[LITERATURE] Jhumpa Lahiri - Acclaim Novelist
- Jhumpa Lahiri
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Education: Bachelor's degree in English literature, Barnard College;
masters' degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative
studies in literature and the arts; doctorate in renaissance studies,
all from Boston University. "An absurd number of degrees," she says,
but all the diplomas are framed and displayed on her parents' walls.
Mentor: Novelist and Boston University professor Leslie Epstein, who
advised her to "never forget you're a fiction writer" when she was
too shy and lacked the confidence to call herself a writer. Such
comments, she says, were "like a lifeboat in a cold, unfriendly
Awards: Pulitzer Prize, PEN/Hemingway Award, The New Yorker Debut of
the Year; Guggenheim Fellowship.
First job after college: As a bookstore clerk in Cambridge, Mass.,
much to her parents' disappointment. "I said, 'I need a break. I'm
burnt out at 21.' They said, 'You have no clue.' To them, opportunity
is sacred, not to be wasted."
Jhumpa Lahiri Vourvoulias (born Nilanjana Sudeshna in 1967) is a
contemporary Indian American (Bengali) author based in New York City.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England in July 1967, and brought
up in South Kingstown, Rhode Island where she would go on to graduate
from South Kingstown High School. Her parents, a teacher and a
librarian, taught her about her Bengali heritage from an early age.
Lahiri received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College
in 1989. She then received multiple degrees from Boston University:
an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in
Comparative Literature and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She took
up a fellowship at Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center, which lasted
for the next two years (1997-1998).
In 2001, she married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was
then Deputy Editor of Time Latin America. Lahiri currently lives in
Brooklyn with her husband and two children. She has been a Vice
President of the PEN American Center since 2005.
Lahiri taught creative writing at Boston University and Rhode Island
School of Design. Much of her short fiction concerns the lives of
Indian-Americans, particularly Bengalis.
Interpreter of Maladies
As a collection of nine distinct short stories, Interpreter of
Maladies, Lahiri's debut, addresses sensitive dilemmas in the lives
of Indians or Indian immigrants. The stories' themes include marital
difficulties, miscarriages, and the disconnection between first and
second generation immigrants in the United States. The stories are
set in the northeastern United States, and in India, particularly
The Namesake, her second book and first novel, was published in 2003.
An anecdote published in USA Today mentions a schoolteacher who found
her given name too long and used her nickname Jhumpa instead.
Lahiri adapted this incident in her book, which spans more than
thirty years in the life of a fictional family, the Gangulis. The
parents, each born in Calcutta, emigrated to the United States as
young adults. Their children, Gogol and Sonali, grow up in the United
States and much of the tension of the novel is dependent upon the
generation and cultural gap between the parents and the children.
Furthermore, as the title suggests, one of the issues of the novel is
the confusion caused by the a misunderstanding which occurred when
Gogol is very young: his pet name (Gogol) becomes mistaken for his
real name. Thus, Gogol's unusual name serves as a symbol of his own
unclear cultural identity (further complicated by the fact that Gogol
is the last name of a noted Russian author).
The film, The Namesake will be released in March 2007 in the United
States and the United Kingdom. It is directed by Mira Nair and a
screenplay adapted from Lahiri's novel by Sooni Taraporevala. The
film stars Kal Penn as the young Gogol. Lahiri, herself is an extra
in the film.
1993 - TransAtlantic Award from the Henfield Foundation
1999 - O. Henry Award for short story "Interpreter of Maladies"
1999 - PEN/Hemingway Award (Best Fiction Debut of the Year)
for "Interpreter of Maladies"
2000 - Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and
2000 - The New Yorker's Best Debut of the Year for "Interpreter of
short story "Interpreter of Maladies" selected as one of Best
American Short Stories
2000 - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut Interpreter of
2000 - M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard
2002 - Guggenheim Fellowship
Jhumpa Lahiri was born 1967 in London, England, and raised in Rhode
Island. She is a graduate of Barnard College, where she received a
B.A. in English literature, and of Boston University, where she
received an M.A. in English, M.A. in Creative Writing and M.A. in
Comparative Studies in Literature and the Arts, and a Ph.D. in
Renaissance Studies. She has taught creative writing at Boston
University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her debut
collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for
fiction. It was translated into twenty-nine languages and became a
bestseller both in the United States and abroad. In addition to the
Pulitzer, it received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut
of the Year award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison
Metcalf Award, and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Lahiri was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. The Namesake is
Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel. She lives in New York with her husband
Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
interviewed by Arun Aguiar
Arun Aguiar writes a weekly Arts & Culture Column for News India-
Times, a Manhattan-based English language newspaper serving the 1
million-strong Asian Indian community in the USA. Another way he
doesn't make a living is by advising struggling non-profits on
programming issues and generating earned revenues as an alternative
to grant writing and other forms of supplication.
Jhumpa Lahiri, 32, was born to Bengali Indian parents in London,
moved to Rhode Island before she could say her first haw haw, often
vacationed in Calcutta during her youth, and now lives on the border
of Greenwich Village. After graduating from Barnard, she attended
Boston University's creative writing program and obtained a Ph.D. in
Renaissance Studies. A two-year fellowship at Provincetown's Fine
Arts Work Center followed.
The muse of writing first visited Lahiri in primary school and, at
the ripe old age of seven, she began co-authoring "books" with a
classroom friend during recess. Interpreter of Maladies, her first
collection of 9 short stories, was published in June.
The longest story covers 28 paperback pages, and the shortest, 13.
Three were published in The New Yorker in the last year. The title
story secured the author the O'Henry Award.
While Lahiri's stories bear the stamp of the same painstaking
craftsmanship as Buddhist sages apply to the making of a mandala,
their lives are far from fleeting. Most of Interpreter's characters
play out a simultaneous existence in two cultures. They are Indians
living in America or India, and/ or their lovers, neighbors, or
landlords are. With informed cultural chiseling, their creator shapes
them into sharply sculpted personalities.
The stories with an American setting presage a changing national cast
of real and fictional characters. For instance, Mrs. Sen, the
protagonist of her eponymous story, is hardly a fish out of water for
feeling diminished without a daily regime of fresh halibut: at least
50,000 other immigrants from Bengal share her piscine tastes.
As for the stories set abroad, Lahiri ensures, with exquisite
attention to exotic detail, that all of the cultural i's are topped
by vermilion dots and their Indian t's refreshingly crossed.
Arun Aguiar interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri on July 28, 1999 for Pif
Magazine. He reports, "Searching for convenient ground led us to walk
away from the conversation-filled Xando Café and Java & Jazz coffee
shop in favor of an air-conditioned office kindly made available by
Ann Benner of Mariner Books/ Houghton Mifflin near Union Square in
Manhattan. Wearing a bare-armed black blouse, offset by brown glasses
perched on her head and bracelets the color of bronze, Lahiri fielded
questions with 'If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium' insouciance."
Arun Aguiar: If I may, I'm going to start this discussion by taking
up one of the 9 stories. To set this up, will you please summarize
the story titled "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar"?
Jhumpa Lahiri: It's about a misfit, a young woman, living in a
rundown building in Calcutta, and she's in the care of her cousin and
his wife, who run a shop. She's epileptic, and she lives a very
sheltered life; so she's rather naïve. The story is basically about
the town's involvement, to a greater and lesser degree, with her over
her marriage and in the idea of finding her a husband.
AA: She is a rare and unusual character, and one most people would
not easily encounter. How on earth did you get to know the Bibi
Haldar's of India so well?
JL: From going to India, and observing people. For that story, I took
as my subject a young woman whom I got to know over the course of a
couple of visits. I never saw her having any health problems but I
knew she wanted to be married. She lived in the same building as my
aunt and uncle, and we struck up a friendship, not terribly deep and
abiding, but a friendship, nevertheless. I learned from my aunt that
she had some epileptic-like disease...
AA: Yet, you described with verisimilitude Bibi having a seizure on
the street, and the crowd doesn't know what to do until someone
cries "Leather!" Is someone else the real narrator of your Indian
stories, and you the writer?
JL: No. I had a brief conversation with my aunt about the last time
this woman had a spell, during which she said, "If you hold up
something close to her that's made of leather, it helps her." It sort
of stuck in my head. She didn't really describe anything to me, she's
not a storyteller in that sense.
AA: Now, what if the narrator had witnessed the story unfolding as,
for instance, a teenager rather than an older woman and mother? Would
the focus have shifted from the sick woman to, perhaps, the impact on
the narrator herself?
JL: Maybe, maybe not. The narrator is not anybody in particular. It's
a group of women, so there's no particular identity to the narrative
voice. A Faulkner story ["A Rose For Emily"] I admired used that
voice and I wanted to try it out. That's why I wrote the story the
way I did. It was an experiment for myself.
AA: How necessary or useful is it to visit a foreign locale before
setting a story in it? In the `60s, a British writer of detective
fiction novelist spawned a slew of stories featuring one Bombay
Police Inspector Ghote, but he revealed, some years later, that he
had never been to Bombay.
JL: I have also written stories set in places and/ or times of which
I had no idea, and had no access to, and I've had to rely on a little
bit of research, and questions, and get some details that way. It's
easy to set a story anywhere if you get a good guidebook and get some
basic street names, and some descriptions, but, for me, yes, I am
indebted to my travels to India for several of the stories.
AA: The timeless Indian Tales of the Panchatantra, like Aesop's
Fables, often end with a moral. Your stories primarily dwell on
JL: Relationships do not preclude issues of morality When I sit
down to write, I don't think about writing about an idea or a given
message. I just try to write a story (which is hard enough). And
there's obviously a message, or a moral, or something (smiles). I
think that's good -- but it's not something I actively think about,
to be honest with you.
AA: You've read from Interpreter to Indians, to Asian American
groups, and to general audiences in bookstores. Have their reactions
JL: The reactions haven't differed; the concerns have been different.
When I read for a predominantly Indian audience, there are more
questions that are based on issues of identity and representation.
That also happened in England last week. Some Indians will come up
and say that a story reminded them of something very specific to
their experience. Which may or may not be the case for non-Indians.
But I've also been receiving incredibly touching letters from people
who are not Indian, not women, but (I'm assuming) older American men
commenting on the story [The Third and Final Continent] in The New
Yorker's recent fiction issue about a young man's odyssey in the
United States, and connecting to it in a way that I find quite
AA: Did you ever look at a zine like Pifmagazine.com for an audience?
JL: I've never had Internet access (sighs). Actually, I have looked
at things on other people's computers as a bystander. A few times in
my life I've opened email accounts, twice actually but it's
something I don't want in my life right now.
AA: Does that say anything about you in terms of being traditional
JL: No (chuckles). The whole Internet world seems like a distraction
for me. Especially since it would be on my computer, which is where I
write. I like to think of the computer, psychologically, more as an
empty space rather than as "I can push a button and the world could
AA: You have been contracted to write a novel. Can you give us a hint
of the essence of the book?
JL: It's hard for me to talk about anything I'm doing at the moment.
It's only after I finish something that I can actually describe it in
AA: Some short stories become novels.
JL: I've seen novels that have grown out of one story in a
collection. But it hasn't occurred to me to take any of those stories
and build on them. They seem very finished for me, so I don't feel
like going back and dredging them up.
AA: Would you advise a beginning short story writer to send his or
her first submission to The New Yorker or to less known publications
or simultaneously to all?
JL: I would not send a first story anywhere. I would give myself time
to write a number of stories.
I started writing, and then I bought a book on where to send stories.
I would send them out, they all came back, then I would write
something else, this went on for years. Sometimes I got a nice note,
and that gives you a little bit of inspiration for the next time you
sit down to write. It's a combination of being attuned to that whole
world out there, the editor, the publisher, blah, blah, blah, but
also knowing that really is not the goal. If it happens, it happens;
if it doesn't happen for a long time, that's okay too.
AA: Finally, is that a rhinestone ring you're wearing? Because
there's this Neil Diamond song, "Rhinestone Cowboy", which goes: "
Getting cards and letters from people I don't even know; and offers
comin' over the phone ." With your book taking off, are you feeling
like a rhinestone cowboy?
JL: Ha, ha, ha! I just feel tired, I have to say. It's been a very
For Pulitzer winner Lahiri, a novel approach
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
BROOKLYN, N.Y. When Jhumpa Lahiri, the daughter of immigrants from
India by way of England, began kindergarten in Kingston, R.I., her
parents told her teacher that her first name was merely a pet name.
In Bengali culture, pet names are used by family and friends only at
home and in private moments. Each pet name is paired with a good
name, a formal identification for the outside world.
Lahiri had two good names: Nilanjana Sudeshna. They appear on her
passport and birth certificate, and that's how her parents expected
her to be known in school.
But the teacher, as Lahiri's parents later told her, wasn't much for
formality. She said something like "That's kind of a long name" and
decided it was easier to pronounce "Jhumpa."
Thirty years later, Lahiri adapts the scene in her novel, The
Namesake, (Houghton Mifflin, $24), to be published next month. The
novel is one of the most eagerly awaited of the fall.
The Namesake is not only Lahiri's debut, but it's also her first book
since she won the Pulitzer Prize three years ago for Interpreter of
Maladies, her debut collection of short stories. That was only the
seventh time a collection of stories had won the prestigious award.
After a first printing of 17,500 copies, it went on to sell 600,000
copies, most of them in paperback.
Set between 1968 and 2000, The Namesake continues and expands on a
theme running through her short stories: the emotional dislocation of
immigrants and their children who are struggling to reconcile family
traditions with a new and baffling culture.
The story is about a boy named Gogol Ganguli, the son of immigrants,
whose pet name comes from the Russian writer. His good name is
Nikhil, and he struggles with what to call himself.
Lahiri calls herself an outsider but not a foreigner. Her family left
England when she was 3. "I wasn't born here," she says, "but I might
as well have been."
In the novel, Gogol's mother, Ashima, never forgets she's a foreigner
in a strange new world filled with opportunities and uncertainties.
For Ashima, being a foreigner is "a sort of lifelong pregnancy,"
Lahiri writes, "a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous
feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis
in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that
previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated
and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is
something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same
combination of pity and respect."
In her spacious, airy apartment in a gentrified, stroller-filled
neighborhood of Brooklyn, Lahiri balances her 15-month-old son,
Octavio, on her lap. She recalls that as she was writing the
childbirth scene, before her son was born, she asked her mother what
it had been like when Lahiri and her younger sister were born.
"She talked about the pain, which I expected, but also about feeling
terrified that she was all alone in a new country where she didn't
In her novel, Lahiri writes of Ashima's pregnancy: "That it was
happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she
loved, had made it more miraculous still. But she is terrified to
raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she
knows so little, where life seems tentative and spare."
Much of her fiction, Lahiri says, comes from listening to others,
then putting herself "in their shoes to try to imagine that feeling
for myself." She imagined herself being pregnant in Japan or Brazil
and "what that would feel like."
At 35, Lahiri is as unassuming, direct and precise as her writing.
She is asked whether outsiders make better novelists.
"Not necessarily," she says. "Many of the novelists I admire never
left their hometown. Look at Flannery O'Connor. So many of the great
Russians never left Russia. Shakespeare never left England. The list
Lahiri grew up in a college town, where her father was a librarian at
the University of Rhode Island, but the family frequently visited
relatives in Calcutta.
There, when she was about 20, she heard about a cousin's friend named
"The name struck me. I knew that in India it wasn't strange, just a
playful pet name in honor of the writer. No one would think it odd
the way they would here."
Nearly a decade later, Lahiri was compiling a list of ideas that
could spring into stories. A boy named Gogol was added. "The only
thing I was sure of was his name, which is the one thing he's not
In the early drafts, Gogol was born and raised in Calcutta and
was "more like my parents." Then Lahiri decided she would make his
background closer to her own. So Gogol is born and raised in the
suburbs of Boston.
As Lahiri writes, "His parents don't suspect Gogol of being, in his
own fumbling way, an American teenager." As a teen, Lahiri's favorite
sitcom was Bewitched, with Elizabeth Montgomery as a suburban mother
who happened to be a witch. "On some level," she says, "the idea of
parents who were different must have appealed to me."
Lahiri's short-story collection won better reviews in the USA than in
India, where critics panned what they believed were her negative
portrayal of immigrants and questioned whether she was a "true
Indian" who could write about India.
"That pushed all my buttons," she says. "It's what I've struggled
with: In India, I'm told, 'You look Indian, you speak Bengali, but
you're really American.' In America, I'm told, 'You sound and act
American, but you're really Indian.' "
She says she feels fully comfortable in neither place, but that's
changing. "More and more I feel comfortable in this country. I can
belong here. I do belong here. I belong less in India."
She's married to a Guatemalan-American and coos to her son in
Bengali, "the language of my heart, the language I was raised and
loved with." She would love it if her son grew up speaking English,
Spanish and Bengali, but "I won't pressure him to be trilingual at
the age of 5."
As for her Pulitzer Prize, Lahiri says, "It was unexpected. I accept
it graciously and try to wear it lightly. I know it's a high honor,
but I also know it's arbitrary, a decision made by a small group of
people. ... It's no magic potion. It doesn't help me with what's
really important to me: to learn and grow as a writer."
She recognizes that the prize has raised expectations for The
Namesake (first printing: 150,000 copies), "but that's nothing I can
Writing, she says, "is the hardest thing I do. But it's a struggle I
enjoy on some level. I have very little choice. If I don't write, I
feel dreadful. So I write."
Jhumpa Lahiri on her Debut Novel
An Interview with the author
Q) In your first book, Interpreter of Maladies, some of the stories
are set in India, others in the United States. The Namesake is set
predominantly in the United States. Can you talk a bit about the
significance of setting in your work?
A) When I began writing fiction seriously, my first attempts were,
for some reason, always set in Calcutta, which is a city I know quite
well as a result of repeated visits with my family, sometimes for
several months at a time. These trips, to a vast, unruly, fascinating
city so different from the small New England town where I was raised,
shaped my perceptions of the world and of people from a very early
age. I went to Calcutta neither as a tourist nor as a former
resident - a valuable position, I think, for a writer. The reason my
first stories were set in Calcutta is due partly to that perspective -
that necessary combination of distance and intimacy with a place.
Eventually I started to set my stories in America, and as a result
the majority of stories in Interpreter of Maladies have an American
setting. Still, though I've never lived anywhere but America, India
continues to form part of my fictional landscape. As most of my
characters have an Indian background, India keeps cropping up as a
setting, sometimes literally, sometimes more figuratively, in the
memory of the characters. The Namesake is, essentially, a story about
life in the United States, so the American setting was always a
given. The terrain is very much the terrain of my own life - New
England and New York, with Calcutta always hovering in the
background. Now that the writing is done I've realized that America
is a real presence in the book; the characters must struggle and come
to terms with what it means to live here, to be brought up here, to
belong and not belong here.
Q) The Namesake deals with Indian immigrants in the United States as
well as their children. What, in your opinion, distinguishes the
experiences of the former from the latter?
A) In a sense, very little. The question of identity is always a
difficult one, but especially so for those who are culturally
displaced, as immigrants are, or those who grow up in two worlds
simultaneously, as is the case for their children. The older I get,
the more I am aware that I have somehow inherited a sense of exile
from my parents, even though in many ways I am so much more American
than they are. In fact, it is still very hard to think of myself as
an American. (This is of course complicated by the fact that I was
born in London.) I think that for immigrants, the challenges of
exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the
knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and
distressing than for their children. On the other hand, the problem
for the children of immigrants - those with strong ties to their
country of origin - is that they feel neither one thing nor the
other. This has been my experience, in any case. For example, I never
know how to answer the question "Where are you from?" If I say I'm
from Rhode Island, people are seldom satisfied. They want to know
more, based on things such as my name, my appearance, etc.
Alternatively, if I say I'm from India, a place where I was not born
and have never lived, this is also inaccurate. It bothers me less
now. But it bothered me growing up, the feeling that there was no
single place to which I fully belonged.
Q) Can you talk a little bit more specifically about the conflicts
you felt growing up as the child of immigrants?
A) It was always a question of allegiance, of choice. I wanted to
please my parents and meet their expectations. I also wanted to meet
the expectations of my American peers, and the expectations I put on
myself to fit into American society. It's a classic case of divided
identity, but depending on the degree to which the immigrants in
question are willing to assimilate, the conflict is more or less
pronounced. My parents were fearful and suspicious of America and
American culture when I was growing up. Maintaining ties to India,
and preserving Indian traditions in America, meant a lot to them.
They're more at home now, but it's always an issue, and they will
always feel like, and be treated as, foreigners here. Now that I'm an
adult I understand and sympathize more with my parents' predicament.
But when I was a child it was harder for me to understand their
views. At times I felt that their expectations for me were in direct
opposition to the reality of the world we lived in. Things like
dating, living on one's own, having close friendships with Americans,
listening to American music and eating American food - all of it was
a mystery to them. On the other hand, when I was growing up, India
was largely a mystery to Americans as well, not nearly as present in
the fabric of American culture as it is today. It wasn't until I was
in college that my American friends expressed curiosity about and
interest in my Indian background. As a young child, I felt that that
the Indian part of me was unacknowledged, and therefore somehow
negated, by my American environment, and vice versa. I felt that I
led two very separate lives.
Q) Did you feel as rebellious as your character Gogol does early in
A) Neither Gogol nor I was terribly rebellious, really. I suppose I,
like Gogol, had my moments. But even ordinary things felt like a
rebellion from my upbringing - what I ate, what I listened to, whom I
befriended, what I read. Things my American friends' parents wouldn't
think to remark upon were always remarked upon by mine.
Q) In The Namesake, characters have both good names, used in public,
and pet names, used by families. Is this still a tradition in Bengali
families? Do you have both a public and a family name?
A) I can't speak for all Bengalis. But all the Bengalis I know
personally, especially those living in India, have two names, one
public, one private. It's always fascinated me. My parents are called
by different names depending on what country they happen to be in; in
India they're known by their pet names, but in America they're known
by their good names. My sister, who was born and raised in America,
has two names. I'm like Gogol in that my pet name inadvertently
became my good name. I have two other names on my passport and my
birth certificate (my mother couldn't settle on just one). But when I
was enrolled in school the teachers decided that Jhumpa was the
easiest of my names to pronounce and that was that. To this day many
of my relatives think that it's both odd and inappropriate that I'm
known as Jhumpa in an official, public context.
Q) You write frequently from the male point of view. Why?
A) In the beginning I think it was mainly curiosity. I have no
brothers, and growing up, men generally seemed like mysterious
creatures to me. Except for an early story I wrote in college, the
first thing I wrote from the male point of view was the story "This
Blessed House," in Interpreter of Maladies. It was an exhilarating
and liberating thing to do, so much so that I wrote three stories in
a row, all from the male perspective. It's a challenge, as well. I
always have to ask myself, would a man think this? do this? I always
knew that the protagonist of The Namesake would by a boy. The
original spark of the book was the fact that a friend of my cousin's
in India had the pet name Gogol. I wanted to write about the pet
name / good name distinction for a long time, and I knew I needed the
space of a novel to explore the idea. It's almost too perfect a
metaphor for the experience of growing up as the child of immigrants,
having a divided identity, divided loyalties, etc.
Q) Now that you've written both stories and a novel, which do you
prefer? What was the transition like?
A) I feel attracted to both forms. Moving from the purity and
intensity of the short story to the broader canvas of a novel felt
liberating and, at times, overwhelming. Writing a novel is certainly
more demanding than writing a story, and the stakes are higher. Every
time I questioned something about the novel it potentially affected
hundreds of pages of writing, not just ten or twenty. The revision
process was far more rigorous and daunting. It was much more of a
commitment in every way. And I was juggling much more than I ever
have in a story, more characters, more scenes, more points of view.
At the same time, there's something more forgiving about a novel.
It's roomier, messier, more tolerant than a short story. The action
isn't under a microscope in quite the same way. Short stories, now
matter how complex, always have a ruthless, distilled quality. They
require more control than novels. I hope I can continue to write both.
Q) Have you reevaluated any of your writing about men and/or marriage
now that you are both a wife and mother?
A) Not really. The scenes about Ashima in labor and giving birth were
written long before I became pregnant. I asked my friends and my
mother and my mother's friends a lot of questions, and I based
Ashima's experiences on the answers I got. Being married doesn't make
writing about men any easier, just as my being a woman doesn't make
writing about women any easier. It's always a challenge. That said,
the experiences of marriage and motherhood have changed me
profoundly, have grounded me in a way I've never been before.
Motherhood, in particular, makes me look at life in an entirely
different way. There's nothing to prepare you for it, nothing to
compare it to. And I imagine that my future work will reflect or
otherwise be informed by that change.
Q) You quote Dostoyevsky as saying, "We all came out of Gogol's
overcoat." Has Nikolai Gogol had any influence on you as a writer?
A) I'm not sure influence is the right word. I don't turn to Gogol as
consistently as I do to certain other writers when I'm struggling
with character or language. His writing is more overtly comic, more
antic and absurd than mine tends to be. But I admire his work
enormously and reread a lot of it as I was working on the novel, in
addition to reading biographical material. "The Overcoat" is such a
superb story. It really does haunt me the way it haunts the character
of Ashoke in the novel. I like to think that every writer I admire
influences me in some way, by teaching me something about writing. Of
course, without the inspiration of Nikolai Gogol, without his name
and without his writing, my novel would never have been conceived. In
that respect, this book came out of Gogol's overcoat, quite literally.
The Writer Who Began With a Hyphen
Jhumpa Lahiri, Between Two Cultures
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
NEW YORK -- For Jhumpa Lahiri, writer, observer and ABCD -- "another
badly confused Deshi" -- there is that place, a place she watches
with a certain detached bemusement, the place she arrived at in the
midst of all that post-Pulitzer fuss. The place where there are
glitzy spreads in Vogue and where paparazzi stake out her wedding, a
place where she constantly hops on planes to a seemingly endless
array of cities, where someone is always there at the ready, snapping
And then there is this other place, a quieter place, the place where
she is really most comfortable. Home.
Toys are scattered about, a shirt lies forgotten on the bathroom
floor, testimony to lives given over completely to the care and
feeding of the very, very young. The teakettle is humming on the
stove in the galley, where her husband, Alberto, a man lean of face
and frame, is futzing about, making lunch for the baby. Throughout
their Park Slope co-op in Brooklyn, there are talismans of love:
photos of weddings and other gatherings, of friends and first
birthdays, abstract art painted by her mother-in-law, shelves crammed
tight with much-read tomes. She sits in the living room, snuggling
with the big-eyed moppet on her lap, tired and more than a little jet-
lagged, cooing in Bengali as ferocious masks from Guatemala and
Mexico gaze down on them.
This is but a momentary respite in the latest crush of publicity, a
pit stop on the way from there to there, from last week's stint in
Los Angeles, and this week's stop in Washington, where tonight Lahiri
will appear at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 4900 Connecticut Ave. NW,
There, she will do something that makes her squirm: Read her own
work, specifically excerpts from her first novel, "The Namesake," the
much-anticipated follow-up to "Interpreter of Maladies," her debut
collection of short stories, the book that won her the Pulitzer Prize
for fiction in 2000 and a whole lot of attention and praise that
she's still not quite sure what to do with.
Here in the United States, reviewers laid on the praise, as did one
critic who enthused, "There is nothing accidental about her success;
her plots are as elegantly constructed as a fine proof in
In her parents' native India, where the book was also a bestseller,
the commotion reached an accelerated pitch, with journalists
alternately praising her work and then slamming her for not painting
Indians in a more positive light. When she married her beau,
Guatemalan Greek journalist Alberto Vourvoulias, the Times of India
breathlessly covered their 2001 nuptials, a two-hour Hindu ceremony
that took place in Calcutta: "Press photographers and TV crews were,
however, kept at bay in deference to Jhumpa's wishes to keep the
wedding a private affair. Desperate photographers and TV cameramen
had positioned themselves on a neighboring building to capture the
event on film. They even had dogs set on them."
Life after the first big splash has been interesting.
"The unexpected can really have the power to unsettle you," says
Lahiri, a slender, soft-spoken woman with a caramel complexion, large
limpid eyes and a flair for fashion.
"Even if it's good."
Indeed, winning the Pulitzer was discomfiting in that the 36-year-old
has yet to figure out why. It came suddenly, a short hard blast of
good fortune, shoving her into the literary spotlight and onto the
bestseller lists, all thanks to a prize for which she wasn't even
aware she was a contender.
Did she deem herself unworthy?
She hesitates before answering, parsing her remarks with the
precision of a woman for whom words matter much.
"I thought Pulitzers were given to authors who were ensconced in
their work," she says. "I didn't understand how I could arrive at
that, having written just nine stories. But I had to accept that, and
accept it graciously.
"I don't think it's wise for a writer to question why a book is
praised or dismissed. It's just my job to write the books."
So don't ask her if she considers herself a good writer, because she
doesn't know how to answer that. It's not like she reads her work for
pleasure, you know? She'd prefer to not read it at all, frankly.
That's not what matters. Rather, writing is a puzzle, something to
ponder and figure out, a way to toy with ideas and experiences. It's
something that is never, ever easy, is always, always difficult, but
she does it because that is what she most loves to do. Once it's out
of her hands, though, her relationship to it is done. That's it. None
of her business if her work is loved or loathed.
"I've never written for anyone other than myself," she says. "No
matter what people say or expect, at the end of the day, they're not
the one in the room with me, writing."
It is the process that entrances.
"I've always never loved anything more than sitting quietly in a room
by myself, imagining things," she says.
Indeed, it grounded her. Even as a little girl, growing up in a
university town in Rhode Island, the daughter of Bengali Indian
immigrants, Lahiri entertained herself with the stories she wrote.
Writing was play, something that carried on as she made her way
through Barnard College and Boston University, where she received
master's degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative
studies in literature and the arts, and a doctorate in Renaissance
Writing was also an escape. Growing up brown and "foreign" in a town
where white was the predominant theme had its challenges. There was
the persistent feeling of other, not American enough, not Indian
enough, of constantly straddling fences, stretching identities. She
is amused, and slightly annoyed, by Indians who immigrate to the
United States and eagerly embrace a Caucasian identity, excitedly
reporting to their Indian friends that they'd moved into an all-white
neighborhood, where there were no blacks. Thanks to her parents --
her mother would often retort to these friends, "What do you think
you are?" -- she said, "I was never into any sort of denial."
From "The Namesake":
For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of
lifelong pregnancy -- a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a
continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a
parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover
that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more
complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima
believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from
strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.
She knew who she was: Indian American. London-born Deshi. And yet,
the American part was hard to claim. "I really felt it would be a
betrayal of my parents to call myself American," she says. But on
visits to India, she was the American.
It is the complications of being a hyphenated American that informs
her work, the same challenges that face Gogol, the American-born
protagonist in "The Namesake":
"Teleologically speaking, ABCDs are unable to answer the
question, 'Where are you from?' " the sociologist on the panel
declares. Gogol has never heard the term ABCD. He eventually gathers
that it stands for "American-born confused deshi." In other words,
him. He learns that the C could also stand for "conflicted." He knows
that deshi, a generic word for "countryman," means "Indian," knows
that his parents and all their friends always refer to India simply
as desh. But Gogol never thinks of India as desh. He thinks of it as
Americans do, as India.
"The Namesake" is told from several points of view: Those of Ashima,
the Bengali bride who weds Ashoke in an arranged marriage and moves
with him to Cambridge, Mass.; Ashoke, the MIT professor who years
earlier escaped a disastrous train wreck and decides to christen his
son after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol in honor of his own
survival; the British-born and American-raised Moushima, sleek and
sophisticated, fluent in French and more than a little flattered when
she is mistaken for anything other than Indian.
Although these other voices compel, the story is ultimately a coming-
of-age tale about Gogol, "the namesake," a confused and ambivalent
young architect who spends much of his time running from all things
Indian. First of all, he hates his name, a name that was meant to be
a family name, a pet name, nothing more. But it sticks when his great-
grandmother's letter, the airmail letter announcing his "good name,"
is lost in the mail and U.S. bureaucrats demand that a name, any
name, be put on his birth certificate.
But Gogol doesn't understand its significance, and as soon as he
graduates from high school, he changes his name to Nikhil.
But now that he's Nikhil it's easier to ignore his parents, to tune
out their concerns and pleas. . . . It is as Nikhil, that first
semester, that he grows a goatee, starts smoking Camel Lights at
parties and . . . discovers Brian Eno and Elvis Costello and Charlie
Parker. . . . It is as Nikhil that he loses his virginity at a party
at Ezra Stiles, with a girl wearing a plaid woolen skirt and combat
boots and mustard tights.
Naming is everything, a way to claim identity, to pass on notions of
love, tradition and hope. And so it is, perhaps, that Lahiri
dedicates her book to the two men in her life, her husband and
son, "For Alberto and Octavio, whom I call by other names."
For Octavio, she knows, life as a second-generation American-born
Guatemalan Greek Deshi will be very different, a different kind of
navigating between cultures, but navigating nonetheless.
Alberto comes to claim the 17-month-old Octavio, and the discourse
between parent and child takes on a different hue.
He holds out his hands to the toddler, issuing a command in Spanish:
And Octavio, who is just now learning to speak, in English and
Bengali and, yes, Spanish, leaps into his father's arms.
My Two Lives
The Pulitzer-winning writer felt intense pressure to be at
once 'loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.'
March 6, 2006 issue - I have lived in the United States for almost 37
years and anticipate growing old in this country. Therefore, with the
exception of my first two years in London, "Indian-American" has been
a constant way to describe me. Less constant is my relationship to
the term. When I was growing up in Rhode Island in the 1970s I felt
neither Indian nor American. Like many immigrant offspring I felt
intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent
in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen. Looking back, I
see that this was generally the case. But my perception as a young
girl was that I fell short at both ends, shuttling between two
dimensions that had nothing to do with one another.
At home I followed the customs of my parents, speaking Bengali and
eating rice and dal with my fingers. These ordinary facts seemed part
of a secret, utterly alien way of life, and I took pains to hide them
from my American friends. For my parents, home was not our house in
Rhode Island but Calcutta, where they were raised. I was aware that
the things they lived forthe Nazrul songs they listened to on the
reel-to-reel, the family they missed, the clothes my mother wore that
were not available in any store in any mallwere at once as precious
and as worthless as an outmoded currency.
I also entered a world my parents had little knowledge or control of:
school, books, music, television, things that seeped in and became a
fundamental aspect of who I am. I spoke English without an accent,
comprehending the language in a way my parents still do not. And yet
there was evidence that I was not entirely American. In addition to
my distinguishing name and looks, I did not attend Sunday school, did
not know how to ice-skate, and disappeared to India for months at a
time. Many of these friends proudly called themselves Irish-American
or Italian-American. But they were several generations removed from
the frequently humiliating process of immigration, so that the ethnic
roots they claimed had descended underground whereas mine were still
tangled and green. According to my parents I was not American, nor
would I ever be no matter how hard I tried. I felt doomed by their
pronouncement, misunderstood and gradually defiant. In spite of the
first lessons of arithmetic, one plus one did not equal two but zero,
my conflicting selves always canceling each other out.
When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was
the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the
desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I
was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life. My first
book was published in 1999, and around then, on the cusp of a new
century, the term "Indian-American" has become part of this country's
vocabulary. I've heard it so often that these days, if asked about my
background, I use the term myself, pleasantly surprised that I do not
have to explain further. What a difference from my early life, when
there was no such way to describe me, when the most I could do was to
clumsily and ineffectually explain.
As I approach middle age, one plus one equals two, both in my work
and in my daily existence. The traditions on either side of the
hyphen dwell in me like siblings, still occasionally sparring, one
outshining the other depending on the day. But like siblings they are
intimately familiar with one another, forgiving and intertwined. When
my husband and I were married five years ago in Calcutta we invited
friends who had never been to India, and they came full of enthusiasm
for a place I avoided talking about in my childhood, fearful of what
people might say. Around non-Indian friends, I no longer feel
compelled to hide the fact that I speak another language. I speak
Bengali to my children, even though I lack the proficiency to teach
them to read or write the language. As a child I sought perfection
and so denied myself the claim to any identity. As an adult I accept
that a bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.
While I am American by virtue of the fact that I was raised in this
country, I am Indian thanks to the efforts of two individuals. I feel
Indian not because of the time I've spent in India or because of my
genetic composition but rather because of my parents' steadfast
presence in my life. They live three hours from my home; I speak to
them daily and see them about once a month. Everything will change
once they die. They will take certain things with themconversations
in another tongue, and perceptions about the difficulties of being
foreign. Without them, the back-and-forth life my family leads, both
literally and figuratively, will at last approach stillness. An
anchor will drop, and a line of connection will be severed.
I have always believed that I lack the authority my parents bring to
being Indian. But as long as they live they protect me from feeling
like an impostor. Their passing will mark not only the loss of the
people who created me but the loss of a singular way of life, a
singular struggle. The immigrant's journey, no matter how ultimately
rewarding, is founded on departure and deprivation, but it secures
for the subsequent generation a sense of arrival and advantage. I can
see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint
India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.
It is in fiction that I will continue to interpret the term "Indian-
American," calculating that shifting equation, whatever answers it
Jhumpa Lahiri: A Brief Biography
Jackie Large '05, and Erin Quinn '04, English 365, Northwestern
In 1967, Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents.As a
child, Lahiri moved with her family to Rhode Island where Jhumpa
spent her adolescence. Lahiri went on to attend Barnard College,
graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English and later attending
Boston University. It was here Lahiri attained Master's Degrees in
English, Creative Writing, and Comparative Studies in Literature and
the Arts as well as a Ph D in Renaissance Studies. Lahiri also worked
for a short time teaching creative writing at Boston University and
the Rhode Island School of Design (http://www.saja.org/lahiri.html)
Lahiri has traveled extensively to India and has experienced the
effects of colonialism there as well as experienced the issues of the
diaspora as it exists. She feels strong ties to her parents' homeland
as well as the United States and England. Growing up with ties to all
three countries created in Lahiri a sense of homelessness and an
inability to feel accepted. Lahiri explains this as an inheritance of
her parents' ties to India, "It's hard to have parents who consider
another place "home"-even after living abroad for 30 years, India is
home for them. We were always looking back so I never felt fully at
home here. There's nobody in this whole country that we're related
to. India was different-our extended family offered real
connections." Yet her familial ties to India were not enough to make
India "home" for Lahiri, "I didn't grow up there, I wasn't a part of
things. We visited often but we didn't have a home. We were clutching
at a world that was never fully with us" (Interview with Vibhuti
Patel in Newsweek International, 9-20-99).
Lahiri, the daughter of a librarian and school teacher, has always
been inclined to creative writing. Lahiri remembers a need to write
as early as ten years old and she has always used writing as an
outlet for her emotions, "When I learned to read, I felt the need to
copy. I started writing ten page 'novels' during recess with my
friends' writing allowed me to observe and make sense of things
without having to participate. I didn't belong. I looked different
and felt like an outsider" (Interview with Vibhuti Patel in Newsweek
At a press conference in Calcutta in January of 2001, Lahiri
described this absence of belonging, "No country is my motherland. I
always find myself in exile in whichever country I travel to, that's
why I was tempted to write something about those living their lives
in exile" (http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/jan/11jhum.htm). This idea
of exile runs consistently throughout Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning
book Interpreter of Maladies.
The book brings to light many of the issues with identity faced by
the Diaspora community. The book contains the stories of first and
second generation Indian immigrants, as well as a few stories
involving ideas of otherness among communities in India. The stories
revolve around the difficulties of relationships, communication and a
loss of identity for those in diaspora. No matter where the story
takes place, the characters struggle with the same feelings of exile
and the struggle between the two worlds by which they are torn. The
stories deal with the always shifting lines between gender,
sexuality, and social status within a diaspora. Whether the character
be a homeless woman from India or an Indian male student in the
United States, all the characters display the effects of displacement
in a diaspora.
Lahiri has won many awards for Interpreter of Maladies. These awards
and honors include The Pulitzer Prize in 2000, The Transatlantic
Review Award from the Henfield Foundation, The Louisiana Review Award
for Short Fiction, the O. Henry Award for Best American Short
Stories, the PEN/Hemingway Award, The New Yorker Debut ofthe Year
Award and The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. Lahiri also
received a nomination for the LA Times Book prize as well as the
Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. She has published three stories in The
New Yorker, as well as published works in the Agni, Epoch, The
Louisville Review, Harvard Review and the Story Quarterly
(www.pulitzer.org). Lahiri is currently living in New York with her
husband and son. Lahiri released her first novel in September of
2003. The novel is titled The Namesake and it follows the trials of a
newlywed couple who immigrate to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from