Introduction to Jhumpa Lahiri
By Jaci Turner
Jhumpa Lahiri is a Bengali American author, having immigrated to the United States at a very young age. She has been quoted as saying, “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.” Her background and connection to her parents’ homeland of Calcutta, however, shines clearly through in all of her short stories which are bound together with the common link of Bengali American immigrants and their struggles with identity, family, and what it means to live in America.
Lahiri published her first collection of short stories in 1999 and won the Pullitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies. This was a huge success for her because it came after years of rejection from publishers. Also, the stories were very personal to her background and family, even though they were fiction. In an Online Newshour interview, Lahiri expresses the personal connection to her stories, “It's also, in part, drawn from my own experiences and a sense of... I always say that I feel that I've inherited a sense of that loss from my parents because it was so palpable all the time while I was growing up, the sense of what my parents had sacrificed in moving to the United States, and in so many ways, and yet at the same time, remaining here and building a life here and all that that entailed.” The stories in Interpreter of Maladies focus on the gap between generations and how immigrant families feel distanced from their relatives back home and their new American neighbors.
In 2003, Jhumpa published her first novel, a story that follows a Bengali American family as they struggle to keep their culture while still embracing what America has to offer. The novel shows the tension of a couple whose son will never understand the roots of his culture and to his parents’ dismay tries to disregard his culture even to the extent of changing his name. The novel was adapted to a movie in 2006 in which Lahiri even has her own cameo. In an interview with the New York Times Lahiri discusses the differences she experienced between writing a novel and short stories, “I don't make a huge distinction in terms of what they require because I think an idea is either working or it isn't. And it can work—or not—at long or short or medium length. It depends on what the story I want to tell needs. I always think first about the nature of the story. When I had the idea for The Namesake, I felt that it had to be a novel—it couldn't work as a story. One difference is that in The Namesake each piece was contributing to a larger whole.” The Namesake is more of a coming of age story; it focuses on Gogol’s transformation, the full circle, rather than the small snap shots of character’s lives in her short stories from Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth.
Lahiri’s latest novel, published in 2008 has been critically acclaimed as well and was selected as number one on the New York Times Book Review list of "100 Best Books of 2008," and it also won the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Unaccustomed Earth features many stories with characters that are in the process of finding home. For example, in the title story “Unaccustomed Earth” the main character has recently lost her mother and moves across the country with her American husband away from her father. She begins to miss her family and her childhood growing up in the East Coast. When her father comes to visit, he plants flowers and engages her son in activities and makes her new house feel more like home. When asked about this new theme in her writing in an interview with The Atlantic, Lahiri responded, “It interests me to imagine characters shifting from one situation and one location to another for whatever the circumstances may be. In this collection the reasons are more personal somehow—they're reasons of family dynamics or death in the family or things like that. In this book I spend more time with characters who are not immigrants themselves but rather the offspring of immigrants. I find that interesting because when you grow up the child of an immigrant you are always—or at least I was—very conscious of what it means or might mean to be uprooted or to uproot yourself. One is conscious of that without even having ever done it. I knew what my parents had gone through—not feeling rooted.”
The common thread throughout Lahiri’s books seemed foreign and intimidating at first. I was not sure how I would be able to connect with characters that were immigrants or felt foreign in their surroundings. I have lived in the same house my whole life and my aunts and uncles live down the street from me. The characters’ internal struggle with identity and home is the factor that creates the bond between the reader and the characters.