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Striking Gold in Unaccustomed Earth

Alum Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection named one of ten best books of 2008

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A decade into her career, Lahiri is still surprised by her fame. Photo by Elena Seibert

The ticket holders’ line outside the Coolidge Corner Theatre inBrookline stretched down the alleyway, around the back of the building,and into the parking lot. A long standby line ran parallel, withhopeful fans casting envious glances at the yellow slips of paper thatguaranteed admission. Inside the theater, Pulitzer Prize–winning authorJhumpa Lahiri was preparing to read from Unaccustomed Earth, her latest collection of short stories. It was April, and the book would debut at number one on the New York Times best-seller list later that month.

It was not exactly your typical literary reading. These days, Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97) draws crowds and critical acclaim — last week, the New York Times named Unaccustomed Earth one of the ten best books of 2008 — like a rock star. Afterwards, she fielded questions from an audience searching for insights. Their queries circled around themes the author has explored in each of her three books: the struggle between parents and children, the difficulty of being both American and Indian, the immigrant’s triumphs and failures in America.

Finally,one young woman, so nervous she had to repeat her question, askedLahiri how she balances the conflicts and navigates the dilemmas ofeveryday life. “I don’t look to answer the question,” Lahiri responded.“I’m just trying to understand the situation.”

Tapping universal emotions

Thesituation, in Lahiri’s work, can mean a young woman beginning a loveaffair with a married man, two families reuniting after years apartonly to find that their friendship has changed, or a sister’srealization that she has set her brother on the path to addiction.Although her fiction focuses on Indian-American families, criticspraise Lahiri for a sure-footed ability to tap into emotions andexperiences that go beyond cultural lines. But a decade into her careeras one of the country’s more renowned contemporary writers, her ownsituation remains deliberately unexplored. Despite the lines of eagerreaders waiting to meet her, the movie adaptation of her novel, The Namesake, and the profiles in glossy magazines, she still doesn’t acknowledge, or even comprehend, her success and fame.

“Ialways think it’s happening to somebody else,” she says. “All of thesethings were very good and exciting, but I just let other people beexcited — my parents, for example. I always feel that that’s not why awriter writes, so it really doesn’t matter.”

Lahiri’sability to detach from her success as a writer has been a part of hernature since her time at Boston University, where, over the course ofsix years and three advanced degrees, she quietly amassed a group ofshort stories that she rarely spoke of to anyone. When she received afellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts,in 1997, she brought printouts of those stories and read them over,thinking, “Okay, this was good, this was practice, this was getting myfeet wet.” To her surprise, those pieces became Interpreter of Maladies(1999), her debut collection, which sold more than half a millioncopies and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction — making Lahiri, then 32, the youngest winner since the fiction category wasestablished in 1948.

The stories, set inIndia and New England, are by and large about Bengali people: recentimmigrants from Calcutta dealing with life in the United States, thechildren of immigrants breaking away from their parents’ culture andtraditions, and even young Americans falling in love withBengali-American men or women. It is a cultural setting that shefurther explored in The Namesake (2003) and now in Unaccustomed Earth,earning her a devoted following among Indian-Americans. After herreading at the Coolidge, in a scene that could have come directly fromher work, men and women who claimed to know her mashis and meshos — maternal aunts and uncles — surrounded her.

Herreadership is clearly not limited to any one race, ethnicity, or agegroup, however. Instead, fans of her work cut a broad swath throughcultural boundaries and find common ground with characters insituations far removed from their own.

“I see bits and pieces of myself in her characters,” says Jordan Coriza (GRS’09), a student in BU’s Creative Writing Program,who left his home in Argentina for Brazil at age 14, then came tothe United States at 19. “One thing I think she does really wellis that whole issue of not fully belonging to either culture or eitherplace. But what’s more compelling is what she’s best at: re-creatingthose situations where, even if you can’t relate to the meat and bonesof it, you relate because you understand the feelings. The mother in The Namesake,who comes to this country to marry a man she didn’t know — I don’tthink any of us can understand how that must feel, but we don’t have tobe Indian-American, or in an arranged marriage, to get it. The feelingsare so real it doesn’t matter.”

Lahirirejects the notion that she is a writer representing one ethnic groupor one population’s circumstances. Instead, she points to writers sheadmires, such as Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Hardy, and Anton Chekhov,for the way they “localize” universal issues.

“They’reall trying to figure out the same sorts of things about life and whatit’s about and how we can get through it,” she says. “I’ve never feltparticularly Bengali or particularly Indian — I’ve always felt on theoutside of all those terms and what they mean. When I write, I amthinking about general things. I suppose I put them in a particular context, the way so many other writers do.”

In that sense, Unaccustomed Earth,the new collection, is not a departure. Most of the characters areplaced in a context familiar to Lahiri: they are the children ofBengali immigrants, students in Boston or in New York, families withrebellious teenagers settling down in suburban New England. But asever, she uncovers universal experiences in even the most culturallycentered situations. “She celebrates hybridity in her own muted way,”says Susan Mizruchi, a College of Arts and Sciences professor ofEnglish, who teaches Lahiri’s work in her Critical Studies inLiterature and Gender course. “It’s what makes her work powerful. Youfeel this is someone looking in a balanced manner at everything shetakes up, whether it’s an American character or an Indian character,and their different preoccupations.”

Exploring a lifetime of events

Althoughher characters inhabit familiar worlds, Lahiri’s writing is evolving toreflect the changes in her life over the past decade. Themes of aging,dependent parents, divorce, and second marriage are a part of the newcollection. Small children, too, are a presence throughout Unaccustomed Earth,just as they are in Lahiri’s own life. She married journalist AlbertoVourvoulias-Bush in 2001; their son, Octavio, is six, and theirdaughter, Noor, three. Her family, which she lovingly describes as a“big mountain” in her previously unimpeded day-to-day writing life, hasopened her eyes to a whole new series of human experiences.

“Ifyou have children, there’s a point in time where it’s how you thoughtof yourself in life and the world before, and how you thought of thesethings after,” she says. “Thinking about these grand topics of life — Ithink about them much more, now that I’m a mother.”

Thosewho knew Lahiri at the start of her writing career say that she alwayshad a drive to take on those grand topics. Leslie Epstein, a CASprofessor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program, saysthat she has a deep sense of feeling and empathy for both the great andthe small events that make up a lifetime and the ability to carefullyreveal the resulting emotions. “That is what allows her to accept thelarge things in life — births, deaths, marriages, lost loves, and foundloves, too — and fit them into a pattern so smooth and so beautifulthat we only sense them as we do in real life, as interruptions intime,” he says.

Many other aspects ofLahiri’s post-Pulitzer life remain unchanged. Her writing routine, shesays, is best described as sporadic — there are stretches when she putsher writing aside for a time to deal with some other concern, just asshe did at Boston University, when she was completing her dissertationson Bengali poetry and Jacobean-era literature or focusing on heracademic programs. She still grapples with the issues that affectpeople and families around the world, viewed through the lens of herchildhood as an American daughter of Bengali parents. She is stillsomewhat surprised to find her face on magazine covers and her books inshop displays — much as she was surprised, she claims, to be acceptedto the Creative Writing Program in the first place.

Most of all, she is still simply considering the situations that present themselves from day to day.

“Ihope my writing has matured, but at the same time, I think many of thethings I was struggling to understand are things I’m still strugglingto understand,” she says. “And one thing is growing from the previousthing.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

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