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From The Asian Reporter, V20, #11 (March 23, 2010), pages 13 & 16.

Indian-American novelist turns to storytelling in times of disaster

One Amazing Thing

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Voice, 2010

Hardcover, 220 pages, $23.99

By Allison Voigts

As a little girl listening to her grandfather tell stories by candlelight in a rural village in eastern India, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni never thought she would become a writer. But with the release of her 16th book, One Amazing Thing, the Indian-American author continues to explain the mysteries of the universe through storytelling.

"I began writing as an action against forgetting," says the Houston-based author, who travelled to Portland this month to promote One Amazing Thing. "I didnít want to forget the people, the landscape, or the way of thinking in India."

Divakaruni came to the U.S. when she was 19 years old to attend graduate school in Ohio. ("The only reason my mother let me come was because my brother was here," she says.) Inspired by her lifetime love of stories, she completed a masterís degree in literature, followed by a Ph.D. in literature from the University of California, Berkeley.

But it wasnít until the end of her studies that Divakaruni began to write ó poetry, at first ó to remember India as well as make sense of the immigrant life, being seen as the "other." Her first book of poetry was soon published by the feminist Oregon press, Calyx Books.

As she began to write stories and novels, Divakaruni recalled the Indian myths and epics she had learned as a child beside her grandfatherís kerosene lamp and wove those stories into bestselling books such as The Mistress of Spices, The Palace of Illusions, and Sister of My Heart.

In the same way, One Amazing Thing draws on classic tales such as The Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales with its story-within-a-story framework, which follows a group of strangers trapped in a visa office by an earthquake who each tell a story about "one amazing thing" from their lives to pass the time.

The idea for the book originated from Divakaruniís experience volunteering to help Hurricane Katrina refugees in Houston. As she spoke with refugees, she saw that some were angry and bitter, while others were hopeful and looking ahead. Divakaruni wondered why people respond differently to disaster, only to face panic herself as Hurricane Rita bore down on Houston and she was forced to evacuate her family.

"Itís possible for us as human beings to demonstrate grace under pressure," says Divakaruni, laughing about her own lack of grace during the evacuation. "People need to see each other as part of a community instead of as obstacles to survival Ö Some prices are too high to pay for survival."

The author believes everyone should think about how they would respond to catastrophe and hopes One Amazing Thing will inspire the question. In the book, storytelling dispels tension and violence, turning strangers into family as each is reminded of his or her own life in the stories of the others.

Divakaruni hopes readers will also be inspired to find their own "amazing thing" from their personal lives. For her, it occurred during a trip to India for a religious pilgrimage in the Himalayas. After a torrential rain washed away the paths and opened up enormous crevasses in the glacier, Divakaruni became separated from her group and found herself needing to cross an overflowing river alone.

As she was crying on the bank, terrified, an older man appeared on the opposite side of the river and stretched out his walking stick to pull her across. When she had reunited with her fellow travellers, the man disappeared into the barren landscape.

"There are many mysteries in the universe," says Divakaruni. "That was one amazing thing."

To learn more about One Amazing Thing and Chitra Divakaruni, visit <www.chitradivakaruni.com>.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

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