Anjali Mitter Duva: Writer, Dancer, Educator

Anjali Mitter Duva

 

#BoldAndInspiring South Asian Women Series: Honours master storyteller, Anjali Mitter Duva. Follow our hashtag, #mminspire  for the conversation

When you ask author Anjali Mitter Duva what her earliest memory as a writer is, she has a few that she recalls well. There was the time she made up an entire language and dictionary with a friend during a summer beach vacation. Or there was that time she wrote a short story on solitude read out loud by her ninth grade teacher in front of the class, much to her embarrassment.

“I loved words—the power they have, the nuances, their sounds,” says Duva.

Duva grew up multilingual — straddling three countries and cultures—France, the US, and India—and always having an outside perspective even where she was an insider led to her descriptive style.

Anjali Mitter Duva is the author of the bestselling historical novel Faint Promise of Rain .  A Brown University and MIT grad, Anjali is often invited to speak at conferences, festivals, libraries, schools and other cultural institutions. She was a finalist for a 2018 Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In her ‘spare’ time she is also a co-founder of Chhandika, a non-profit organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance and also runs a book club for teens and the Arlington Author Salon, a quarterly literary series. She is also a mother to two daughters and now lives in Boston.

We had a chance to interview Anjali about how motherhood has enhanced her writing and her passion to make a difference.

 

You launched a book club with your daughter after you noticed a trend/gap, can you elaborate on what happened and why you were inspired to create a book club for youth?

When my oldest daughter was in 3rd grade, she wanted to go to the Scholastic Book Fair at her school. Recently bitten by the reading bug, she went through books at a rapid pace. Of course, I was keen on encouraging her further. But the selection I saw at the book fair (and at the many school book fairs I’ve since seen) was really disappointing to me, as were the selections that so many of the kids were making: rather empty series whose plotlines were interchangeable, books of gross jokes, and books packaged with charm bracelets or other plastic doo-dads. We are lucky that there exists in English such a fantastically well-developed children’s literature, and yet so few really good books—well-written, with transporting stories and memorable characters—were being sold at these fairs.

I wanted my child to have the same experience I did growing up, losing myself in books that I thought of as friends. Click To Tweet

So I spoke to the parents of a few of my daughter’s actual friends, and floated the idea of hosting a book club. I offered to run every meeting, and I emphasized that there would be no expectations put on the parents other than dropping off and picking up their children. They all jumped at the idea. Thus our Page Flippers book club was born, and I’m proud to say that as those third graders now prepare to enter high school in the Fall, the club is still going strong.

For me, it’s been a very enriching experience. My goal was to have these kids read books they weren’t otherwise picking up. So no Harry Potter. We’ve read classics and contemporary books, novels and short stories, poetry and scripts, memoirs and biographies. We’ve read light books and heavy books, we’ve crossed continents and discussed current affairs through the lens of stories. (You can find a list of all the books, by year we read them, here: www.anjalimitterduva.com/partners.) I’ve been consistently amazed at the insight and depth of discussion these children, now teens, have brought to our meetings. And of course, they all like the snacks I provide: always only food that was featured in the book.

How has motherhood enhanced your ability as an author/writer?

I like how this question is phrased, with the assumption that motherhood could only have enhanced this ability! I think it’s very hard for me to separate the two, mostly because the time when I really set about to write, when I acknowledged—first to myself, then to others—that I was, in fact, writing a book, was right around when my husband and I were setting off on the path to parenthood. I had written three chapters of my first draft when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. Prior to then, I had been working as an urban planner, the field in which I have a graduate degree. Since then, the creative process and motherhood have taken place in parallel. Or perhaps the two strands were not parallel but in fact, interwoven. There was a brief period during which Adhira, the main character in Faint Promise of Rain and its narrator, was two years old, and my own daughter was two years old.

I do think raising children has made me more patient with, or perhaps more accepting of, my characters. It becomes quickly apparent, when caring for a child, that whatever plans one has for her will at some point have to change.

That at some point one has to accept the child’s nature and personality and interests and fears, and even if they are not what one hoped for or wanted or planned for, one has to live with them. The same goes for characters in fiction. They start out seemingly malleable, to be infused with whatever characteristics one wants, but soon they take on their own lives, and it behooves us as the authors to listen, adapt, and learn from them.

On writing Faint Promise of Rain, did this story have a personal premise given you also spent time in the desert as a young girl with your parents? Can you share a bit about the inspiration for the character in the book?

When I was twelve, my parents and I spent a year living in Bombay. During school holidays we travelled to other regions. One trip was to Rajasthan. I was particularly struck by the beauty and remoteness of Jaisalmer. At the time, one could not fly there, and instead had to take a long train ride through the desert. I remember sitting outside at dinner one night, watching a girl about my age, or probably younger, dancing in the street for coins. And I thought to myself: what made it so that I was born to be me, sitting here as a tourist with my parents, and she was born to be this girl, dancing for tourists? Many years later, as an adult, when I began my study of kathak, a classical dance of North India, and subsequently learned that one gharana or school of kathak was developed in Rajasthan, the memory of this little girl came back to me.

In the intervening years, I had travelled back to Jaisalmer with my husband, and in a guidebook had read a striking fact: in some parts of Rajasthan, it is possible for a child of five never to have seen rain. In the children’s rooms of the royal palaces, the walls and ceilings used to be painted with black and blue cloud designs so that when the rains did come and the sky darkened, the little ones would not be afraid. I found this to be such a haunting, beautiful image that I jotted it down. It would become the opening paragraph of Faint Promise of Rain, which itself is the first of a set of four historical novels. Each takes place at a time of great socio-political change in India that is mirrored in kathak dance. Together, the books will tell the story of this incredible art form.

What project are you most proud of and why?

I’m quite proud of my second book, the one that I am finishing up now (due to my agent in two weeks!) and that no one has seen yet except my writing group. It is the second novel in my planned set of four, and it takes place in 1850s Lucknow, again with a dancer at its center, but in a very different setting and historical context from Faint Promise of Rain. Mostly I’m proud of how much I can see that I have learned and grown as a writer since writing my first book. With FPR, the result was wonderful, and the book has certainly garnered lovely reviews and feedback, but I was blundering around blindly through the process. I learned a lot through mistakes.

With this second book, I see just how much I have developed my sense of storytelling, of narrative arc, of character development. And it’s a much more layered and complex book than my first. I had to wade through masses of research and figure out how to present such a complicated context—the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of British colonialism, the whole cultural phenomenon of courtesans at the time, the plight of a mixed-race son of one such courtesan struggling to find his place an in increasingly divided society—while also creating an enjoyable and engaging read. Time will tell how well I achieved this, but in the meantime, I’m pleased with the progress I know I’ve made.

What is your view on diversity in books right now? Is there enough? What’s missing?

In the last decade, at least in the US, there has been huge progress on this front. There’s still a ways to go, but we’re on the right path. More “diverse” books are getting published. Of course, writers of such books have been writing them forever, but I do feel a greater percentage are finally getting out there and receiving the audience and recognition they deserve. Especially in young adult literature. YA is full of protagonists who are gay, non-white, mixed-race. Many struggle with mental illness. A small number have a physical disability. Our children’s generation is growing up, finally, with an array of characters who look more like them.

However, I’m discouraged by the lingering attitude in the publishing industry toward the #weneeddiversebooks movement. So many of my friends have received rejections to their manuscripts on the basis of things like ‘we already have a Sri Lankan author on our list.

One editor suggested to me that my book would be more “relatable” if I included a Western (i.e. white) character. No matter that there were no such people in 16th century Rajasthan, or that such a person would be completely irrelevant to the story, or that the themes in Faint Promise of Rain—intergenerational conflict, fear of change, how to maintain a tradition in changing times, faith, devotion to art—are universal. And so many reading lists—in schools, or “best of” lists, or suggested summer reading, etc.—are still predominantly by white authors with white, mainstream characters. It’s frustrating. But I know so many strong, determined and wonderful writers working hard to get their diverse stories out there, so there is hope.

 

 You’re also co-founder of Chhandika, your non-profit organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance, what was so important about this cause to you and how is it helping women?

Kathak is an amazing art form. Its history, discipline, complexity and beauty all run very deep. I became fascinated with how the art form evolved and yet maintained its integrity through the various upheavals in India’s history. In the face of a growing desire (need?) for instant gratification, with attention spans shortening, we are on the path to losing a lot of artistic traditions that rely on years of intense study and practice, things that make us, I think, better human beings in general.

 

I’m so very proud of our students, especially the teens and young adults who are or were a part of the performing Youth Ensemble, and who put in hours of dedicated practice a week—not only in dance technique but in the study of music and history and philosophy and in serving as assistant teachers—while also balancing heavy academic workloads at school. These young women have learned to be disciplined and focused, to be articulate and self-confident, and they have developed tremendous physical strength and stamina as well. Not to mention they are part of a wonderful artistic community.

Given the current climate in the US and your multi-faith/multicultural background, what is your view on parenting in today’s climate, what advice might you have for others?

Oof. Parenting in today’s climate is hard. I’m barely figuring it out myself, so I don’t feel in a position to give advice. I find I struggle with finding the balance between telling my children about what’s going on in the world and wanting to preserve their innocence. But my oldest is thirteen, and she knows a lot. We, her parents, no longer control what she is exposed to. And of course, they both go through the active shooter drills that schools now run. It’s heart-breaking. I’m trying my best to emphasize the importance of speaking up for oneself, and speaking out when there is an injustice.

I’m trying, as well, to have my children understand the value of kindness, even when others are unkind, and of being tolerant, and of supporting each other and their friends. But it’s certainly hard when so many adults, especially those in positions of power, seemingly do none of these things.

More on Anjali:

Favourite read as a child?

So many! But I do recall loving Harriet the Spy, and, a little later, Watership Down, which I re-read every ten years or so. In fact, we read it with the book club in 2016, and we discussed why it was relevant to read it in an election year. The first time I read it, when I was eleven, that whole aspect of it went over my head. As a teen I loved many of the books by Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac, which I read in their original French.

Favourite book as an adult?

This is always hard to answer. I love different books for different reasons: All the Light We Cannot See for the exquisite writing, The God of Small Things for the atmosphere and unique style, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors for its bravery, most writing by Barbara Kingsolver.

 


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