Jhumpa Lahiri has received great acclaim as a fiction writer for her focus on the experiences of love and loss in her predominantly Indian-American characters. These experiences mirror, to some degree, her own. Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island with her Bengali parents.
She is the author of three widely praised books. Her debut, Interpreter of Maladies - a book of short stories - came out in 1999. Her second book, the novel The Namesake, was made into a feature film by director Mira Nair. Her third and latest, Unaccustomed Earth, came out in 2008.
In interviewing Lahiri, I found her to be engaging and thoughtful, but not effusive: She chooses her words carefully. This may be partly why, as a writer, she has published her books at a steady - but unhurried - pace. She spends a lot of time laboring over sentences and developing characters until, as she writes in a recent essay for the New York Times, "a plot unfolds."
Lahiri will be reading from her work at Butler University on Monday, April 16, in the final installment of the Spring 2012 Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series.
We spoke by phone in early February.
NUVO: In Unaccustomed Earth, two characters, Hema and Kaushik, appear in three interconnected stories. It's not hard to want these characters to connect for the long term when you read the book. But at the same time you have the sense that the world is spinning too fast under their feet, as it were, for things to work out for them. Have you ever been tempted to get certain characters to live happily ever after despite the odds stacked against them?
Lahiri: I think some of my characters have happier endings than others. I acknowledge that for this couple there's a really sad conclusion. But it just felt when I was writing that this was the inevitable direction that the story had taken. So it just really depends on the story and the group of characters and I just try to listen to which way the wind is blowing in the world of the story. It's not really about my decision all the time. It comes from the characters that I create and the situations.
NUVO: So the characters have a certain logic to their lives that they have to obey. It's almost like a math problem?
Lahiri: Sometimes. I mean, there's something else. There's another force that is at work that isn't entirely deliberate. I know it's all coming from me and I'm in charge of it and I'm writing it and I'm thinking it and all of that, but it takes on an independence. Usually the characters become the conduit. So I think what I do is just spend a lot of time trying to create the characters and understand them. They do have an ability at times to take things in a certain direction that I hadn't anticipated originally.
NUVO: The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 intrudes into the narrative of Unaccustomed Earth. You live in New York. How did 9/11 affect you and why haven't you yet approached that yet in your fiction?
Lahiri: Well, I was here for that event. It affected me profoundly as a person, as a writer, as someone who was soon going to be a mother. It affects one's day-to-day life here in the city... But I write largely about characters who are not living in New York City. In these past couple of books they take place at different times. If I were to write a fictional narrative about characters who were affected in some way, obviously it would feature that story if I thought that was necessary. A lot of things are happening in the world all the time that are affecting people that are grave. But for me it's something that I may not be able to allude to for a very long time simply because I was inside of it.
NUVO: Lev Grossman said of your work in his article in Time Magazine - a very complimentary article, by the way - that one won't find humor in your work. But there's a wry kind of humor in The Namesake with a discussion of the term ABCD [American Born Confused Desi], a term that can describe a certain type of second generation Asian-American who has no clue about how to relate to his or her cultural roots. The humor in your work, though, is usually mixed in with a lot of other things. Can you picture yourself these days writing a book where humor plays a more important role?
Lahiri: I don't know. I just finished a book that's not very humorous and I was thinking about that the other day. I don't really set out to do anything deliberate in my work. It's a very inward journey and I'm really sifting through things that I'm not terribly conscious of. It's a very intuitive process for me...
NUVO: I'll assume you saw the motion picture The Namesake. How deeply were you involved in the production of that movie?
Lahiri: It was friendly, but removed. I wasn't heavily involved with the movie. I spoke with the director. I set her on her way. I just wanted her to have independence and make the movie she wanted to make.
NUVO: Were you happy with what you saw onscreen?
Lahiri: I was. I was very happy. I was curious about how she would bring it to life. I wasn't expecting anything in particular. I really felt disassociated from it in a healthy way, I think. I didn't feel any ownership of the book anymore after I had written it.
NUVO: Often remarked upon in your work is a sense of the Bengali immigrant characters living in two different worlds at once. Is this something that defined your own upbringing and, maybe more importantly, the lives of your parents?
Lahiri: Yeah. I think my parents occupy two worlds and I also occupy two worlds but they're not the two same worlds. My parents' experience is more literal, I think. They literally came from one world and made a home in another world... The large part of my life that is Indian is very much defined by my experience at home with my parents. And a lot of people live in an alternate universe but it's only inside of their house. And it's defined by the relationship you have with your parents or whatever. And it's not a day-to-day life kind of experience. And then there's the world of America that I had much more direct access than my parents... My connection to India has always been much more attenuated and complicated in a way. So I think both generations experience the schism, but it's not the same one.