When Jhumpa Lahiri was growing up in Massachusetts, her parents would often bring her back to their native India for holidays. Terrified at the prospect that relatives would consider their daughter an ‘‘American’’ child, in Calcutta, certain expectations were placed on Jhumpa.
‘‘It was very important to them that I was able to be in that world without drawing any attention to myself,” she says. Lahiri would speak only Bengali, wear traditional garb and erase any dimensions of herself that could be perceived as foreign.
But cloaking so much of herself – for two, even three months at a time – didn’t feel normal. ‘‘I felt very lost on the inside. Yes, I could play the part, but it wasn’t the whole picture of who I was. Then, in the United States, I also played a part around my peers – I kept the Bengali side of me very hidden because I was embarrassed and self-conscious.”
Lahiri grew up with an acute understanding of what it feels like to be an outsider – the classic condition for so many writers – and bearing with her a deep knowledge of the everyday trials of the first-generation immigrant.
‘‘As a child, I was always aware that my parents were struggling on some level: suffering, unhappy, out of place and out of sorts,” she says. ‘‘The two worlds of India and America seemed so uninterested in each other. When I began to write, I started to knit the two worlds together. I tried to confront in writing what I was afraid to do in real life.”
It’s an approach that has proven incredibly successful, with Lahiri quickly becoming a critical and commercial darling. Her first book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and became an international bestseller; it has since been translated into over 30 languages. Her 2003 debut novel, The Namesake, was turned into a successful film directed by Mira Nair.
Her brilliant new book, Unaccustomed Earth, meanwhile, has achieved the extremely rare feat for a collection of short stories (one of the least commercially lucrative literary genres) of hitting the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
It’s a trajectory that has left Lahiri, an extremely youthful-looking 40, shaking her head in surprise. ‘‘It’s been so unreal,” she says, in the tea room of a Dublin hotel, where she has flown in from New York to stay for one night before heading to the Hay literary festival in England the following day.
Pretty and wearing a knee-length black dress with tiny greenish flowers, Lahiri has the watchful eyes and considered tones of one who prefers to observe rather than talk.
‘‘People keep saying: ‘Why do you think your book is selling?’ And I don’t know. I don’t read bestsellers myself. I didn’t set out to write a bestselling book at all.”
Nonetheless, it’s not hard to see how Unaccustomed Earth should press down on many people’s pressure points. Over the course of eight deftly and strikingly plainly written tales, Lahiri explores the topic of what it feels like for (mostly Bengali) adults and children to be delivered into an alienatingly new culture.
Questions in these stories abound. When should immigrants, newly arrived in a country, stop insisting that their children learn to speak Bengali? At what point does it become rude to eat in the traditional way, with one’s fingers? When guests come over, is it no longer appropriate to ‘‘put a fried fish-head in the dal’’, no matter how delicious it tastes?
Lahiri builds up her stories with the care of a master craftsman, adding brushstrokes to her portraits until you see – often with the kind of shock that comes when a veil has been lifted – the full import of what she is saying.
In her hands, superficially mundane narratives become invested with great meaning: we hear tales of affairs, alcoholism, dropouts, burgeoning sexuality, arranged marriages – and Lahiri, like a doctor locating the heartbeat, expertly and unflinchingly locates the poignancy or significance in each narrative.
Although the characters are far from mini-autobiographies of Lahiri, many of the narratives draw their strength and richness from her own experiences as the child of immigrant parents.
Like several of the characters portrayed in Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s parents had specific, and very high, career expectations of their daughter. Their expectations meant that even the thought of a move into the almost certainly financially precarious world of writing was unsettling to Lahiri.
She went to college at Barnard, before moving on to Boston University, where she amassed a fairly astonishing number of qualifications – three masters degrees and a doctorate. To some extent, her university studies worked to shield her real endeavours: working on her first fiction collection.
‘‘When I was writing my first book, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing,” she explains. ‘‘So people thought I was an academic.” But after getting her doctorate, Lahiri was finally in the position where a decision had to be made. She had applied for a fellowship for a programme in Cape Cod that would allow her the space and solitude to write.
‘‘I was such an idiot,” she says. ‘‘I remember receiving the fellowship and thinking: ‘I don’t know, should I do it?’ The whole thing seemed like something other people did. I had to come to terms with that part of myself and the fact that it was important tome to devote some time to seeing where it could go.’’ With extreme hesitation, Lahiri accepted the fellowship – and in Cape Cod continued to whittle and hone the stories that would develop into Interpreter of Maladies.
One of the greatest influences on Lahiri around that time was the Irish writer William Trevor. Given their disparate heritage, it might seem an unlikely literary attraction, but Lahiri shares Trevor’s dedication to story, his understanding of how even the quietest-looking of lives can hold stories of the utmost profundity. Lahiri is a reserved interviewee, still visibly suffering from jetlag, but she lights up at the mention of Trevor.
‘‘Reading him was pivotal for me in my understanding of fiction and stories and what they could do and what they were meant to do. Reading him for the first time jolted me in a very fundamental way. There was a period where I couldn’t read anybody else. His body of work is so accomplished and enormous I feel like we don’t need any other writers. You have the entire human condition in those pages.”
Like Trevor’s, Lahiri’s writing style is determinedly unshowy. She’s not a writer to revel in language for its own sake; rather, she uses it to gently devastating effect. ‘‘I like things to be precise,” she says. ‘‘I always think towards the most economical way of telling something. I think other writers have amore expansive vision.”
That same determined unshowiness is evident in Lahiri’s own character. She is an avowed internet-hater and, far from falling victim to the common author impulse to examine sales rankings constantly on Amazon. com, she barely even checks her e-mail.
She has not yet read any reviews for Unaccustomed Earth and, while she has writer friends who critique her unpublished fiction for her occasionally, most of her friends ‘‘are people who have known me for years and years; the writing isn’t the thing that’s drawn them to me’’.
But after the success of the first book, much to Lahiri’s dismay, the media weren’t always happy to allow her lead the relatively sheltered life she’d previously enjoyed. In 2001, shortly after she had won the Pulitzer, she married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a newspaper editor and former Time magazine journalist.
Despite the fact that there had been some negative attention in India about the book – reviewers felt it was too negative towards Indian characters – in Calcutta, thanks to the award, Lahiri had achieved A-list status. For the wedding the paparazzi staked out the church with the kind of fervour more usually reserved for the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
‘‘It was completely ridiculous and intrusive,” Lahiri says. ‘‘It was very upsetting. I hated it. I was getting married. It was a huge moment in my life personally. It wasn’t about me being a writer. But, unfortunately, we weren’t able to have our wedding there without having that added on to it. But in New York, in my normal life, I don’t have any kind of consciousness of that kind of thing about me.”
Instead, Lahiri struggles with the more mundane concerns of being both a writer and mother to two young children, three-and-a-half-year-old Noor and six-year-old Octavio. Lahiri was pregnant with Noor when she began working on the stories in Unaccustomed Earth. She laughs at the idea that she could have anything resembling a work-day pattern with two young children leaping around the place.
‘‘I gave up on anything like that a long time ago. I just try to write, on any given day, if there’s time that I can be by myself for a little while. I have a babysitter so that, combined with childcare, usually means I have a little time.”
Lahiri fights shy of discussing advances and the business of writing – ‘‘I just leave those things mainly to other people’’ – but she’s well aware of how lucky she is tobe able to write fiction without having any concerns financially. ‘‘I’ve been really fortunate in that my books seem to have found a generous audience. At the end of the day, what matters tome is that I can continue trying to write.”
In her next book, although Lahiri will move on to different characters’ lives, it is clear that the same preoccupation that has informed her fiction thus far – the difficulties that come with being transplanted – will continue to embed itself in her wonderfully affecting fictional worlds.
‘‘I don’t think this theme will ever be settled,” she says. ‘‘It’s not just about geographical dislocation. Really, it’s more the stages of life and the stages of one’s life. Those shifts – love, loss of one’s parents, children, the whole interplay over the years of one’s life.
‘‘That’s what interests me the most. I’ll always be thinking about those things. It’s central to who I am, to who we all are. How can we ever resolve the passage of time or the loss of life? These are impossible but inevitable things about being alive.”
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Bloomsday, priced €13.95