Bharati Mukherjee was born to an upper-caste Bengali family and received an English education. The most important event of her life occurred in her early twenties, when she received a scholarship to attend the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. Her fiction reflects the experimental techniques fostered at such influential creative writing schools.
At the University of Iowa, Mukherjee met Clark Blaise, a Canadian citizen and fellow student. When they moved to Canada she became painfully aware of her status as a nonwhite immigrant in a nation less tolerant of newcomers than the United States. The repeated humiliations she endured made her hypersensitive to the plight of immigrants from the Third World. She realized that immigrants may lose their old identities but not be able to find new identities as often unwelcome strangers.
Mukherjee, relying on her experience growing up, sought her salvation in education. She obtained a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature and moved up the career ladder at various colleges and universities in the East and Midwest until she became a professor at Berkeley in 1989. Her first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, was published in 1972. In common with all her fiction, it deals with the feelings of exile and identity confusion that are experienced by immigrants. Being female as well as an immigrant, Mukherjee noted that opportunities for women were so different in America that she was exhilarated and bewildered. Many of her best stories, dealing with women experiencing gender crises, have a strong autobiographical element.
Darkness, her first collection of stories, was well reviewed, but not until the publication of The Middleman and Other Stories did she become internationally prominent. Critics have recognized that she is dealing with perhaps the most important contemporary phenomenon, the population explosion and flood of immigrants from have-not nations. Mukherjee makes these newcomers understandable to themselves and to native citizens, while shedding light on the identity problems of all the anonymous, inarticulate immigrants of America’s past.
Her protagonists are not the “huddled masses” of yesteryear; they are talented, multilingual, enterprising, often affluent men and women who are transforming American culture. Mukherjee’s compassion for these newcomers has made her one of the most important writers of her time.