an exposed nerve in recent years?
All the writers Chitra mentions whose books "changed me in important ways" - Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdich, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Naylor, Kirin Desai, Toni Morrison, Christina Garcia - are either immigrants or their descendants, or "internal immigrants" (African Americans, Native Americans), minorities who have been kept outside the mainstream.
One could think of dozens more whom Chitra does not mention - Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Ruth Ozeki, Julia Alvarez, Fae Ng, Edwidge Danticat, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jessica Hagedorn, Cynthia Owata, Laura Esquivil, Baharti Mukerjee, Terry McMillan, Gish Jen, Erika Lopez, Gayl Jones and others. It's astonishing how many there are.
Are these women more popular and predominant than their male counterparts simply because women readers buy the majority of books in America? Or is there something about the immigrant experience - beyond the "outsider" in us all - that strikes a nerve with readers across all boundaries?
"Immigrants are still battling with primal elements that perhaps people who have lived here for a long time don’t see," Chitra says. "What they're struggling with - fighting for dignity, for the right to make a choice, for the right not to be called names on the street - is so fundamental that even the people who are not fighting for such things can feel the importance of it."
She discusses work with south Asian women who have been survivors of domestic violence, homelessness and sexual assault in the United States.. Chitra is a founder of Maitri, a hot line that has helped many of her compatriots find help in an unfamiliar country.
What she has learned from all this, it turns out, is what immigrant fiction ultimately teaches: "I think above all, immigrants believe that change is possible. Hope is possible. Enormous gaps open up in the immigrant experience - the generation gap, for instance, is multiplied a hundred times. How do you explain to someone like a grandfather, who hasn’t lived in America, how it is to live here? How do you explain the ways a place he cannot imagine has transformed you? You try to do it with love and as much courage as you can muster, when ultimately you’re left wordless."
Why, then, have novels written by women immigrants struck such a deep chord in recent years? The answer comes indirectly: "Until the women's movement, change was not what women were about. Upholding the traditional lifestyle was their role. It was men who were changing faster, and still are.
"You see how men are much more in touch with the outside world by their clothing. Women will often keep to traditional clothes while men adopt Western wear, even in the home country. If you walk down a street in Calcutta, you'll see 80 percent of middle-class men in Western clothes; but 90 percent of the women, no matter what their class or background, are in Indian clothes. It’s an interesting visual reminder of what is happening."
"Now choice has come into the picture. It doesn’t mean destruction of traditions. It means we can choose what traditions we want to keep." That is the magnificently tangled and complex matter at the heart of Chitra's fiction - and perhaps all fiction - especially in her new book, "Sister of My Heart," where the resistance to change, and the consequences of choice, are revealed in a mesmerizing story.
The writing is so luscious, dreamy and scoopy with detail we are instantly transported to the Calcutta home of Anju and Sudha, two cousins born minutes apart. At 8 years of age, they are smothered with attention each morning by their widow-aunt, Pishi.
"I sit very still while Pishi's fingers rub the hibiscus oil into my scalp, while she combs away knots with the long, soothing rhythm I have known since the beginning of memory," Sudha tells us. For two girls whose fathers died before they were born, and whose upper-class family has fallen on hard times, "the sun is a deep, sad red," yet Pishi creates a place of safety and love in the traditional ways.
"Dressed in austere white, her graying hair cut close to her scalp in the orthodox style so that the bristly ends tickle my palms when I run my hands over them, she's the one who . . . makes us our favorite dishes: luchis rolled out and fried a puffy golden brown, potato and cauliflower curry cooked without chilies, thick sweet payesh made from the milk of Budhi-cow, whose owner brings her to our house each morning to be milked under Pishi's stern, miss-nothing stare.
"On holidays she plaits jasmine into our hair. But most of all Pishi is our fount of information, the one who tells us the stories our mothers will not, the secret, delicious, forbidden tales of our past."
An exquisite storyteller, Chitra reveals a long-held family secret in the early pages and hooks us quickly as Anju and Sudha rebel against family traditions, one finding her way to a cold American apartment, the other to an all-controlling mother-in-law in India. Both struggle with questions of abortion and miscarriage, but not in the way we could ever predict.
"Recently, my husband asked, 'Do you think you could put a few good men in your next novel?" She laughs at the memory. "People overlook the good men in my stories," she says, "maybe because the women are essential; this is their story, and I want them to be central. After centuries, it’s perhaps time. So much of how we perceive a story comes from who tells it. I want to show it in a way that you cannot forget how a woman sees reality."
CAN ANYBODY DO IT?
Can this kind of author event be produced in any city? Can booksellers benefit, or readers who don't attend? Let's look at the procedures and practicalities behind the scenes and see what it takes.
Sometimes the best part of an onstage appearance is the autographing that follows. As people line up by the dozen in the lobby of the theater, Chitra chats with readers who have been following her career ever since her first book of poetry came out a dozen years ago.
The books are supplied by A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, whose staff has become expert at setting up book sales for outside events - poetry festivals, literary luncheons, comunity centers, business meetings, writers' conferences. "We'll go anywhere," says ACWLPB's founder Neal Sofman, "though the profit margin isn't what you'd suspect."
A certain percentage of the book sale goes to the Herbst Theater, for example (something like a literary corkage fee), and the timing is so precise (45 minutes to an hour after the event) that "you can't just have one or two people on staff there," he says. "If 800 people come out those doors and the author is willing to sign, you have to have three or four people assisting. You have to calculate the time spent preparing - working with the producer, ordering the books, making sure they come in, upacking, setting up, selling, repacking and returning. None of these steps is a big deal, but forget any part of it once, and you know there's nothing worse."
For a long time, Sydney Goldstein of City Arts & Lectures, which produces Chitra's event, resisted having books in the lobby at all. "I thought it was a little commercial," she says. "I liked having nothing in in the lobby. But a lot of people who wanted the book never made it to the store. So I've gotten used to having the books here because I realize people want the choice."
Sydney has been producing City Arts & Lecture events for nearly 19 years in a uniquely successful program that demonstrates how much readers love to see authors (and occasionally entertainers) in every possible venue. Featured here, for example (and these are only the Bs), have been Lauren Bacall, Russell Baker, Stephen Batchelor, Mary Catherine Bateson, Ann Beattie, Saul Bellow, Wendell Berry, Bruno Bettelheim, Sallie Bingham, Claire Bloom, Roy Blount, Blanche McCrary Boyd, T.C. Boyle, Ray Bradbury, Ben Bradlee, Jimmy Breslin, Harold Brodkey, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, David Brower, Jerry Brown, Rita Mae Brown, Rosellen Brown, Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley Jr., Carol Burnett and A.S. Byatt.
The great irony about author appearances is that during the week of Chitra's event, for example, she will appear in at least five bookstores around the Bay Area, say approximately the same things, answer the same questions, talk to customers and provide autographs - all for free. Yet approximately 600 people will pay $17 a seat to see and hear her at the Herbst.
"This is a famous theater because the United Nations was founded here nearly 100 years ago," says Sydney, "and it's a beautiful one. A good experience has to do with ostensibly superficial things like reserved seating, good lighting, a good sound system, so that you end up with a kind of sacred space."
Similar lecture programs appear elsewhere, mostly on the coasts, but could any city arts group create such a venue with authors? "I imagine you could do it anywhere," she says. " In a smaller theater you could open up the conversation more to audiences, bring it closer so there would be an easier flow. Of course an onstage conversation is an art in itself. Each year I become more aware of how tricky it is.
"I think someone like [National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" interviewer] Terry Gross is good at this because in addition to preparing for each interview and being smart, she really represents the curious audience. She doesn't try to be on the same level with the author. She doesn't want to be an insider, and she doesn't want to prove she knows more than the audience does. She's very comfortable as an outsider like the rest of us, asking questions we would ask."
Perhaps the greatest change Sydney says she has seen in 19 years is that "bookstores were not doing author events when we started. Now all over the country, you see independent booksellers doing a lot of what City Arts & Lectures does. People love to meet the writers they admire. The irony for us is that the smaller the audience, the larger the sale; bookstores with regular programs have known for years how to gear sales to author appearances with very few returns."
Chitra agrees. "I love to do readings in independent bookstores - it's been very important to me. This time, going across America, I could see how much the independents are suffering. It just strikes at my heart. I know these are people who have hand-sold my books – they are my friends and I have a great deal of gratitude toward them.
"Even as a reader, not just as a writer, I appreciate the fact that they love books and want to encourage unusual books. That’s the most valuable thing about independents. Can you imagine what would happen to the level of reading if there weren’t independent booksellers reading and encouraging people who come in the stores asking, ‘What shall I read?' Giving them good suggestions as opposed to whatever’s on the bestseller list?
By the end of the evening, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books has sold about 60 copies of Chitra's books. The sale covers two employees and a lot of ordering and handling and restocking of books, although that's not the point. "Sometimes the PR value of our being there means even more than the sale," says Neal.
While City Arts & Lectures has not filled the house for this benefit, it's cleared enough to send a check for $2100 to the Women's Foundation.
Then there is the very classy City Arts and Lectures recording series for radio and Internet use. A tape of the evening with Chitra, introduced by actress Linda Hunt (who acts as host on all the tapes), goes off the next day to the San Francisco Chronicle's website, sfgate.com, where readers can find it this week (March 14-21) by clicking http://www.sfgate.com/eguide/books. There you'll find a number of City Arts & Lecture tapes (Jeffrey Toobin, Laurie Garrett, Molly Ivins), including Chitra's.
A second tape stimulates more sales when it runs twice on the local National Public Radio station, KQED. "We consider these recordings to be unique in the country," says station director Jo Anne Wallace. "We often hear from booksellers that sales go up when the City Arts & Lectures tapes are aired."
Sydney and Neal also sponsor literary luncheons, as does Mary Jane Dunstan, a former bookseller whose Artist's Proof bookstore in the tiny town of Larkspur, north of San Francisco, held luncheons right across the street. Any bookseller willing to take the time and care to set one up can benefit from literary luncheons, says Mary Jane, who interviews the authors herself after each lunch.
"It's a very congenial group," she says, "and eventually you have your regulars. The group ranges from 20 to 50 people, and after a while it becomes a neighborhood thing, a fun thing to do. But you have to be careful. These are not intellectual discussions. You can't be concerned with how you look to the audience. It's these people you have to serve, not the author, and not you."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I wrote Amazon.com about their search engine problems. I've enclosed the series of correspondence, in case you found it interesting:
Date: Wed, 10 Mar 1999 05:16:46 PST
From: Steven Harper email@example.com
I was running a web search for the Tattered Cover bookstore and, to my amazement, your advertisement on the Yahoo! search engine informed me that I could buy books at Amazon.com about the Tattered Cover. How fascinating, I thought. A bookstore that carries books about its competitors.
I followed the link and learned, also to my fascination, that Amazon.com carries, in fact, no books at all about Tattered Cover and that there aren't even any close matches to Tattered Cover.
Later, I ran a search for a Shakespearean insult generator for my English classes. Why, Amazon.com claims it carries books on that, too. Well, not "carries" as such. According to the link I followed, there are no books on Shakespearean insults, but there are plenty of books on Shakespeare. Would I like to buy any? I think not. I prefer not to buy from a company that lies in its advertising. It's quite obvious your proclamation merely fills in the blank with whatever the searcher types into the engine.
False advertising? It certainly would appear so. I feel Amazon.com is betraying its customers through lies and deceit. Unless, perhaps, the company has an explanation?
Thank you for sending us your comments.
I followed your search path on Yahoo and I can definitely see how the advertisement appeared misleading.
One link was labeled "Buy Books On 'tattered cove...'" and the other said "Buy Books On 'shakespearean...'". Yes, it appears that it does fill in the blank with whatever the person is searching for.
There is, however, no proclamation that we carry that specific book. It is more of a topic search. Our link comes up with the search results from the keywords that were used in the initial search. Such as, the search results from "keywords include 'tattered cover book store'."
Believe me, our intent is not betrayal, and I do apologize if you were offended. I've passed your feedback on to the appropriate department in our company for consideration.
Thanks again for writing to us at Amazon.com. As always, please feel free to contact us with your questions and comments.
More than 4.7 million titles
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I couldn't agree more with Dick Harte's assessment of Amazon. It's true, the emperor has no clothes. For years, independent booksellers and latenight tv watchers suffered through crass Crown Book commercials and their catchy slogan, "Books cost too much." Now, that once ubiqitous company sits in financial disarray. One day, the numbers game may well catch-up with Amazon.
However, Dick Harte made two other points that I think are even more important and worth repeating. One is that "Independent booksellers need not fear the Internet; it is their friend." The other is "I am more concerned about what I can do to make my own store more competitive for the future."
Instead of railing against Amazon and the internet - independent booksellers should, in my opinion, put their time and energies into developing their own web presence. The net is here to stay - and it's changing the way the world works. The internet can be friend to the bookseller.
The Booksmith website (www.booksmith.com) launched three months after Amazon, and since that time I have seen our internet business grow steadily. Sales over the last 9 months are double what they were the previous year. While I do not compete directly with Amazon or barnesandnoble.com or borders.com (and probably never will do to discounting), I do compete around those internet superstores.
Independent booksellers can make money on the web. They can also improve their instore business by tapping into the resources and reach of the internet. The Booksmith website pays for itself and makes a tidy profit to boot. Other independent booksellers can too!
Thomas Gladysz, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
web manager, The Booksmith
Dear Holt Uncensored,
This last stuff you sent really infuriated me--and I had been encountering this same "viral" invasion by the chains for months without understanding what the hell they were doing at every website. Usually, I use "dogpile.com" for my searches. I have rarely looked for an independent book store on the web, preferring to phone them or go there, but I have, of course, searched for other types of material.
Sure enough, almost always will appear on even the most obscure info I'm searching, Barnes&Noble or Amazon link to "read a biography on or books by blank." Only, I don't discover it's one of these villains until I reach the link--and am infuriated! It goes like this: Joe Shmo is being searched; I find maybe one thing about him, as he really is unknown, but, lo and behold,it says there's books by or about Mr. Shmo. I press the blind link to reach B&N or Amazon-and there are, of course, no books on him or by him--but I'm told I can order this great book by Jane Doe, instead. By now, I am livid. Not only do I reach a website I'm not interested in, but I have been deceived. They have, in summary, invaded everything!
Dear Holt Uncensored,
. . . there is a small amount of amusement amidst the enraging behaviour of the "find books on ___" chain store banners that pop up when using the major search engines. Some friends reported great delight in crafting devilish search phrases, just to watch the banner pop up suggesting that stuffy old B&N would actually carry them! They never once believed that there were any books there about B&N execs eating toe jam, or whatever it was they plugged into the search window...
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am an independent book sales rep with a pollyanna attitude about the book business. I have spoken with knowledgable publishers on the East Coast who moan and groan about the fact that independent bookstores account for far less than 20% of their annual sales. These same publishers will tell you that they have told their reps "Don't call on 80% of your accounts. Our telephone sales people will get those sales."
No matter how good a telephone sales person is, their orders will be considerably less than those of a sales rep. Booksellers want to see covers of books before they buy secondary titles (orders for primary titles can be increased by an eyecatching cover). Kids' books are best sold when galleys or blads are available for the buyers to see even if the author/illustrator is a known factor.
Commission reps, like myself, out of necessity, have to call on all bookstores to survive. Many of those "mom & pop" stores don't see reps from the "Seven Ugly Sisters" (read major publishers) and they are starving for books. I cover seven states in the West and have over 500 stores in my data base, virtually all of them independents. I represent about 20 publishers . . . and all of them have benefitted from the exposure they are getting by having someone actually show their books to booksellers.
The era of the commission rep may be on the verge of returning since we don't get any benefits or expense accounts. But we do get paid if we sell books to stores that consumers buy. The horror stories you told about the Internet need to be forwarded to the FTC. In the papers this morning, I read where the government said it will not regulate Internet commerce. Why is this commerce any different than retail stores?
Jim Harris Book Reps West