Jhumpa Lahiri: 'Writing makes me so vulnerable'

Lahiri's tales of the experiences of Bengali immigrants in America have netted her a Pulitzer prize, so why does she still feel like an impostor in the literary world?

Rachel Hore
Sunday 15 June 2008 00:00 BST
Jhumpa Lahiri: 'My upbringing was hydroponic...our roots had nowhere to cling' © Martin Usbourne
Jhumpa Lahiri: 'My upbringing was hydroponic...our roots had nowhere to cling' © Martin Usbourne

There are not, I suspect, many authors who prefer never to read reviews and profiles of themselves. "It's just too much, like looking into a mirror all the time," says Jhumpa Lahiri. This is a pity, as she's missing considerable acclaim.

Sitting across from me in her publisher's spacious boardroom in Soho Square, she looks a little weary. As well she might, having landed in Ireland with her children and her sister four days previously on a publicity tour that has taken in Hay, Birmingham and London, before she flies back home to the States tonight. "I haven't gotten over one lot of jetlag before starting the next," she sighs. She's very composed, a quietly spoken, gentle person with an air of stillness.

Lahiri is now almost a decade into a stupendously successful career spent writing about the American-Bengali immigrant experience. Her third book, Unaccustomed Earth, recently topped the American hardback bestseller lists, quite a feat for a collection of short stories. Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection, won a Pulitzer in 2000, and her novel, The Namesake (2003), has been filmed by Mira Nair, the director of Monsoon Wedding. Along with Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini, the Haiti-born Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic, Lahiri swells a tide of new fictional voices: immigrants, who write about displacement and deracination. Three-quarters of the surnames listed in the recent Granta Best of New American Novelists indicate that the family washed up in the States from other shores. "Almost any American can connect on some level to a family background of having come across some ocean," says Lahiri. "They say 'My great-grandparents came from wherever... this is why we have this last name, why we do this thing at Christmas.' All the details get watered down but don't quite disappear."

The characters in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake flit from Calcutta to the States, their subject usually the big move and its immediate aftermath – the experiences of Lahiri's parents' generation. In the eight stories that make up Unaccustomed Earth, she focuses on the lives of the children, who've grown up in the American education system, have sometimes married non-Indians, yet cannot escape the burden of parental traditions. In "Only Goodness", the central character Sudha has always conformed, at least superficially, to her Bengali-American parents' rigorous standards. By concealing unpalatable truths about her Americanised lifestyle she avoids upsetting them. When she teaches her more fragile younger brother to do the same, tragedy ensues. Her subsequent move to London underscores the family misconnections.

Lahiri was born in London, where her father studied, then, after a brief spell in Calcutta, the family moved to the States, where he took a job as a librarian in a university town in Rhode Island. About Unaccustomed Earth she says, "I write about people whose very existence has been shaped by unsettlement. My upbringing and my sister's upbringing were almost hydroponic because our roots had nowhere to cling." For this reason she doesn't consider her childhood happy. Her experiences differed from her parents' because they "had originally come from a land somewhere, firm ground. The fact that they lived away from it was a source of pain and unhappiness and frustration, but there was a land they thought of as home. Until recently I thought that there was no place, no land that I could go there and say I'm home." What's changed? "Having my own children and just having lived in America for 38 years." Lahiri, now 40, has settled in Brooklyn with her husband, a Greek-Guatamalan-American journalist, and their two small children. "When I go back to New England now I do feel a sense of return. It was where I was raised."

How much of her work is autobiographical? "The basic nuts and bolts of life but not specific facts." She mentions part two of her book, entitled "Hema and Kaushik". It com

prises three linked stories which begin when one Bengali family arrives in America to stay with another while the newcomers look for the perfect house. "It never happened to me but it did to others." The narratives follow the trajectories of the daughter of one family and the son of the other, who go on to live similarly lonely, trackless existences before meeting up in the final episode. "Visits are good for starting stories," Lahiri continues. "There seem to be a few in this book."

There certainly are. The title story features a widowed father who goes to stay with his daughter in Seattle, where she's moved with her hedge-fund salaried husband and their toddler. He's alarmed to see that she's fallen into the solely domestic existence that her mother's life "had served as a warning, a path to avoid".

The importance of work is a theme she frequently touches upon, perhaps engendered by witnessing her mother's difficulties. "I value work so highly. It gives me a sense of self." It was easiest for her father arriving in America. "In an office setting he was a part of another family structure, contributing to another purpose. My mother would go for days and days at home. The outside world was scarier to her for longer."

All her stories, Lahiri says, "start in different ways. Sometimes it's just tiny notions that I don't understand. At other times I'll have a sense of a situation, character, place, mood, encounter." She doesn't follow any theory of form. Each one is different. "What was new for me in this book was writing a story with a shared point of view." The Hema and Kaushik sequence is one example. She writes from the male or female angle with equal facility. "Sometimes it's easier to write from a male view because I get out of myself and there's freedom to that. I enjoy being able to enter different lives. It requires a certain androgyny of mind."

She started writing as a child, "in bits and pieces. I didn't enter into it properly until my early twenties. After I left college and found myself out in the world something started to shift in me... a slow, hesitant artistic awakening. It was a secret, scary thing." She did a year's creative writing at Boston University. "One is forced to write. My professor and my fellow students allowed me to stop feeling I was insane for trying." As for influences, she says: "William Trevor has inspired me. Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant." She's elsewhere cited Thomas Hardy and Tolstoy, and that is believable, for her stories have that familiar great, slow build of narrative and detail. She's a miniaturist and has Munro's ability to create a whole world in each story.

Lahiri's immediate success as a published writer came as a shock. It's very rare for a first book of short stories to be awarded a Pulitzer. "My writing life has always felt such a vulnerable thing. I felt like an impostor. And then I did start writing and I met with this unexpected level of attention. It makes me feel vulnerable in a different way, so self-conscious."

Americans might love reading about the immigrant experience, but it's always interesting what the folks back home in India or Afghanistan or the Caribbean think of the culture of diaspora. Here in Britain, Monica Ali, the author of Brick Lane, has suffered a severe backlash from parts of the unassimilated East End Bangladeshi community, which challenged her right as a middle-class, anglicised immigrant to portray them. Back in West Bengal, the reaction to Lahiri's fiction has been equally extreme. "With my first book some of the Indian reviews were cruellest. 'What do you know about India? You're an American creature.' Then there were those who said I gave Indians a bad name because I wrote them as depressed and unhappy."

No wonder she keeps herself aloof from reading what is written about her. But there's another reason why she won't be reading this interview, and that's family life. "I need to cook dinner and the children need a bath and the plants need watering. I have a hard enough time dealing with all of that and preserving space to daydream, to enter the invented world. The stuff to get the books into the hands of readers, I do my bit to aid that, but in my life I barely have time to read a magazine." She laughs. "My husband calls me the Emily Dickinson model. I prefer to be home. That fulfils me most deeply."

The extract

Unaccustomed Earth, By Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury £14.99)

"...Other Bengalis gossiped about him and prayed their own children would not ruin their lives in the same way. And so he became what all parents feared, a blot, a failure, someone who was not contributing to the grand circle of accomplishments Bengali children were making across the country."

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