Oindrila Mukherjee has worked for India’s oldest English language newspaper The Statesman, attended university on three continents, and now teaches at Grand Valley State University. She recently published her debut novel The Dream Builders, which follows a woman returning to India following her mother’s death after living in the US for years. The numerous characters that narrate the novel are all fully realized and are incredible. Mikherjee has a keen grasp on building characters that will stay with readers for years to come.
Debutfiul had the author answer the recurring A Life of Books questionnaire so readers can get to know her better.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
I was once visiting my maternal grandparents in their rambling old house in Calcutta when I discovered a very tattered copy of a book that used to belong to my mother when she was a child. It was Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney. I remember reading that book so many times, even though the pages came apart in my hands. There was something about the story, the close-knit family of siblings (I had none!) and the cozy parlor and the warmth of their mother, Mamsie, that I found absolutely idyllic (even though their lives were filled with struggles.) Years later, when I had just moved to Atlanta, I went to an antique store to buy used furniture for my apartment, where I found, tucked in one of the shelves, a hardbound copy of Five Little Peppers! I finally had a copy that wouldn’t crumble if I touched it. It felt serendipitous.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I don’t have children of my own, but I do love buying books for other people’s kids. Browsing in the children’s section at a bookstore is one of my greatest joys. I would certainly recommend Five Little Peppers, as well as other books featuring young girls like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, not only to girls but to children of any gender. I think it’s important to be introduced to a wide variety of books at an early age, with characters from very different backgrounds than your own, including books set in different locales. It’s also important for young readers to understand that some of these books were written and published in a different time period and that they should be read through a contemporary lens.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
I loved nearly everything I was assigned to read in my English classes. Of course, this was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and we were a postcolonial country. My mother tongue, Bengali, was in fact my second language in school, and it was the Bengali books that I resisted reading, mainly because my Bengali wasn’t very good, and I found these books much harder to read. Books by icons of Bengali literature such as Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. I didn’t hate them, but I certainly didn’t value them enough nor did I appreciate that they were an important part of my heritage until much later.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
I went through a Richard Bach phase in my teens. I not only read all his books, but I remember annotating them! I had an illustrated edition of There’s No Such Place as Far Away where I wrote a lot of marginal notes. My friends and I would read them out to one another when we had sleepovers. That was also around the same time when I was listening to bands like Air Supply. That phase of my life is certainly over.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
I consciously avoided reading books on similar topics. But I did read several novels with multiple perspectives. The usual suspects like A Visit from the Goon Squad and Olive Kitteridge but also books by writers of color or those set in the Global South such as Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, There There by Tommy Orange, and Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld. I was attempting to do something quite ambitious with the structure of my novel and seeing what others had done with many points of view was useful.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
I never have that thought because I feel like stories are so personal and often specific to one’s culture. I mean I was stunned when I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but I couldn’t wish it was mine because it was set in Nigeria! I remember as an undergrad reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines which was set not far from where I lived in south Calcutta and wanting to write a book someday that resonated in a similar fashion with Indian readers like myself. Two other books that made me want to write novels were Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, both for the way they used language and voice.
What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
My conversation partners on my book tour are all women writers of color, and I am so excited to read their new books. I’ve already read Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s debut collection of stories, What We Fed to the Manticore, and Angie Cruz’s fourth novel How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. I am currently reading Dionne Irving’s short story collection The Islands. And next on my list are Chaitali Sen’s forthcoming collection A New Race of Men from Heaven, which won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, and Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s debut collection When Trying to Return Home.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
A little magic.