Notable Asian American Writers

Bharati Mukherjee


An Indian immigrant married to a Canadian,Mukherjee has captured the chaos of the melting pot in her short stories and novels about the South Asia, particularly the Indian, immigrant experiences in America. A professor of Engilsh at the University of California at Berkeley, she is the author of more than a dozen of books, novels and several short stories,many which are drawn from her own experiences as an immigrant. She depicts from the clash of cultures and the ensuing dilemmas and successes with unique understanding and startling sensitivity. Her writing have held a mirror up to the south Asian community in North America.

A cross-cultural writer, Mukherjee has won several grants and awards from the Canadian government, universities, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She received the National Magazine Award in 1981 for her essay "An Invisible woman." Prior to that she won the first prize from the Periodical Distribution Association for her story, "Isolated Incidents." However, it was in 1988 when she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction that Mukherjee's work received national attention. The award was for her collection of short stories, The Middleman and Other Stories, which many say is her best work to date. Before Berkeley, Mukherjee had taught at Marquette University, university of Wisconsin-Madison, McGill University, Skidmore College, Montclair State College, and Emory University.

Born in Calcutta on July 27, 1940, to an upperclass Bengali Brahmin parents, Sudhir Lal and Bina Banerjee, Bharati was the second of three daughters. She grew up in an atmosphere of privilege and wealth in an extended family that included aunts, uncles, and cousins. Even in a crowded household Mukherjee found time and space to become a varacious reader. According to her, she knew as early as the age of three that she wanted to be a writer. As a child her favorite pastime was to hear Indian folk tales told by her grandmother. By the time she was eight she had already read several works of Leo Tolstoy,Dostoevsky, and Maxim Gorky, along with Bengali classics. In 1948 Mukherjee moved to England with her immidiate family and it was there she enjoyed privacy and independence. "I discovered myself in new ways," she told Natasha Rafi in an interview. Living apart from various relatives allowed her to concentrate on what was important to her. At the age of nine, she wrote her first "novel" about a child detective. The family returned to Calcutta after three and a half years and Mukherjee received the best English schooling available at Loretto House,a missionary school. She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and a master's degree from the University of Baroda in 1961.

That same year Mukherjee moved to the United States to study creative writing at the University of Iowa. She considers this event to have been the turning point in her career. "If I had to live in India, I still would have been a writer, but a very different sort," she said. It was in Iowa that the 23years old Mukherjee met and married a Canadian student,Clark Blaise, in 1963. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1968 Mukherjee moved to Canada with her husband, where she became a naturalized citizen in 1972.

Her first book, The tiger's Daughter, was published in 1972 by Houghton Mifflin. It is about an Indian woman who returns to India after many years in the West and looks at her native country through changed eyes. The poverty, hunger and dirt in the country now cloud the memory of the upperclass genteel life-style of her childhood and youth. Yet the longing for the security of home and comfort of her own culture creates a conflict known only to those born in the third world,burdened with the choice of living in the West. "While changing citizenship is easy, swapping culture is not," said Mukherjee. "I want to write about others, who for economic, social, political, or psychological reasons have had to uproot themselves from a life that was predictable to one where you make up your own rules."

A painful part of immigration is encountering racism in the adopted country. In her short story collection,Darkness, p ublished in 1985, Bharati explores Canadian prejudice against South Asians. The racial intolerance she experienced in Canada compelled her to move back to the United States where she is now setteled and claims to have found greater acceptance as a South Asian. In an interview with Sybil Steinberg of Publishers Weekly, she described her feelings about America: "Mine is a clear-eyed but definite love of America. I'm aware of the brutalities, the violances here, but in the long run my characters are survivors....I feel there are people born to be Americans. By American I mean an intensity of spirit and a quality desire. I feel American in a very fundamental way,whether Americans see me that way or not."

According to Mukherjee, her mother was determined that her daughters' lives would not be confined to the home and family as hers had been, and that she was the driving force behind the professional success of her daughters. Mukherjee described her as "a most modest heroic woman" who achieved her goals in "quite and determined ways." All three children realized their mother's dreams--the eldest is a psychologist in Detroit and the youngest heads the English department at the University of Baroda in Gujarat State, India.

Throughout her professional and personal life Mukherjee felt her Indian heritage has shaped the way she views the world. Strong family ties and love of education that was vital part of her upbringing have stayed with her through the years. Her advice to others is: "Treat every moment with reverence."

Brandmark, Wendy.Review of The Holder of the World. New Statesman & Society, November 19, 1993.
Zia, Helen and Gall, Susan B. Notable Asian Americans, 1995 GALE Research INC.

Biography and interview
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