Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 18

........................................................................................................................................................................

An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

JULIA LEYDA

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


Jhumpa Lahiri was born Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri in London in 1967. When she was 3
years old, her family moved to Rhode Island where her father worked as a university
librarian. As she was growing up, her family frequently visited Calcutta to see their
relatives. Lahiri majored in English at Barnard College; she then attended Boston
University, completing masters degrees in creative writing, English, and comparative
literature and a PhD in Renaissance studies. She now lives in Brooklyn with her
husband Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush and their two children, Octavio and Noor.
Lahiri is the author of two short story collections and a novel, all of which have
earned both critical and popular success, spending many weeks on bestseller lists and
receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews. Her debut collection, Interpreter of
Maladies (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the New
Yorker magazines debut of the year. Her 2003 novel, The Namesake, was a New York
Times Notable Book, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was

66 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011. doi:10.1093/cwwrit/vpq006


The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org
chosen as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly.

.......................................................................................................................................................................................................
Mira Nairs 2007 film adaptation of The Namesake starred Tabu, Irrfan Khan, and Kal
Penn. Lahiris latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), has been published in 30
countries and won the Frank OConnor International Short Story Award and the
Vallombrosa-Gregor von Rezzori Prize. In February 2010, she was named a member
of President Obamas Committee on Arts and Humanities.
Lahiris work is informed by her own experiences as a second-generation Indian
American as well as her lifelong love of literature, evident in her admiration for writers
such as Anton Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, Mavis Gallant, and William Trevor. Her books
have attracted academic attention, mostly in studies that focus on cultural contexts and
ethnic identities in her work: her central characters are often Indian immigrants or
their children, in late 20th- and early 21st-century US settings. Critical analysis of her
fiction concentrates on themes and topics such as gender (Alfonso-Forero, Mitra,
Norvell, and Zare), immigrant culture (Bhalla and Friedman), postcolonialism (Lewis
and Tettenborn), and foodways (Mannur and Williams). Other scholarly studies
explore the individual/universal duality (Bess), miscommunication (Brians), ethics and
aesthetics (Rajan), sociostylistics (Karttunen), and space (Caesar and H. Lahiri).
A notable offshoot of Lahiri criticism attends to the representation of Asian

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


American writers within US and western culture: the way marketers, readers, and
reviewers shape the images of writers and their works. As Sau-Ling Wong and Melani
McAlister argue in the context of Amy Tans 1989 bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, the
work of women writers of color in the age of multiculturalism cannot seem to
escape the quasi-ethnographic, Oriental discourse endemic to that time and place
(181). Indeed, several scholars call our attention to the way Orientalism continues to
permeate the reception of Jhumpa Lahiris work. Drawing on Graham Huggans study
of exoticizing British postcolonial writers such as Salman Rushdie, Ursula Kluwick
argues that much of the marketing and reviewing of Lahiris books, along with books
by writers born in India, depicts her work as mysterious and sensual, even when the
writing itself does not seem to fit such characterization. This critique of Orientalizing
discourses associated with (but not necessarily inherent within) Lahiris and other
South Asian (American) writers work informs some of the most compelling criticism
by scholars such as Gita Rajan, Tamara Ayesha Bhalla, Sheetal Majithia, and Lavina
Dhingra Shankar. I would like to stress that these critics do not place the
responsibility for this phenomenon entirely on the authors, although they do indicate
some grounds for criticism: Shankar, for example, argues that, like Bharati
Mukherjees writing, her protge Chitra Divakarunis early fiction also simplifies
the binaries of a repressive, patriarchal India and a liberatory space of America (30).
But the more compelling wider argument is that cultural conditions in the United
States (and other western countries) make it difficult or impossible for western
reading audiences to embrace an Indian American writers book only on its own
terms; readers are rather too often influenced by Orientalist, exoticizing stereotypes
often present in the books own marketing and in reviews that hover like a cloud
over so many newly published books by so-called hyphenated American authors.

67 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
I was interested in asking Jhumpa Lahiri to respond to some of the arguments
above and to share some of her attitudes towards literature, education, and identity;
her experiences as a celebrated author at such a young age; her ideas about cultural
issues and aesthetics; and some of my specific questions about particular works.
Lahiri met with me in person for this interview in August 2009 in Greenwich Village,
New York. The interview has subsequently been transcribed, edited, and revised,
with Lahiris generous cooperation and elaboration via e-mail.

Q: As a college student, what motivated you to study literature? What


books were important to you in those years?

A: I knew in high school that I wanted to study literature. English was always my
favorite class, and I enjoyed writing essays not so much fiction but I enjoyed
writing and working with words. But in college, I became interested in a lot of earlier
literatures. I was torn because I started studying Latin, and then that led me to ancient
Greek and so, halfway through, part of me wished that I had gotten it together to
study classics. I didnt; I ended up getting a minor in Latin. But there was a part of me

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


that became intensely interested in ancient languages and literature, so the classes I
took in the English department tended to go about as far as Shakespeare. I read a lot of
Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare. I think I had to write two big papers during my
senior year: one was on The Faerie Queen and one was on The Canterbury Tales. That
was where I was as an undergraduate. Medieval and Renaissance literature felt
satisfying because so much of it is informed by Greek and Latin. I took one or two
classes that centered on 20th-century works, but it was the exception, not the rule,
when I was in college. I really didnt read much modern literature at all.

Q: Was that influenced by the curriculum or was it just where you wanted
to focus?

A: When I started to study Latin and Greek and I felt that there was so much for me
to learn from earlier centuries of writing. In a way, maybe it was good, because I had
this tiny, imperceptible, secret desire to do some of my own writing, but I was very
terrified to admit that even to myself, and so I didnt really do very much. I noticed
with other classmates who were more creatively confident, and were doing their
own writing, that they were studying more contemporary novelists. And I think that
can be very daunting, you know to be 20 years old and to want to write a short
story and to be reading Joyce. Thats a lot to take on. So, in a way, for me, I think it
was good, because I didnt turn to contemporary writing until later, when I was more
serious about my own writing, and then I began to have a very different relationship
to it. I didnt have an academic relationship to much of contemporary writing. I
remember discovering Virginia Woolf and writing about her work. I read Proust and

68 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
Joyce and Nabokov and I wrote papers on them, but it wasnt with the same depth as
Id devoted to the older work.

Q: When I was an undergraduate, in the late1980s US, I had a traditional


curriculum for the English major and I loved Chaucer and Milton and the
canonical writers. Then, in graduate school in the early1990s, the
curriculum was influenced more by multiculturalism and feminism, which,
in a way, has defined how I think about literature. Do you find yourself, as
a result of coming of age and studying literature in this era of
multiculturalism and identity politics, categorizing writers in your mind?

A: No, not really. I know what you mean, in terms of what certain groups of writers
represented at a certain time politically in the academy. I graduated from college in
1989 and then went to graduate school after a few years, and that was around the
time when it seemed that everybody was railing against all the writers I had read and
loved as an undergraduate and had revered so deeply. They were being relegated to
the past, to the dead white man camp, and there was an expectation that I, as a young

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


woman of color, should despise them. But I couldnt. It wouldnt be true to myself to
look at it that way, and that was one of the reasons I stepped away from academics in
general I just couldnt participate in that. Certainly, there is a validity to giving
recognition and space in the curriculum to other writers and to not just sticking to
the traditional canon, but one cant just jettison the past. Its true what Virginia
Woolf says, and right now, as a mother of two children and also trying to be a writer,
I get it every single day. I understand why there werent as many women writers in
the past and why the names of all of the writers etched on the facade of Butler library
at Columbia are all male or is Sappho there? I dont think she is. But as a reader and
a writer, I maintain a relationship and a devotion to writers regardless of what they
believed in, whether or not they owned slaves. I cant base an aesthetic relationship
on those things.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: In the summers, for the past year or two, Ive gotten into a rhythm where I read
more contemporary authors in the summer, and then in the winter, I try to go back to
older works; not necessarily all the way back to Greece and Rome, though sometimes
I do, but just to keep it no later than the early 20th century, which, now, is a long time
ago. My summer reading has been an interesting mix I started out reading John
Updikes Rabbit novels, which I had never read. I was curious about them. And I read
my first Iris Murdoch novel, The Sea, The Sea, so it was an introduction to her writing. I
study Italian, so Im also reading some contemporary Italian novels.

69 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
Q: What did you think of Updike?

A: Id mostly read his short stories before. But from the many articles published after
his death, it was clear that the Rabbit novels were essential to any real understanding of
him. I took them with me on vacation and tore right through them, one after the next.
It was a case of total immersion. He creates an indelible world, an unforgettable
portrait of a family and also of this country. And he established a paradigm for so many
American novels that followed. I struggled with the protagonist, because I felt for him,
but there were also so many aspects of him I couldnt stand. His attitudes toward
women and other races, for instance. But I never walked away. As a reader, I was
never offended. While reading, I thought, I would never befriend a person like this.
And yet, here I am, spending a thousand pages getting to know everything about him,
sharing the experience of his life. Literature allows us to suspend our everyday
reactions and takes us to places, literally and figuratively, we wouldnt have gone to
otherwise. That, to me, is one of its greatest triumphs.

Q: And Murdoch?

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


A: Another page turner! I thought her writing would be more cerebral, less easy-
going. I loved entering into the narrators solitary, eccentric existence by the sea. I
loved the salty, gothic atmosphere and the obsessiveness with food. Murdoch was
more of a vicarious pleasure, in that sense, than Updike. I was more of what
Nabokov would call the naive reader. But a gratified one.

Q: A lot of contemporary US authors, including those of your generation,


experiment with narrative voice and form, what we could call
postmodern self-reflexivity, but your work doesnt really do a lot of that.
Have you ever tried writing that way, or wanted to?

A: I havent yet. This wont sound very cutting-edge, but everything I write is an
experiment to me. Every time, Im in the laboratory and I dont know what is going to
happen and whether it will succeed or fail. In the process of writing the story, I feel
that Im on the edge of something. I acknowledge fully that Im not pushing the
envelope stylistically or thematically. Either I dont feel interested enough or ready
enough. I dont know I feel that I already have enough on my plate just trying to put
a story together, and I dont feel the need to make it more complicated than it needs
to be. I think you have to want to do that, you have to want to bring that extra
dimension to it. I think that writers have been doing experimental things all along,
Tristram Shandy and so on. But I know what you mean, and I think there is that, not

70 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
obligation, but that voice that says make it new! I think every story is new no

.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
matter what manner its written in. I think it [formal experimentation] has to come
naturally, and for whatever reason, so far, it hasnt come naturally to me to turn
something on its head narratively or structurally. But who knows what happens
down the road? I think its interesting to look at bodies of work of artists of all kinds,
painters and writers, and to see how they work in the beginning and what happens
eventually. I went to the Georgia OKeeffe museum a few months ago in Santa Fe,
knowing just a little about her work and associating it with a certain type of image.
But you can also see the more traditional depictions that had come before, leading to
something very much her own. So, one never knows.

Q: Do you feel any kind of trajectory or any shift in your literary voice over
the three books?

A: Not really, I mean, I dont really think about the work afterward. My only sense
when I think back to the books after Ive written them is a sense of impatience with
them. They feel old to me; they feel young. Its like looking at pictures of yourself from
a few years ago and saying, Why did I ever wear that skirt? Im glad I have this new

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


skirt now. Thats how I feel. Wishing that I could have done it a little bit better, I
guess. But at the same time, I feel a certain degree of acceptance of everything Ive
written. Acceptance that its not perfect, that its not the best thing, that it just is what
it is, and its what I did in that moment. What Im grateful for is that each book helped
push me to another book and taught me things and prepared me to write again. Thats
all I really care about. I dont have an expectation for anything to be great, or the book.
And I think that is a problem these days, when earlier efforts are expected to be
runaway, breakthrough books. I know its odd for me to say that because my books
have had that strange success, but I dont really understand, and I dont really care to
understand, why they have been successful. But I think there tends to be more
pressure for first-time writers to make it big and become a household name, or
whatever, and its just not a reasonable expectation.

Q: No, certainly not. So it must have been all the more exciting for your
first book to do so spectacularly well.

A: It was, yes, exciting and strange and sort of embarrassing at the same time. It felt
like a disproportionate amount of attention for my first efforts. But, again, I felt that I
had to accept that attention, for whatever reason. Its somewhat arbitrary in the end.
I dont know what happened, what alignment of the stars caused it to happen. It
wasnt in my control.

71 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
Q: For instance, when The Namesake came out, it was reviewed along with
Monica Alis Brick Lane, it seemed like they were always paired, and
obviously, thats a certain kind of categorization that seems convenient.

A: Yes, the ghetto.

Q: Right. And I understand that you dont have a lot of control over that,
but I wonder what you have to say about it.

A: About the marketing? I really have no say. I dont want to know what theyre doing
back there.

Q: Kind of like the sausage factory?

A: Yes, I mean, they know clearly, the people who are in publicity and marketing
and designing jackets all of that is very sophisticated. On the one hand, Im very
grateful because my books have been in very good hands and have been presented

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


effectively to the world. Then again, I think you can do everything in the world to
launch a book and it could still not sell.

Q: What do you think of your book jackets?

A: For the most part, they frustrate me.

Q: Why?

A: Too many flowers, for one thing. I adore flowers, but my writing isnt flowery. The
Namesake was the story of a boy, yet the cover on the US edition was of a giant
flower. I gather its supposed to appeal to women, because women buy more books.
Foreign editions often resort to a stock image of India a deity, or spices, or an
elephant, or a woman in a sari. Its tiresome and unimaginative. But as I said, I have no
control. I can only control the words I write.

Q: Most likely the marketing specialists know how those images might
help buyers to categorize your work, even when its not a fully accurate
categorization. To fit it with the previous generation of Indian American
writers, for example, even if your works departures from that
generations oeuvre might be part of its appeal.

72 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
A: Yes. I think its something about peoples appetites at the time, whats come
before, whats going on in the world, maybe. I dont know. I do feel that when
Interpreter of Maladies came out, there werent that many books in the United States
that addressed the Indian immigrant population in that way. I was aware of writers
like Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Anita Desai. I think they
were the only ones, really, who had written about the Indian immigrant experience, but
from the perspective of having been born and brought up in India, and then coming
here and having to negotiate it all. When my first book was coming out, I had to fill
out a little questionnaire that asked, What makes your book special? and I said
something to that effect. I write from the perspective of someone, not technically born
here, but who might as well have been born and brought up in this country, with a
different sort of division than my parents and that previous generation.
That book came out 10 years ago, unbelievably, and now I feel it did arrive at a
time when there was beginning to be more of an appetite for writers like Junot Daz,
Nathan Englander, Edwidge Danticat, and myself. A new generation of writers who
were coming of age who were trying to be American or pass as American or not pass
or whatever, but who didnt really have any other place to call home. And writing out
of that experience. I think 10 years ago that was still sort of new, but now you have a

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


slew of books. Every other day, there seem to be new stories by someone who has
had an analogous journey.

Q: I think you opened the door for them, in a way.

A: I dont know. I think because my book became so prominent that maybe in the
publishing world it was an example of how that kind of book, those kinds of stories,
could be interesting to readers.

Q: Absolutely, I think so. Particularly in terms of the post-1965


immigration: your parents generation and many of your characters come
from that generation. And then their children, obviously your
generation are growing up and are starting to write, so it makes sense.
And theyre starting to buy books too.

A: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

Q: When Interpreter came out, around the time of Monica Alis Brick Lane
and some of the British writers, it seemed like young South Asian writers
were the new thing. But, as you said before, it can be ghettoizing. Do you
think that now there are more published writers of the post-1965
generation that ghettoizing feeling might dissipate somewhat?

73 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
A: I dont know. I cant predict that. Ive never thought about writing or writers in
terms of categories. I mean, when I read Garca Mrquez for the first time, I never
thought of him as being part of the Latin American boom. Its hard for me to absorb a
writer in that kind of context.
I remember when my first two books came out, there were a lot of questions like
is this the next boom and why. And its just impossible to answer that question, apart
from, in the case of the Indian writers, just a very basic reason, as you say: there was
the post-1965 immigration wave and that resulted in more Indian people here in the
United States and then they grew up and came of age and some of them became
writers. Its very ordinary, in a way.
I think its inevitable that my writing will continue to be regarded alongside other
writers of Indian descent and Indian writers. Its always been the case and were not
beyond that. I mean, I spend half the time in interviews trying to explain to people
that Im not from India. And I think theres a large population of readers out there
who, when they see my book, see the jacket, see the design, see the motifs, see my
name assume certain things about me. They assume that Im Indian. Or that Im
Indian in the way that they want to think of me as Indian, having been born and
brought up there, and that Im a foreigner in this country.

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


Q: Right, I notice that even in the literary criticism. Theres one article
about A Temporary Matter that says that the two main characters are
from India.

A: Which isnt true.

Q: I know! I read that and said, hmm, thats not right. So I went back to
the story, and of course, it says clearly that Shukumar and Shoba were
born in the States. Its obvious whats happening there.

A: Sure, its someone who assumes without looking at whats there.

Q: Its almost as if knowing that the author and characters have some link
to India facilitates assumptions on the part of some readers, perhaps
almost an overemphasis on culture or ethnic identity. Sue-Im Lee
writes, and I think shes right, that, in the last 10 years or so, a lot of
criticism in Asian American literature tends to focus on cultural
questions, at the expense of attention to aesthetics or form. When I teach
your work, students are immediately interested in the immigrant culture,
the Indian culture transplanted into America. But I find myself pushing
them to also do close readings of the language, to see it not only as a

74 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
cultural or anthropological document but as one that has important
aesthetic and formal attributes as well. Do you see those two categories as
separable in any way, or do you feel that theyre intertwined?

A: No, theyre not intertwined. To me its more the art of it and less the I dont know.
I know the stories are about something, and that theyre about issues sometimes. But
I dont approach them that way. I just approach them on the basis of character. Its
impossible for me to be in my body, in my head, with my history and my past, and say,
Im going to write about an Indian immigrant character. Thats part of me, so I cant take
myself outside and think that way and be so conscious of it. Ive never felt that I had a
project as a writer in that sense, in any kind of sociological, cultural, identity-
based way Ive never felt that. Ive always just thought nuts and bolts: character, plot,
language, style, form, consistency, and continuity. You know, those ideas, those ideas
of the making of it. Perhaps Im incapable of thinking consciously about the beyond.
Also, I think now that Ive published a few books and I hear people commenting on
them I tend to read nothing about my work thats published formally but people
will sometimes come up and say something to me. And I realize that there are a lot of
people out there who assume that I do have a project as a writer and that Im writing

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


specifically for a certain audience. Thats what the books are for; thats their purpose.
Ive talked to people who are astonished that people who arent of Indian descent
read my books. These are Americans, living in todays world. The other day I was at
an event and a woman said, Oh, your book is on everybodys lips. I havent read it
yet, but I intend to. Do you think I can find it at the Asian American Society? And I
said, well, I didnt say anything, I just said, maybe

Q: Or any bookstore!

A: Right! I just wanted to say, you could also try the Barnes and Noble, too, but I
didnt. But I realized thats really what she thought. This is an Indian writer and I have
to go to the specialty store, the next step up from a foreign bookstore, to get it. I
have to go to the niche cultural institution that is devoted exclusively to the art and
literature of a certain geographical part of the world. And this is someone who lives
in Manhattan.

Q: That is astonishing. I mean, its on the New York Times bestseller list.
Does she think that everybody is going to this one specialty bookstore?

A: They all go there! There are lines just wrapped around (laughs)

75 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
Q: There is a room filled with just your books and theyre just handing
them out to all these people! (laughs)

A: Right! It stunned me. You cant control what people think, what people assume.
But I do think a lot of people assume thats why I write. And thats not why I write;
thats false. If people read my work to try to understand issues and not so much to
regard it on the aesthetic level, well, what can you do? I mean, thats what you as a
teacher can try to do; I cant as a writer. Some people will look at a Picasso painting
and think only about the Spanish Civil War, and others will think only about the
colors and the form. People read things in millions of different ways.

Q: What is the motivation for you?

A: Its a need, from within myself and for myself, to express something. To work
something out. Its the process that is the need. Not what might come later.
Another issue that I come up with again and again is, well, this must have all
happened to you. Ill give you another anecdote. I went to Los Angeles on my book

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


tour last year for Unaccustomed Earth. As you know, in the title story, the characters
mother has died. I went to Los Angeles with my mom Id brought her along,
because shed never been to California, and so I said, come with me and keep me
company. I was invited to read at a private school. I showed up with my mom, and
the person greeted us and said, Hello, nice to meet you, and I introduced him to
my mother. And there was this moment of Ah but I thought The first words of
the story are After her mothers death, or something like that. The guy didnt say,
I thought your mother was dead. But I could see him doing a quick turnaround. Its
amazing that people assume that these things all happened to me. I dont know if
other writers face this, but I come up against it again and again, people constantly
assuming that everything is for real and everything happened to me. I mean, if
everything I wrote about happened to me, I would be a very strange creature.

Q: While many of the characters in Interpreter have bilateral relations


between India and the United States moving to the United States, or
being born there to Indian parents, and traveling back to visit later
characters like Moushumi in The Namesake and Hema and Kaushik in
Unaccustomed Earth live on more multilateral scales, living and working in
other countries. Was there a conscious decision to broaden your scope or
did that just evolve through working on new characters and new stories?

A: I think that the second generation, the one that takes center stage in the new book,
leads lives where there can be a third or a fourth place, for whatever reason career,
marriage, people moving around within the United States itself. Maybe thats why.

76 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
Q: I think of the moment in The Namesake when Gogol notices that a taxi
driver has a Bengali name, he thinks that his parents would strike up a
conversation, but he is reluctant. To me, that complicates any
generalizations readers might be tempted to make about some kind of
universal immigrant experience. What is your take on the role of class
for your parents generation as opposed to your own, and how do you deal
with that in your writing?

A: I think Gogols reluctance as I imagined it in that moment was that he didnt want
to have that instant immigrant bond that people of his parents generation tend to
have more, regardless of class. I thought a little bit about this in the Hema and
Kaushik stories, where the two families are, on the one hand, similar, but where
there are shades of difference, one being just a little bit more sophisticated and
affluent than the other. With the friends my parents have made over the years in the
United States, theres a cutting across of class lines. Not radically they tend to
befriend people who have desk jobs and a certain level of education and a certain
kind of life. But my relationships, my friendships, have been far more determined by
my education, especially my entry into university, and the people that experience led

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


me to, whereas my parents are much more willing to befriend somebody simply
because theyre Bengali.
Another question I face a lot is Why are all of your immigrants so wealthy? And
its not that theyre wealthy; its just that education can become leverage. My own
parents both come from very average middle-class backgrounds in Calcutta, but
because my father entered the country as an academic, and remained in the world of
academics, that informed everything: where we lived, how we lived, what his salary
could provide. Not luxurious by any means, but yes, they have a car; they have a
house; they have a yard. They have these basic things and theyre not working in a
sweatshop. Its hard for me to answer to why Im not writing about people working
in a restaurant or a sweatshop. But theyre not the characters I know best. I think in
the immigration debate, that becomes a hot point.

Q: Well, yes, and thats perfectly reasonable. Because that 1965


generation was mainly made up of well-educated and professional people
who were given visas. So thats just who they were, demographically.

A: Right. Thats a different story and a different reason to come here. It was almost all
merit-based, and it was a big deal: to get one of those visas, to be invited to come to
the United States by a corporation or an institution. People think, oh, well, if these
characters have a Subaru and a yard, that means they dont have problems like real
immigrants. Somehow, my characters arent regarded as the real immigrants who
really sweated it out. And on some level, its true: my parents generation didnt

77 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
come here to dig the subways. On the other hand, it doesnt detract from the
difficulties they experienced.

Q: I thought it was fascinating in The Namesake the way Gogol interacted


with the more upper middle-class characters like Maxine and the Ratliffs;
he was initially utterly seduced by the Ratliffs ease and privilege.

A: Its a seductive world. I think its seductive particularly for a character like Gogol;
for him, its not the luxury of money or a nice house, per se. Its more the luxury of
completely possessing and belonging to the place where you live. Thats the luxury
that a child of immigrants will never feel.

Q: So when he moves into the Ratliffs house, hes hoping to experience


that sense of entitlement.

A: And sense of place. Perhaps illusory; everything is illusory; everything goes in the
end. But its so different to know that you come from a family that goes back even

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


four or five generations in one place, as opposed to being raised in a country where
you go back only as far as your parents and your parents are at sea. Its a very
different way to grow up, without having anything in the past, anything behind you.

Q: So in a sense, the Ratliffs class privilege becomes a metaphor for their


citizenship?

A: I think so. I think people made a big deal about how they were rich. To me, it
wasnt so much that they were wealthy, but their more self-indulgent lifestyle, which,
I think, can accompany the luxury of not questioning where you are. Not to say that
my family, Gogols imaginary family, or so many other immigrant families cant enjoy
their lives. But theres always a sense of an abyss very close. Sometimes its harder to
focus on the more pleasurable things in life. There is an element of survival in an
immigrant familys life, even if its a middle-class academic immigrant family or an
engineers immigrant family. Theres chronic anxiety about, say, if I go to the
supermarket is the person going to understand what Im saying? Its intense. If you
dont have that, its a luxury.
As I became an adult, I looked around and realized, well, not everybody had to
grow up with that anxiety. I mean, everybody has things to contend with, but
certainly, that anxiety of having foreign parents was something very specific to my
upbringing. And as I grew up, I became very close with people who never
experienced those things. Whereas my parents and their friends all share a
fundamental experience: an upbringing in India, a rupture from that country,

78 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
coming over here, struggling with the language, struggling with the customs,
struggling with the ways, do I wear a sari or not. All that stuff binds them.
Though my friendships and my relationships are very fierce and very close,
theres often something that tends to separate me from many of the people Im
closest to in the world. Because if you dont go through it, you just dont go
through it.

Q: Ruma in the story "Unaccustomed Earth" is so hapless, so adrift, yet


her fathers lack of an anchor seems to be his liberation. Which of them
do you think best fits the Hawthorne epigraph about needing new soil to
flourish? Or is it her son Akash?

A: I decided to call the story Unaccustomed Earth once the gardening subplot started
to evolve, because in the beginning, it wasnt there. In the beginning, the father was
visiting and he wasnt doing anything, which was one of the problems with the story.
Once I gave him this project, to tend to her garden a little bit, I thought about the
phrase from Hawthorne which I had come across prior to that and I started to

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


try it out as a title. I like the phrase a lot. I like the two words together.
Ive been asked, what do you think of this epigraph? as if its polemical, as if
youre either for or against. Ive never thought of it that way. I dont think
Hawthornes words are an argument for transplanting, but I think it is an observation
and an articulation of America, and what the population of America is, groups of
transplanted populations. They can thrive and flourish; some dont, but many do, and
this country is an extraordinary example of so many transplants entering into the soil
for so many different reasons. Im not for or against it. There is no for or against in
my mind. But I did think that the last sentence, my children have had other
birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their
roots into unaccustomed earth, thats what is happening in these stories. Parents are
acknowledging that thats what their children must do because there is no other
earth for them to claim. That was the point of it for me.
There are other ways in which my reading of Hawthorne influenced this book; I
was reading a lot of Hawthorne while I wrote these stories. The reason the last story
is set in Rome is because I was reading The Marble Faun, and I had the idea of setting a
story of American characters in Rome because of that. On a more personal level,
because I grew up in New England, I grew up with a sense of who Nathaniel
Hawthorne was and what he represented in the culture. Throughout my childhood, I
had the feeling that my world and my family, our lives, were completely segregated
from Hawthorne and the world he represented. He represented the tradition of
great American writing. And to me, he represented New England at its most
traditional and venerable. So it was very intense for me to be re-reading him as an
adult, and also a writer, and to come across this passage and to recognize, in such a
visceral way, how those words reflected my own life and upbringing and now my

79 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
work as a writer. That connection was very intense, and I felt I had to acknowledge it
somehow in the book. So it was critical for me to use that epigraph and to call the
book Unaccustomed Earth.

Q: It reminds me a bit of the scene in The Namesake in the colonial


cemetery where young Gogol does the rubbings of the old names on the
headstones and he identifies with them.

A: A little bit. I hadnt thought about that, but its that same kind of strange
recognition: a connection to something with which you think you have zero in
common, but at the same time, something binds you to that thing in a profound way.
I think that, on an average syllabus, my books would probably not be taught alongside
Hawthornes. Now maybe someone would because Ive invoked him in my work. But
say, I hadnt written Unaccustomed Earth, its highly doubtful that The Namesake and
The Scarlet Letter would be taught in the same class. Why would they? Theres
nothing in common, one would think.

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


Q: I think its interesting that you dont see the epigraph as an argument,
because I do.

A: So you think hes advocating for a transplanted culture?

Q: The way I read it, and Im not a Hawthorne scholar, but I thought he
was thinking about Europe as worn-out soil, in contrast to America as the
new, fresh, young place. So I did think it was a patriotic claim, in which he
is saying that we Americans are going to bring up stronger generations
because were in a new soil.

A: Right. And thats what Im trying to say: this is an argument for America and for
what makes us unique. The greatness of America is based on layers upon layers of
foreign transplants, stepping away from the old world and being willing to set foot in
the new. No, I agree with you.

Q: Yes. And not all transplants survive. Its traumatic to be transplanted.


Its a great metaphor.

A: Yes. Just the other day I was talking to my Italian tutor about the epigraph to
Unaccustomed Earth, and she said, I dont agree with that. Im Venetian and Im never
going to be American. Venice is my past, and I dont believe that people were meant
to transplant themselves. Although shes lived in New York for 40 years. So its a

80 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
very complex thing. I can see this in my family and their friends: on the one hand, they
live here. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, they cant bring themselves
to feel that it was better to transplant themselves. Its a very strange way to live.
Theres a lot of conflict and regret involved. Its not a clean break. It cant be.

Q: If anything, the Hawthorne quotation is pretty optimistic. But its got


to be, because thats his point.

A: But I felt that. When I read the passage, I felt this surge of you know, its
okay the way I was raised. Its okay. For so much of my life, I felt that there was
something wrong with the way that I was raised: because it was new and it was
strange and my parents were struggling and they didnt know what was going on
and they had accents and we didnt belong and we werent like the Ratliffs. But
then, with age, I think you can look at the bigger picture and look at the United
States. It was one thing to be told as a third grader that America is a land of
immigrants. It doesnt matter when youre in third grade. It doesnt register. I
think when you get older you can look back and you can see it, affirm it. I
appreciated the epigraph for that sense of affirmation, even though Im sure that,

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


when Hawthorne was writing, he couldnt imagine that over 100 years later, a
person of Indian descent would be drawing on his words. Im sure that was
totally unimaginable to him.

Sophia University, Japan


j-leyda@sophia.ac.jp

Works Cited

Alfonso-Forero, Ann Marie. Immigrant Motherhood and Transnationality in Jhumpa


Lahiris Fiction. Literature Compass 4.3 (2007): 85161.
Bess, Jennifer. Lahiris Interpreter of Maladies. Explicator 62.2 (2004): 12528.
Bhalla, Tamara Ayesha. Between History and Identity: Reading the Authentic in
South Asian Diasporic Literature and Community. Diss. U of Michigan, 2008.
Web. 20 Oct. 2009. <http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/61737/1/
tbhalla_1.pdf>.
Brians, Paul. Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies. Modern South Asian Literature in
English. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003. 195204.
Caesar, Judith. Beyond Cultural Identity in Jhumpa Lahiris When Mr. Pirzada Came
to Dine. North Dakota Quarterly 70.1 (2003): 8291.
. Gogols Namesake: Identity and Relationships in Jhumpa Lahiris The Namesake.
Atenea 27.1 (2007): 10319.

81 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
. American Spaces in the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri. English Studies in Canada 31.1

.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
(2005): 5068.
Friedman, Natalie. From Hybrids to Tourists: Children of Immigrants in Jhumpa
Lahiris The Namesake. Critique 50.1 (2008): 11128.
Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London:
Routledge, 2001.
Karttunen, Laura. A Sociostylistic Perspective on Negatives and the Disnarrated:
Lahiri, Roy, Rushdie. Partial Answers 6.2 (2008): 41941.
Kluwick, Ursula. Postcolonial Literatures on a Global Market: Packaging the
Mysterious East for Western Consumption. Translation of Cultures. Ed. Petra
Rdiger and Konrad Gross. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 7594.
Lahiri, Himadri. Individual-Family Interface in Jhumpa Lahiris The Namesake.
Americana 4.2 (2008).
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. London: Flamingo-Harper, 1999.
. The Namesake. New York: Mariner-Houghton, 2003.
. Unaccustomed Earth. New York: Knopf, 2008.
Lee, Sue-Im. Introduction: The Aesthetic in Asian American Literary Discourse.
Lee and Davis. 114.

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011


Lee, Sue-Im and Roco Davis, eds. Literary Gestures: The Aesthetic in Asian American
Writing. Philadelphia PA: Temple UP, 2006.
Lewis, Simon. Lahiris Interpreter of Maladies. Explicator 59.4 (2001): 21921.
Majithia, Sheetal. Of Foreigners and Fetishes: A Reading of Recent South Asian
American Fiction. SAMAR: South Asian Magazine of Action and Reflection 14
(2001): 5.
Mannur, Anita. Culinary Fictions: Immigrant Foodways and Race in Indian American
Literature. Asian American Studies after Critical Mass. Ed. Kent Ono. Malden, MA :
Blackwell, 2005. 5670.
McAlister, Melani. (Mis)reading The Joy Luck Club. Asian America 1 (1992): 10218.
Mitra, Madhuparna. Lahiris Mrs. Sens. Explicator 64.3 (2006): 19396.
Norvell, Candyce. Critical Essay on A Temporary Matter. Short Stories for Students.
Vol. 19. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Rajan, Gita. Poignant Pleasures: Feminist Ethics as Aesthetics in Jhumpa Lahiri and
Anita Rao Badami. Lee and Davis 10420.
. Ethical Responsibility in Intersubjective Spaces: Reading Jhumpa Lahiris Inter-
preter of Maladies and A Temporary Matter. Transnational Asian American Liter-
ature: Sites and Transits. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Philadelphia, PA : Temple UP,
2006. 12341.
Remy, David. Critical Essay on A Temporary Matter. Short Stories for Students.
Vol 19. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Shankar, Lavina Dhingra. Not Too Spicy: Exotic Mistresses of Cultural Translation in
the Fiction of Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri. Other Tongues: Rethinking the
Language Debates in India. Ed. Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare. Amsterdam: Rodopi,
2009. 2352.

82 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
.........................................................................................................................................................................................................
Srikanth, Rajini. The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of
America. Philidelphia, PA : Temple UP, 2004.
Tettenborn, Eva. Jhumpa Lahiris Interpreter of Maladies: Colonial Fantasies in Sexy.
Notes on Contemporary Literature 32.4 (2002): 1112.
Williams, Laura Anh. Foodways and Subjectivity in Jhumpa Lahiris Interpreter of
Maladies. MELUS 32.4 (2007): 6979.
Wong, Sau-Ling C. Sugar Sisterhood: Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon. The
Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapo-
lis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 174210.
Zare, Bonnie. Evolving Masculinities in Recent Stories by South Asian American
Women. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 42.3 (2007): 99111.

Downloaded from cww.oxfordjournals.org by guest on July 27, 2011

83 Contemporary Womens Writing 5:1 January 2011


J. Leyda An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

Centres d'intérêt liés