Excerpted from Leave It to Me by Bharati Mukherjee. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Where did the idea for Leave It to Me come from?
BM: About twenty years ago, while I was spending a year in Delhi, India, the Delhi police made big news by arresting an Asian serial killer and three of his white, hippie, women accomplices. The man was said to have befriended, then robbed and killed--in very grisly ways--tourists from Europe, the United States, and Canada. The accomplices were vulnerable young backpackers who had succumbed to the serial killer's physical attractiveness and charisma.
I attended the trial, which was held in a cramped, dusty courtroom in Delhi. The accused man had the reputation of being a flamboyant escape artist, so the security staff was on high alert, and the tension in the small courtroom was acute. The hearings were mesmerizing. The prisoner cut a compelling figure. He was a short, slight, muscular man with fiery eyes and an arrogant manner. In spite of his heavy shackles, he dominated the hearings. For the first and only time in my life, I felt that I was in the presence of evil in that courtroom. I was repelled, outraged, frightened, and, at the same time, fascinated.
Q: Was it difficult to write about something so disturbing?
BM: It has taken me twenty years to transform that disturbing personal encounter with evil into a novel. Art works in mysterious ways to soothe our nightmares.
That wasn't the only difficulty. The first draft of this novel was stolen in 1994. Burglars vandalized my Manhattan apartment and took every portable thing of value, including my laptop. I hadn't made a back-up disk. I hadn't even made a hard copy of that draft.
Q: How did you start writing again?
BM: I was so traumatized that for two months I couldn't face reconstructing that stolen draft. And then, on a hot July afternoon in Saratoga Springs, I experienced a miraculous emotional breakthrough. I heard Debby's voice. She spoke the first page and a half of part one. After that, Debby took over, as had Jasmine and Hannah in my two preceding novels. She surprised me. She became my alternate self, the "what if...?" self. The pace, the language, the events--all were dictated by Debby. I suppose that sounds a little crazy, but it's the way I've always written fiction.
Q: What made you think to investigate such a disturbing, personal encounter with evil through the lens of a Hindu myth?
BM: I wrote the story of Goddess Devi in the prologue to provide a template for reading the novel. I hoped the prologue would allow the reader to react to DebbyDevi's actions. In the myth I use, Devi the goddess slays the Buffalo Demon because she is charged with that mission by the Cosmic Spirit. The Cosmic Spirit makes her its agent for ridding the world of evil on that occasion. I intended for all of DebbyDevi's experiences to be interpreted by the reader as visitations from God. Characters like Wyatt, Frankie Fong, the blond in the Spider Veloce, and Ham operate in a larger than real way. They are guardian-corrupters; they are demigods, innocent as Greek gods, untouched by the suffering they cause. They operate outside normal laws. They don't consider the consequences that their actions have on other people's lives. Jess, Debby's biological mother, is villainous on a pettier, more human scale. She is just a flower child gone nasty.
That story of the Goddess Devi--also known as Maha Devi or the Great Goddess--is also very much a part of my personal experience. It is recited with great feeling in Sanskrit during the most important Bengali Hindu religious festival. I can still hear my father, who was a scientist and the founder of a successful pharmaceutical company, chanting this musical passage about Goddess Devi slaying the Buffalo-Demon in his clear-toned, authoritative voice.
Q: The myth originates in India but plays itself out in the United States. Is it difficult for you to work with myth in this cross-cultural way?
BM: Using myths in cross-cultural ways came to me quite naturally and organically. In these days of megascale diaspora, when whole peoples are crossing borders because of better job opportunities or wars, cross-cultural applications of myths seem the most appropriate way to go. Myths embody archetypes, which is why they speak to all of us no matter what our ethnicity. I don't have to be a pagan Greek in order to empathize with Oedipus. You don't have to be a Hindu Indian to recognize the part that Devi the goddess is asked to play in the struggle between good and evil. As a student of world myths, I see how much in common--in terms of emotional and moral struggles--myths from different cultures have.
Q: Did it feel natural, then, to weave together a Hindu myth and a Greek myth in Leave It to Me?
BM: That presented an unusual challenge. The conflict that I had to resolve in synthesizing a Hindu myth and a Greek myth in Leave It to Me was this: Greek mythology, according to scholars like Edith Hamilton, places humans at the center of the story whereas Hindu mythology places destiny at the center. My solution: Debby is convinced that she is at the center of her universe, but the reader--having started out with the prologue--is always aware of divine providence.
Q: How does Leave It to Me rewrite the Electra myth?
BM: Myths are renewed each time we retell them. And depending on who is doing the telling of a myth, to what kind of an audience, and at what moment in history, that myth is interpreted in new ways. Poets like Homer, Aeschylus, and Ovid could take the same story, keep the cast of characters and the plot intact, but suggest very different motivations for what the characters do.
What I took from the Electra myth was the seriously dysfunctional family. The Electra myth comes out of the stories about the House of Atreus. You get endless, vengeful, in-family adultery, cuckolding, betrayal, murder, the dismembering of little children, and even a bit of cannibalism. I know, I know, Greek mythic tales are full of violence! The mother-father-daughter triangle is at the core of the original myth. In my novel, I found myself working with three separate such triangles, because Debby has a biological father, an adoptive father, and, in Ham, a lover who she wishes had married her mother and so had become her natural father.
Q: You recognize the violence in Greek myths. Leave It to Me is just as violent. Why?
BM: As in the original Electra myth, my mother-father-daughter characters are not afraid of committing mayhem. DebbyDevi pulls off a couple of disturbingly violent deeds. For me, the important question is whether DebbyDevi is a callous arsonist and killer or a facilitator of divine justice.
I also wanted the violence to be emblematic of the violence in the real world. Just one small example: These days we can't board a plane without going through a metal detector. As in real life, some of the violence in the novel is caused by malevolent people. But there's another kind of violence that intrigues me more. I'm thinking of earthquakes, tornadoes, typhoons, floods, wildfires. Debby is violent in the way that such forces of nature are. The Gray Nuns who rescued her must have guessed this since they named her Faustine after a typhoon.
Q: Leave It to Me explores Devi's struggle to discover her identity as she crosses cultural boundaries. Has this been a personal struggle for you?
BM: The themes my writing explores are the making of new Americans and the consequent two-way transformation of America. These themes have thrust themselves into my fiction because of my personal daily experiences as a naturalized American citizen.
Q: What were those daily experiences when you first entered the United States?
BM: Shortly after entering the United States, I married Clark Blaise, a fellow graduate student at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, during a lunch break in a lawyer's office in September 1963. I have a dangerously impulsive streak! It was only a week into married life that I realized the long-term consequences of our five-minute wedding. Suddenly I felt stranded in a country that I didn't know. I felt frighteningly alone and miserably displaced. I was coming out of an extremely old-fashioned, patriarchal Brahmin family and leaping into a United States that, at the time, was exuberantly experimenting with civil rights, women's rights, sexual permissiveness, and drugs. It took me fifteen years to recognize that I preferred to make my own traditions, to choose my own "homeland," rather than be given an ancestral village.
Q: You once said of yourself: "I didn't want anyone to know where I fit in, so I could be whoever I wanted to be, anywhere, and I could keep moving." Did making your own traditions mean maintaining a certain flexibility?
BM: I came out of a society in which identity was fixed from the moment of birth. I was who I was because of the family, class, caste, and language I'd been born into. Communal identity was the only identity that mattered. There was no tolerance of individual quirkiness or rebellion. Those who dared marry outside their caste lost their original caste, and losing caste was a very big deal. In fact, any Bengali who moved out of the state was patronized as being a "not-quite" Bengali. When I was growing up in Calcutta, upper-middle-class Bengali Brahmin women were not supposed to have ideas and opinions of their own. My mother, who was married off to my father when she was in her mid-teens, had to put up with verbal and physical abuse from her in-laws because she believed in education for girls and insisted on sending us to the best girls' school in the city. For me, empowerment meant escaping the identity I had been assigned by my tradition-bound community. I think of myself as being composed of a series
of fluid identities.
Q: Does Debby view her own very fluid identity as similarly empowering?
BM: Debby comes to the same discovery about the self being protean by the end of her adventures, but she starts her journey from a very different place than I did. I knew only too well what genes had gone into my making, what cultural values and historical events had shaped my thinking. Debby is an orphan. She has to find out not only who exactly her biological parents were, but what part, if any, they have contributed to her personality. In terms of race, being part white, part Pakistani, part Vietnamese, she feels at first that she can't claim any ethnic group as her own the way that her Italian-American sister can. The whole world has gone into the making of Debby. She has to learn to look on that as miraculously freeing.
Q: Does the struggle to define and defend your own identity in the United States continue to be as intense for you as when you first entered the country?
BM: The struggle is as intense, but it is about something entirely different. Now I don't think of myself as an Indian stuck in an alien country, because I happen to have fallen in love with an American. I have lived in many countries, but now I feel emotionally and intellectually most at home in the United States. I have chosen to be an American citizen. As an American of Hindu Bengali origin, I hope I am bringing a whole new perspective to the public debate about what it means to be an "American."
Q: Would it be fair to describe your own attitude toward contemporary America in Leave It to Me as clearly critical?
BM: I have a clear-eyed love of the United States. I have chosen the United States as my "homeland" because I believe in the democratic ideals that are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I love the ideals embedded in these two instruments, and because I love these ideals, I speak out--in essays and through fiction--when that idealism is corrupted.
Q: Do you think of Vietnam as a moment in which that American idealism was corrupted?
BM: I am convinced that the United States' perception of itself was permanently changed when it lost the Vietnam War. I arrived as a student in Iowa when John F. Kennedy was president. All my American friends, even as they were making the shift from the plaid-skirts-and-white-blouses staid correctness of the fifties to the long-lank-hair-and-sandals-and-heavy-eye-makeup permissiveness of the sixties, acted on the assumption that the United States was the greatest country in the world. My friends had grown up confident that America was the most powerful nation in the world. The last days of the Vietnam War, when network television played and replayed the frantic evacuation of American troops, threatened that assumption.
Q: Does Leave It to Me challenge the reader to think about Vietnam in a new way?
BM: We are aware of how the Loco Larrys were victimized by the war. But I see Devi and her generation as the unacknowledged victims of that war. Ham and Jess acted without much regard for consequences. Devi involuntarily suffers the consequences of their actions. Devi asks, "What about us, Vietnam's war-bastards and democracy's love-children? We're still coping with what they did, what they saw, what they salvaged, what they mangled and dumped on that Saigon rooftop that maniacal afternoon." What Devi tries to do is make Ham and Jess's generation aware of the moral consequences of their actions.
Q: Is this why you offer such a vivid depiction of Haight-Ashbury?
BM: I felt that I had to use the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco and Berkeley as the main setting for Leave It to Me because this area was where the "hey!--no consequences" kind of culture started when Ham and Jess were young, and it resulted in the birth of Debby and the dumping of her like "a garbage sack on the hippie trail." The choice of setting was deliberate. My intention was to have Debby, as Devi, bring moral accountability to these places. I live in The Haight and I teach at Berkeley. I know the geography and the mentality of these places at a gut level.
Q: How did you begin to write?
BM: I used to create stories in my head when I was three years old. These stories were so real to me--the characters so intense, the settings so graphic--that I hated having to come out of them to play with neighborhood kids. I'm not sure when I started writing them in notebooks. The earliest manuscript of mine--a manuscript that my mother found--was several chapters of a novel that I started in English in London when I was nine. It was about a child detective. My first published story appeared in a school magazine when I was twelve. It was written from the point of view of Julius Caesar. The second one, published when I was thirteen, was written from the point of view of Napoleon...
1. What attitude does Leave It to Me take toward adoption? How do you feel when Faustine/Debby/Devi abandons the DiMartinos so early in the novel?
2. When Debby starts her search for her "other life, [her] real life," Serena DiMartino tells her daughter that her biological father had a police record. Debby recognizes that a police record will help her find her bio-parents:
"That's a break for me, Mama. If they had a police record, that's something to go on."
"Being a criminal is a break? What kind of talk is that?"
"Just kidding, Mama. You brought me up to be decent."
The dialogue suggests that Debby's search for her bio-parents might prove to be "indecent." Does it? How does Debby feel about abandoning stable Schenectady society to embrace the Haight's counterculture? How do you feel about it?
3. In the first conversation between Ham and Devi, Ham remarks, "You have to come up with just the right name....Names count." In what ways do names count in Leave It to Me? Why are names constantly being changed? mispronounced? misunderstood? Originally named Faustine "after a typhoon," Debby renames herself after a Hindu goddess, Devi. Why? What impact does changing her name have on her identity?
4. Despite this interest in her own name, Devi seems to seek out employment in which her name and identity simply don't matter. First, she works as a telemarketer for Frankie Fong where she "tried out thirty personas" nightly. Later, she works for Jess DuPree's Leave It to Me knowing that "A ME doesn't have personal problems. A ME doesn't have a life." Why does Devi want these kinds of jobs? Does this work bring her closer to or drive her farther away from discovering her real identity, her real "me"?
5. Why is the novel titled Leave It to Me? What is left up to Devi to accomplish? Does she accomplish what she needs to?
6. When Devi reveals to Frankie Fong how little she knows about herself, she makes a statement intended for Frankie, but heard only by the reader: "I want you to know that we've both invented ourselves." What does Devi mean? Later in their relationship, Frankie actually turns Devi into a secretary, while Devi recognizes that she has "made [Frankie] up out of needs I didn't know I had." Is identity always "invented"? What are the dangers of inventing identity, one's own or someone else's?
7. Devi tries to leave her Schenectady past behind when she enters California. However, the individuals she meets seem vaguely familiar. Gabe, a neighbor, "looked like Wyatt, and kind of talked like Wyatt, too." Devi immediately recognizes that Ham Cohan's film series is a "rip-off of Flash's Boss Tong of Hong Kong." Is Gabe a second Wyatt? Is Ham a second Flash? Is Devi able to abandon her past, or is this entrance into California a reincarnation not only of herself, but of her past as well?
8. While working at Leave It to Me, Devi encounters several individuals who, unlike Frankie, seem to know exactly who they are. Devi's describes Stark Swann as a man who is comfortably "the center of his universe." Devi seduces and drugs Stark in order to carve "an endearment on his left buttock: CW. My homage to my neighborhood graffitiste, Cee-Double-You." "CW" expresses Devi's critique of Swann's tendency to see (Cee) only a reflection of himself (Double-You) in everyone he meets. She insists that her revenge is an act of the "real women." What does she mean by "real women"? Does Devi achieve real woman status in the novel? Does this mean that she does in fact have an identity that cannot be manipulated by someone else?
9. Devi hires Fred Pointer to point the way to her parents. The evidence that piles up to prove that her parents are Jess DuPree and Romeo Hawk seems officially convincing: conversation transcripts, death notices, court records, a photograph, passports. Romeo claims his daughter immediately. Jess, however, denies her relationship to Devi to the novel's end. Is Devi ever able to feel certain about her parentage? Are you?
10. "When you inherit nothing, you are entitled to everything: that's the Devi Dee philosophy." Devi's search for her identity reveals remarkable similarities between herself and her bio-parents. Devi and Jess both seduce the same man, work at the same job, and drug inconvenient lovers with Mandrax. Devi and Romeo wield the same cleaver to violent ends. Are these similarities a result of Devi's inheritance or her entitlement? Is she responsible for her actions? Do you excuse her because of her parentage, because of the actions of her bio-parents, or not at all?
11. Sex complicates Devi's relationships with her bio-parents. What impact does the fact that Jess and Devi share a lover have upon Devi's attempts to relate to Jess as a mother? Why does her bio-father, Romeo, enter Devi's life dressed as a woman? Why does he undress "with the taunting efficiency of a professional stripper" to reveal to his daughter that he is actually a man?
12. Devi believes that her search for her own identity was "started" by a poem. She discovers her bio-Dad by reading "poetic pensees," and believes that she hears the story of her conception while listening to Jess quote an Emily Dickinson verse: "My beginning....I've just heard my beginning." Later Devi realizes that her life reflects a "romance novel off a rack" more than an Emily Dickinson poem. Still, her identity seems to reflect literary productions: poems, romances, movies. How does Devi discover her identity through literature? Do you think of Devi as a real person or as a literary creation--a myth/fantasy?
13. In the prologue of Leave It to Me old Hari tells the children a bedtime story in which the Hindu goddess Devi slays the Buffalo Demon. Despite the disturbing violence of old Hari's tale, the children are "comforted by story" and "curl into sleep." They aren't troubled by the violence because they "already know the story's ending," and because it is story and not reality. The novel is just as violent as the prologue. Are you troubled by the violence of the novel, or does it leave you, like the children, comforted? In what ways does the violent prologue foreshadow the novel?
14. Why does Leave It to Me include a catalogue of acts of violence, seemingly unrelated to the story, that reads as realistically as a newspaper?
15. In the promotional material that introduces Devi to Romeo Hawk, Devi discovers a potent one-liner: "Destruction is creation's necessary prelude." What does this mean? Does the violence in Leave It to Me lead to creation?
16. Devi travels to Berkeley to find her bio-parents, but once she arrives she realizes that she can't enter "that Berkeley" in which Ham and Jess live. Devi suggests that it is the Vietnam War that separates "that Berkeley" from the place she visits: "Vietnam wasn't a war; it was a divide. On one side, the self-involved idealists; on the other, we the napalm-scarred kids"? How does the war shape Devi's experiences? Do the war veterans--Loco Larry, Pete Cuvo, Chuck Stanko--act in ways that she can or can't understand? Why does she ally herself with the napalm-scarred kids? Do her actions demonstrate this alliance?
17. Ham's houseboat is called Last Chance. What last chance does it represent? Does Devi lose this last chance or take advantage of it at the conclusion of the novel?
18. Only the conclusion reveals that the novel begins exactly where it ends: "in the cabin of this houseboat off Sausilito as curtains of flame dance in the distance and a million flash-bulbs burn and fizzle, and I sit with the head of a lover on my lap." Why does the novel begin at its ending? How does this impact the way you think about Devi's experience?