The author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake talks about her affinity for "plainness," why she avoids book reviews, and her new collection of short stories.
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by Jhumpa Lahiri
Next month marks the publication of Unaccustomed Earth, a new story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri, the acclaimed chronicler of the Bengali-immigrant experience. Both of her previous books—Interpreter of Maladies (a 2000 story collection that earned her the Pulitzer Prize), and The Namesake, a 2003 novel that later took shape as a popular film— explored the cultural dissonances experienced by immigrants caught between the culture of their Indian birthplace and the unfamiliar ways of their adopted home. In Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of eight short stories, Lahiri continues to explore this theme, this time with a focus on the lives of second-generation immigrants who must navigate both the traditional values of their immigrant parents and the mainstream American values of their peers.
Lahiri was born in London to parents who emigrated from India. She grew up in Rhode Island and then attended Barnard College. After graduating, she moved on to Boston University, where she earned three master's degrees (in English, creative writing, and comparative studies in literature and the arts) and a doctoral degree in Renaissance studies. She married in 2001, and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children.
I spoke with her in their living room on a recent winter afternoon.
(photo by Elena Seibert)
Your first, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Interpreter of Maladies, was a collection of short stories. You followed it with a novel, The Namesake. And now your newest work is another collection of short stories. Why did you decide to return to the short story?
I never really decided it formally. It just happened to be the case that while I was finishing The Namesake I had a couple of story ideas on the back burner and then I just started writing them; I fell into them. Actually, a lot of these stories, to be honest, are very old story ideas that predate the writing of The Namesake. It's not that I was looking for something new.
Is the process of writing a short story different from the process of writing a novel? Do you approach the two differently?
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. With this new book, as opposed to the first collection, I worked on many of the stories for years while they kept evolving and evolving and evolving. One difference is that in The Namesake each piece was contributing to a larger whole.
A lot of your stories are about exile—about people living far from home or moving to a new home. In your earlier work the focus was generally on Bengalis moving to America, but in Unaccustomed Earth it's often people moving to new places within America, or characters going to London, Italy, and all over the world. What is it about the idea of putting people in new physical circumstances that interests you?
It interests me to imagine characters shifting from one situation and one location to another for whatever the circumstances may be. In the first collection, characters were all moving for more or less the same reason (which was also the reason my parents came to the United States): for opportunities or a job. In this collection there's a similar pattern of movement, but 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.
One thing that fascinates me about your previous stories is the way you view the marriages of people in your parents' generation. Your title story has that same theme, with a grown daughter coming to realize that her father is having a new relationship. Was that a fascination for you growing up: What is going on with my folks? And do you think it was especially interesting to you because you were growing up in a culture different from the one in which they grew up?
I don't know why, but the older I get the more interested I get in my parents' marriage. And it's interesting to be married yourself, too, because there is an inevitable comparison. I do think it's a question that has preoccupied me in all the books I've written. My parents had an arranged marriage, as did so many other people when I was growing up. My father came and had a life in the United States one way and my mother had a different one, and I was very aware of those things. I continue to wonder about it, and I will continue to write about it.
In one of the stories in your new collection, "A Choice of Accommodations," the reader gets to view a marriage of people your age. We haven't gotten a glimpse like this of marriage when it comes to older generations.
In what way?
The story is explicitly about their marriage—you have them interacting alone, talking a lot, having sex, whereas the older marriages are viewed more from an outsider's perspective.
I am an outsider for that generation, but with this couple I could put myself into that character with greater ease. Though invented, I could imagine being married to that woman, having that particular chemistry and dynamic.
In terms of writers that you like—older writers—whom do you go back to time and again?
I've been reading a lot of 19th-century novels recently. I've always loved Chekhov and Tolstoy, but lately it's been Hardy. He's one of those novelists whose work I always go to. I will never get tired of those novels. The complete worlds that he creates—they are so focused and compelling. I don't think I know how to do that at all in my own work, but I find it inspiring. I really enter into something complete and rich and satisfying. There is a balance between the human drama and the world around it, and that interchange is so beautifully done. I also like learning things in those books—about the agricultural society, the hay, the farm—I love that. And I like it more the older I get. That connection to the land and how rooted it is. I've also been reading Hawthorne. That's how I got the title for this book. I definitely get a lot of ideas from reading other books.
What about writers working today?
I read William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant obsessively
One critic who reviewed your first book said that your prose is extremely un-self-conscious and not showy. Without making a judgment on that, do you think he was correct?
I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more. There's form and there's function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn't comfortable. I don't want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can.
Do you have any desire to write a huge, panoramic novel?
I don't think so. I don't think I'm an effusive writer. My writing tends not to expand but to contract. If I do write more novels, I think they'll be more streamlined and concentrated.
That fits into what you were saying about your prose style, right?
Maybe. Yes. I don't like excess. When a great sweeping work is great, what makes it great is that there's no excess.
Do you write during a certain part of the day, especially now that you have kids?
It is hard with kids, and so I write whenever I have time to myself. It's getting more and more complicated, but on an ideal day there's time in the morning to work. If everything else can be kept at bay, I can make some time. I'm much more practical about it now.
Time and furniture, then—practical about both.
A lot of current novelists, from Zadie Smith to Martin Amis, also write criticism. Does that appeal to you?
Not so much. I don't like to judge. I don't feel comfortable doing that. But by saying that, I don't mean to judge people who do. A critic is an extremely valuable thing in art or literature or music, but I don't feel it's what I want to do. Before I wrote a book, I wrote some reviews and it was great fun. I'd get free books and write up a little something and I was into it. But then something changed. I think it was writing my own book. To be honest with you, and maybe this is shirking my duty in some way, I like to try and stay as disconnected as I can from the world of contemporary writing because I just think it's best for my writing. I want to be a little bit unplugged. If you're reviewing, you have to stay on top of what's coming out and what's going on, and put yourself into that discourse. It's a much more active and engaged position than I want.
Do you socialize with other writers?
Not a lot. I do have some close friends who are writers, so there are people in my life who I can turn to about things having to do with writing. But I don't really seek out other writers.
When your books come out, do you read reviews?
No—I haven't read a single review yet about this book! With each book it's been different. For instance, with the first book, it was so astonishing that it was happening that I read everything. It was like the first baby—you take a million pictures and each moment is so special. I read the good and the bad. It was intense and hard. After a point, I couldn't keep my equilibrium anymore. With The Namesake I tried to stay more aloof. For me it's about, How can a review help me to write something better? It's not about lots of praise, although no one wants the inverse of that. I feel like I should be more hardened at this point, but in a way I feel more vulnerable. With this book I decided not to look at anything at all. Perhaps in the future I'll ask my editor or someone to show me a few that she thinks could really benefit me somehow.
So when The New York Times comes in the morning, you never take a glance to see whether a review is in there?
[Laughs]. Actually, my husband gets the paper on Saturday morning and tosses out the book-review section so I don't see it. He's been doing that for a few weeks now. It's hard to live in New York City sometimes. It's easy for me to think, Why am I doing this? There are so many great writers and great books—what's the point? I can get into that mindframe pretty easily, and the more I see that this or that book is coming out, the more easily I go into a very scared place. I know that about myself. I feel protective of my work. And the ability to stay focused is a very vulnerable thing. I think the people who review responsibly, though, are providing something very valuable. They're like teachers.
Given that you feel so protective of your own work, how did you feel about your book being made into a movie?
I enjoyed it very much, because I relinquished all control and I felt a very easy connection with the director, Mira Nair. I had seen her other work and I knew that she was smart and interesting. There was a sense of, This person has a vision, this person knows what she wants to say. It was an alternative universe and I conceived of it as something that was her thing. It was her Namesake.