The Perfect Storm: Common Book author finds inspiration amid chaos

odessa leeper/The Et cetera
Common Book author Chitra Divakaruni speaks to students about her amazing story.
odessa leeper/The Et cetera
Common Book author Chitra Divakaruni speaks
to students about her amazing story.
BY JUSTIN DAVID TATE, LIFE & ARTS EDITOR

Writer Chitra Divakaruni was about to get the brainstorm of a lifetime in the form of a real storm: Hurricane Rita.

As Divakaruni and her family raced toward  Interstate 10 to escape Houston, fear engulfed her.

“[Hurricane] Katrina had devastated New Orleans, so we all knew what a hurricane could do,” Divakaruni said. “We took this hurricane very seriously.”

So did more than four million other Houston residents who tried to flee the city at the same time, resulting in a massive interstate traffic jam. What would usually have been a three-hour drive to San Antonio became an impossible journey. Divakaruni and her family left their home at 7 p.m. and were still inside Houston at 2 a.m.

Tires were blown and engines were failing. Cars ran out of gas. With no movement in traffic and passengers in vehicles getting hot with no air conditioning, people began exiting their cars.

The result was a mass of arguments and fistfights as radio announcers told people the hurricane was fast approaching.

Divakaruni typically has a writer’s notepad attached to her like a fifth limb, but she displaced it while rushing to leave the city. So she took mental notes of everything she saw, including one group of people who did not succumb to their volatile surroundings.

“I noticed that not everyone was behaving in this [unruly] manner,” Divakaruni said. “A few people, it was like a crisis had brought out the best in them. They were going around trying to calm people down. They were sharing food and water with the elderly or people with children, and they were just trying to make things better.”

Upon seeing this, something clicked in her writer’s mind.

“I thought, ‘How interesting. Here we are, we’re all in this same situation of fear and panic, but some people can rise above it and they can do these good things, like grace under pressure,’” Divakaruni said. “I thought this was really worth exploring. And if Rita doesn’t come down this road today and wipe us all out, I’ll get to write a novel about it.”

That novel was “One Amazing Thing,” which was chosen as the college’s common book this year and also has been optioned to become a feature-length film.

The book tells the story of nine diverse characters ranging from a black American combat veteran to a Chinese grandmother and granddaughter, who become trapped in an Indian visa office during an earthquake. They each share one amazing thing about themselves while fighting to survive.

Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, believes she needed to go through her experience of being trapped on I-10 to write “One Amazing Thing.”

“Sometimes we go through painful experiences and we don’t like them when we’re going through them, but they make us grow and they make us into better people than we would be otherwise,” she said.

While working toward her doctorate in English at the University of California, Berkley, Divakaruni endured another difficult time when her grandfather passed away. It was the middle of the semester and she could not get away to attend his funeral.

“He was the one who told many stories from my culture, old Indian tales that became a part of my life, so I was very sad,” she said.

One night, while lying in bed thinking of her childhood years when she would visit her grandfather’s house in the Indian countryside, she realized she could not remember his face. She closed her eyes and still could not visualize it.

“That made me realize how much I was forgetting my childhood, my growing up in India, people and places that were important to me,” Divakaruni said. “As I was getting more involved and busy with my life here in America, those things were slipping away, and I didn’t want to lose them. They were an important part of who I was and my heritage and culture. I thought to myself, I’ll start writing things, because if I write them I won’t forget anymore.”

Divakaruni discovered that she could recall memories better through writing. Things she thought she had lost forever were dug up from the recesses of her mind.

She continued to write in private, describing herself as, “a closet writer” for years before she grew enough confidence in her work to put together poetry collections and eventually novels.

When Divakaruni delivered the Common Book Keynote address at Eastfield on Oct. 10, she encouraged students to write often and read often to become better writers. “One Amazing Thing” was used as a catalyst to get students to write about themselves and their own amazing stories.

One student, Sarah Hunt, wrote a short memoir for her English class. The memoir gave her a chance to open up about her life.

“It was very freeing to put that on paper and give it to other people and let them read something that I had been through,” she said.

After receiving a score of a 99 on the memoir, Hunt entered her work the Common Book writing competition, “Your Amazing Story.” More than 100 students entered a true or fictional story of under 1,300. Hunt decided to write a true story that hit close to home.

“When I was a kid, [my stepdad] beat the crap out of my mom on a daily basis,” Hunt said. “He had a shotgun and shot at us. It was just like five horrifying years of my life, and it’s something that people don’t know about me because I don’t talk about it.”

When Divakaruni announced the 15 writing contest winners during her visit, Hunt was one of them. When she stood, her knees buckled a little and her hands trembled. She had not expected to hear her name.

“I forget that I am a good writer because I don’t feel that I am,” she said.

Divakaruni was greeted by a standing-room-only crowd, including more than 100 dual-credit students from Samuel High School.

Common Book Committee co-chair Pebble Barbero was impressed with the response to the event.

“I’m totally happy with the support and the turnout,” Barbero said. “The students’ enthusiasm, the teachers’ enthusiasm, it just makes it worthwhile.”

This enthusiasm is something Divakaruni believes comes from the desire of people to hear each other’s stories. She says magic happens when stories are told.

“One of the things that happens when we hear each other’s stories is we know we’re not alone, that someone else has gone through a difficulty and overcome it,” she said. “It gives us encouragement to deal with our own problems. I think that’s been true of storytelling for a long time. ”

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