Reading by Author Jhumpa Lahiri
March 4, 2007
Jhumpa Lahiri isn’t the sort of writer who shies away from her heritage. Her writing is replete with details of the Indian-American experience, peppered with references to Raj Kapoor and salwar kameez, because she writes about what she knows. But to say that her stories are primarily about an ethnic-American experience seems to severely limit the scope of Lahiri’s writing. Her stories aren’t about immigrant families, but families in general. On March 4th, in front of a crowd that was spilling out of 32-123, Lahiri reinforced this resistance to the labels that frequently hamper writers such as her. She offered the audience a writing style that is crisp, discerning, and instantly recognizable to anyone who has struggled to reconcile generations and cultures, but also, parents and children.
This was Lahiri’s third time coming to MIT for a reading, corresponding to her third book: a collection of 8 short stories titled Unaccustomed Earth that is a follow-up to The Namesake (recently made into a movie) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning Interpreter of Maladies. Before reading, Lahiri expressed how “MIT endures in [her] family’s mythology” because it is where her father had his first job in the US in 1969. As a result MIT seems to “always make an appearance” in Lahiri’s writing. Fittingly, Lahiri read a story from her latest book called Hell-Heaven, which focused on a Bengali family living in Central Square and their relationship with a young MIT graduate student from India.
After the reading, Lahiri told the audience that her stories in Unaccustomed Earth largely focus on “Children who are now adults, straddling a divide.” Her stories relate the experience of being in the first generation of one’s family raised in America to the experience of then “raising [one’s own] children in this country.” The narrator of Hell-Heaven is a Bengali woman who is looking back on a period of her youth, but more specifically, at her mother in that period. Lahiri has a terrific ability to create a complex and nuanced relationship between the narrator and her mother without saying much explicitly. She subtly draws a divide between the narrator in her present state and her younger counterpart; we are able to glean the narrator’s growth and increased understanding of her mother through her retelling of the past.
The richest characters in Hell-Heaven are the narrator’s parents; they are somber and reserved but also capable of a tremendous amount of understated emotion that is the best display of Lahiri’s subtle hand. It is also a good example of the delicacy and generosity with which her stories treat the cultural clashes that fill her writing. Lahiri withholds judgement of any of the characters in her story and as a result, none of them seem flat or lifeless. It is also the reason we can look past the Indian-American context in her stories and start to explore something broader in her writing. Initially, the narrator’s mother leads a drab, almost ascetic existence as if she seems to give herself entirely to the people around her; it might be so she can forget about herself. But she eventually finds solace with her husband and herself, and her progression is that of a person creating a life for herself — even if it comes later than one would expect. In her introduction, Lahiri’s writing was described as being a kind of variation of the American Dream and by the end of the story, as the characters have grown and settled into a kind of equilibrium with each other, the description begins to seem apt.
Unaccustomed Earth will be on shelves April 4, 2008. There will be a release event with Ms. Lahiri on April 3 at Brookline Booksmith, where copies will be available.