H-Town Diary

A Novel Adventure

Novelist Chitra Divakaruni on learning to love the Bayou City and the stories Houston makes.

By Chitra Divakaruni September 3, 2013 Published in the September 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Dan Page

In 1998, when my husband and I decided to move from San Francisco to Houston (he for an executive position with Shell, me for a teaching appointment at the University of Houston), our California friends were aghast. They were sure we had exiled ourselves to some desert—if not a literal one with oil rigs and tumbleweeds, then certainly a cultural one. To be honest, I too was nervous. I had lived all my author-life in the Bay Area, attended workshops there as a fledgling writer, set and published my books in that milieu, won awards there. I was even a celebrity of sorts: the cashier at the local Safeway, who had seen the movie version of my novel Mistress of Spices, always gave me the employee discount on purchases. My glamorous life, such as it was, seemed poised to end.

We had the misfortune to arrive in Houston in June, and my family and I spent our first few months here in heat shock. I knew no one here; the few people I’d met while interviewing at U of H had wisely decamped to milder climes for the summer. Lonely, disoriented, and frequently delirious from heat, I spent my days dashing with my two children back and forth between the swimming pool and our air-conditioned apartment, all the while doubting that I would ever find a sense of community here—let alone a community of writers. 

When we moved, I’d been in the middle of writing a novel I thought I understood well, The Vine of Desire. But it was set in the Bay Area, and I was suddenly no longer able to call up the cool, crisp California locale under the searing Houston sun. I became mired in writer’s block. All I felt capable of were short, anguished verses of displacement:

At first there was absence. Not knowing 
The birdcalls here, she did not hear them. 
The wind scraped her face with wet salt nails. . . 

At what point does one grow too old
To learn new names? Green ash, water oak. The sounds
Soft as a palm pressed over her mouth. . . .

(from “The New City” in my collection Black Candle)

A month or so later, still in the midst of desultory unpacking, I received a phone call. It was from Rich Levy, the executive director of an organization called Inprint. They had a reading series. Would I like to be one of their readers that fall? I wanted to say no. Such an enterprise seemed to require more energy than I possessed. I hadn’t yet found a babysitter, a house, a doctor, not even a grocery store that I liked. Still, I agreed. And that is how, a couple of months later, I found myself reading alongside visiting poet Agha Shahid Ali to a packed audience in the MFAH auditorium. I’d found my cool drink of water in the desert. 

Thus began my long friendship with the Inprint folks, who have quietly yet consistently enriched the literary landscape of Houston. Thanks to them, I’ve had a chance to hear—and take my students to hear—world-famous authors. Listening to Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood or W. S. Merwin or Junot Díaz read and talk about their writing inspired me to think about literature in new and exciting ways, which in turn pushed my work in new and exciting directions.

I’d done readings in the Bay Area, of course, but mostly at book fairs and bookstores. In Houston, I read everywhere and to every sort of audience: to the literary crowd at Brazos Bookstore; to Tough Broads Out at Night, the warm and raucous book club at Blue Willow; to an audience consumed by Indian politics at the Asia Society Texas Center; to a group of Houston Chronicle journalists wryly amused by a character in The Vine of Desire who had relocated to our city: “I’ve left my wife, misreading invitation in another woman’s eye, and ended up in a city struggling out of recession into strip malls and congested highways bordered by billboards: To Get Out of Jail, Dial 713-Freedom. Fortune Cabaret, Girls Exposed. Don’t Mess with Texas. Who’s the Father? 1-888-DNA-TYPE.”

And then there was the time the Houston Public Library chose my novel One Amazing Thing for their Gulf Coast Reads program. I found myself discussing the book at libraries and colleges all over greater Houston, from The Woodlands to Baytown. In the novel, characters trapped in a life-threatening situation by an earthquake tell each other a story from their lives that they’ve never told anyone before. I was deeply touched when people in the audience spontaneously got up and began sharing private stories of their own. I marveled at how a book could bring a diverse community together and engender such a thoughtful public discourse.

As it happens, I got the idea for my novel One Amazing Thing in 2005, on the night my family and I evacuated the city. Hurricane Rita was heading straight for Houston—just a few weeks after Katrina had devastated New Orleans—and no one dared ignore the officials’ warnings. We and several million fellow Houstonians all left town at the same time, which allowed me to witness first-hand how differently people respond to emergencies. I-10 was completely jammed—more so once cars became overheated or ran out of gas, and I saw some people get into arguments and even fights as they spilled out onto the road; others, meanwhile, remained serene and helpful, handing out water, sharing food with children. As I watched, the writer part of my panicked brain clicked on. If Rita doesn’t wipe us out, I thought, I’ll write a book about being trapped in a life-threatening situation with strangers, and about what people can do to overcome their differences and become a community. The result was a novel set in a different locale and set in motion by a different natural disaster—I’m a writer of fiction, after all—but I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t lived in Houston.

Some things I would have missed had I stayed in California: The chance to sit in on Robert Boswell’s creative writing classes at the University of Houston; the feedback of literary colleagues like Toni Nelson and Alex Parsons; trading strategies with writer Mat Johnson for keeping children busy over the unending summers; hearing UH president Renu Khator read at her home (feisty feminist poems, mostly in Hindi); having Sangeeta Pasrija of the International Hindi Association perform hilarious poetry spontaneously in my home; interviewing our former first lady Andrea White at a meeting of the Amazing Book Club Divas, the area’s largest South Asian book club; being invited by Jennifer Schwartz of the Houston Public Library to speak before the Texas Library Association in the Julia Ideson library, where I spent much of the evening gawking at the amazing ceiling; being on committees with Fran Sanders, who heads the city’s Public Poetry program, and seeing their flash-mob video of Gwendolyn Zepeda reading in the downtown tunnels; having Robin Reagler of Writers in the Schools send me poems written by her “kids” each year; listening to a poetry reading by Ruben Martinez over a spicy South Asian dinner cooked by Voices Breaking Boundaries founder Sehba Sarwar, and watching a group of teenagers break-dance their hearts out. 

I want to end with lines from a poem, called “Houston Garba,” I wrote after attending a traditional Indian festival, the way it is enthusiastically celebrated in Houston. This, too, is what being a writer in Houston means to me: 

This October night
We have shed our jeans
for long red skirts, pulled back
permed hair in plaits, stripped off 
nail-polish and mascara, and pressed 
henna onto hands, kohl 
under the eyes. Our hips 
move like water to the drums. . . 
We clap hot palms like thunder. And

the mango branches grow back into trees.
Under our flashing feet,
the floor is packed black soil. 
Damp faces gleam and flicker in torchlight. 
The smell of harvest hay
is thick and narcotic 
in our throat. We spin and spin
back to the villages of our mothers’ mothers. 
Here, in Houston. . . . 

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