Form 1989 to 1993, I was an English major at the University of Chicago. Chicago is known for its Common Core curriculum, its requirements that students receive a broad general education before specializing further. Their model is based on the work of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, who in the 1930s, set out to infuse the University of Chicago curriculum with the spirit of the "Great Books."
What is a Great Book? Here are some of the possible criteria:
1) A great book is one that has been read by the largest number of persons
2) A great book has the largest number of possible interpretations
3) A great book should raise the persistent unanswerable questions about the great themes in European thought
4) A great book must be a work of fine art
5) A great book must be a masterpiece of the liberal arts
There have been multiple editions of "Great Books" published. I bought a University of Chicago set at the Printer's Row book fair for only $200, still one of the best bargains I've ever made. I devoured those, from Sophocles to Cervantes, Dante to Shakespeare. I admit to skimming Adam Smith's hefty economics text, The Wealth of Nations, but for the most part, I was entranced by these books. At its best, such writing can lift us up, can take us further in our thoughts and our hearts than we can travel on our own.
Part of the initial work around these books involved a humanities festival, much like this one, held in Aspen, Colorado. World War II was a great blow to what Hutchins had termed the "Great Conversation" of western civilization, in which authors spoke to each other, across time and space. To Hutchins and others, the nationalism of the war years had fractured western culture, and they meant to heal the wounds with a celebration of humanism.
We are living in such nationalistic war years right now, and we turn to these books for solace, for inspiration, for a reminder that we are not solely individuals, desperately alone in our heads, but we are all connected by a common humanity. That we can talk to each other, learn from each other, in that "Great Conversation."
When I was a young English major, I had no plans to be a writer. I read voraciously, and one of the books I read was Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. In the novel, Tilo, a young spice mistress wearing the form of an old woman, comes to America, using cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek, cloves to help her customers with the difficulties of their lives. I was entirely seduced by this novel, which was nothing like anything I had ever read, and which spoke to me of the island nation where I had been born, which I had left as a very small child.
At that point, I had read very little South Asian literature. In the years to come, I would read much more, would go back to the beginning with the great epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana. I would read novels by insightful Western writers who wrote passionately about South Asia, such as Rudyard Kipling's Kim, The Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India. I would begin reading writers from South Asia -- V.S. Naipaul, Rabindranath Tagore, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee. I would become excited about the work of new writers, many of whom are here attending our festival this weekend.
These writers are writing to and for each other, as much as for their audience, continuing an ongoing conversation about identity and ethnicity, gender and race, the tug of family and the desire for the Other, the sometimes heartwrenching division between the needs of one's family and the needs of one's heart. Eventually, I became one of those writers myself, joining the others in the newest generation of our own Great Conversation. In large part, I can credit the wildly successful work of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni for helping to create a space in America where South Asian and diaspora voices could be published, and heard.
Chitra Divakaruni's first novel, Mistress of Spices, was to be followed by many others, along with short story collections and children's books. In the years since I first discovered her, Divakaruni has been published in The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, has been translated into eleven languages, has won multiple awards, has had her work made into a feature-length film.
It takes a generation or more to be sure an author will continue to be read, so most of them are dead before they are considered truly great. But I do not need to wait to know that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one of the most influential figures in South Asian American literature today, and that without her groundbreaking work, many of us would not be publishing today.
So it is with tremendous pleasure and gratitude that, on behalf of DesiLit, The Chicago Humanities Festival, and Northwestern University's School of Law, I welcome Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni to the inaugural Kriti Festival.