Book Brahmin: Anjali Mitter Duva

Anjali Mitter Duva
photo: Michael Benabib

The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing a graduate program in urban studies at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Additionally, she is a cofounder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India's classical storytelling kathak dance. In delving into the dance's history, Duva found the seeds of a quartet of novels; Faint Promise of Rain (She Writes Press, October 7, 2014) is the first.

On your nightstand now:

There are usually three books: one on the craft of writing, the next book for the fifth-grade book club I run and, then, typically, a novel. At the moment, the first is Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction, a book so filled with gems on writing that I pick it up now and then just for a nibble, a couple of pages of insights I'll then let work their way into my brain for a while. The second is The Alchemyst by Michael Scott. I've been running a book club for kids for the past year and a half. For the summer selection, I eased up a bit on the type of topics we usually cover (including some heavy stuff like oppression and immigration and loneliness) and assigned the first book of a series, Scott's The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. Some of the kids devoured all six books by midsummer, so I need to catch up on the first one before our next meeting. And the third book right now is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, which I just finished--a powerful, at times devastating, read.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Oh, so many! But Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh definitely stands out. How not to love that spunky, geeky kid with her notebook, a house with a dumb waiter and a character named Ole Golly?

Your top five authors:

This is tough. I'll rephrase to "five of my favorite authors" and narrow down to books originally written in English and authors with multiple books: Rohinton Mistry, Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and John Irving.

Book you've faked reading:

None. I can fake a base layer of knowledge in various fields, but I've never been the type of person who could show up for class and write an essay on a book I hadn't read. I wish I could--college would have been more fun that way--but I just don't have it in me.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Saskiad. No one I mention it to has ever heard of it. It is thought provoking, complex and highly literary in its references, and it has a very compelling 12-year-old girl as the protagonist... written by a man, Brian Hall. Be advised, though: although billed as a coming-of-age story, it is definitely not a read for anyone under 18 or so. A lot of dark material.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Having recently been involved in the process of designing a cover, I pay close attention to such things. But the truth is, I have such a long list of books to buy based on recommendations or reviews that I tend not to buy simply for the cover.

Book that changed your life:

The works of Émile Zola. I grew up in France, and as a teen was introduced to his works in class. Many of my classmates found them a drag--filled with the harsh realities of the working class in 19th-century Paris and its surroundings--but I loved them. What drew me to Zola's works was his brilliant portrayal of Paris as more than just a setting for his stories, but rather a many-tentacled monster, a complex creature with appetites. I didn't realize it at the time, but these books ignited in me a fascination with networks, infrastructure and urban planning. Many years later, I recognized this interest and attended MIT for a master's degree in city planning. My experience there, the people I met, the neighborhood I lived in, all transformed my life.

Favorite line from a book:

"There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking." --Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

Which character you most relate to:

My life bears little resemblance to the story in Claire Messud's The Last Life, but the protagonist, Sagesse LaBasse, and I have a similar background, straddling three countries: France and the U.S. (Massachusetts in particular) for both of us, and then Algeria for her, and India for me.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I'm amazed at the skill with which Niffenegger weaves this story in nonlinear fashion. Haunted now by the ending of the actual story, I could never reread it with the same sense of discovery.

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