In 2000, Jhumpa Lahiri's debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize. A few years later, her first novel, The Namesake, garnered critical praise, becoming a bestseller and the inspiration for a major motion picture last year. Lahiri's third book, Unaccustomed Earth, more than lives up to the standard established by her previous work: this deeply moving, gorgeously written collection of stories is Lahiri's strongest fiction yet.
Jhumpa Lahiri's work has primarily focused on Bengali first- and second-generation immigrants, exploring themes of exile, isolation, and assimilation. Unaccustomed Earth continues to examine this terrority while enlarging and further universalizing its scope. The stories will haunt you for days.
Lahiri's insight into the psychology of relationships, aging, maturity, and loss is remarkable, and her prose is a marvel — slightly formal and luminously straightforward. The Boston Globe describes Unaccustomed Earth as "eight beautifully crafted stories that reaffirm [Lahiri's] status as one of this country's most accomplished and graceful young writers." Though she is a young writer, her work is confident and timeless; Unaccustomed Earth is fiction that will be read, deservingly, for years to come.
Jill Owens: What do you think has changed in your writing over the years? What are you concerned with in this new collection that you might not have been in your earlier work?
Jhumpa Lahiri: On the technical side, I hope that my writing is evolving and maturing, ripening, deepening. In terms of subject matter, I think I'm more or less writing about the same world, the same sorts of characters, but when I was working on the stories in Unaccustomed Earth, I did have a moment of feeling very aware and also kind of excited by the realization that I seemed to be writing a lot about families and family dynamics.
It was clarifying to me, somehow, because up until that point, one of the many intimidating things about writing fiction was that, really, you can write about anything. Sometimes so much of the difficulty is the question of "What am I going to write about?" because the world is so vast.
But I felt that sense of, This is what I seem to be doing in this book, and this is what I want to keep doing — in a sense, basing my work in explorations of family life. I think that's become more emphatic in my writing over time.
Jill: Silence — or at least faulty or flawed communication — is a pervasive theme in the stories. At the end of "Year's End," Kaushik describes his stepsisters by saying "in their silence they continued both to protect and to punish me." That seemed an apt description of the role silence plays in the book.
Lahiri: Sure. That's not something I'd thought about. I never think about my stories in those ways when I'm writing them, but I would agree with you.
Jill: Throughout your work, you switch narrative perspectives with ease, sometimes even on the same page, from paragraph to paragraph.
Lahiri: I always try to use the perspective that's going to be most effective or most meaningful at any given point in the story. To go back to the technical ways in which I hope my work is growing, there are certain things I did in this new collection that I hadn't done as much earlier on. For example, writing a story from a shared point of view; changing voices; and the three stories at the end where there's one voice, and then the other, speaking back. Those are things that I haven't done before. I'm trying to learn new ways of telling stories.
Jill: How did you decide to use the first-person for the first two of the trilogy of stories at the end?
Lahiri: I wrote the first one, and it was in the first-person. I don't think it started out like that, but eventually it was being written in the first person and I felt satisfied that it worked best that way.
When I finished the story, I wanted to write a second story, and had a dim idea for the third. At that point, I was just thinking I'd like to write another story now, about Kaushik, and about what happened next in that story, because I was curious about how it would all end up with the loss of his mother and the aftermath of that. I wanted to get inside his skin and tell his story. I wanted it to be a sort of dialogue between them; that's how I thought of it.
Jill: How did this collection begin?
Lahiri: It began in a staggered way, with Kaushik and Hema. The first of the stories in that series, "Once in a Lifetime," is a story from about ten years ago that I started and never finished. The characters had those names, though.
They were characters that first entered my mind about a decade ago. I thought about them, and I had a very vague sense of them and their world, their situations and their families. The earliest incarnation was the idea of the story of their two sets of parents who are at once very close and very different.
I was trying to write about Kaushik's family moving back to India and then moving back yet again, and staying with Hema's family. That was always the kernel, this strange couple of months in both their lives, in which they're all crammed into one household.
That was the idea, but at the time I never knew why exactly the family had come back; I hadn't yet figured it out. Those are the earliest characters in the book, and eventually, many years later, I returned to that draft (if you could call it that — it was just a few pages) and was able to work on it again and move forward and finish the story.
That's how it began technically, I suppose. Then I wrote The Namesake, in between, and then started up with some of the other stories. "Hell-Heaven" I had first started while I was writing The Namesake. Sometimes a story idea comes to me and I loosely write it or half-write it or quarter-write it. So when I was finished with The Namesake, I turned to these other ideas. I went back to Hema and Kaushik, and went back to "Hell-Heaven." The other stories just followed, one by one.
Jill: How much do you revise, generally?
Lahiri: That's really all I do. It's all a process for me of continued revision. I worked on most of the stories in this book for several years. When I finished some, and I published some, along the way, then I considered them done, but I still worked on them for a considerable length of time, and the ones I didn't publish, I continued to work on. Most of these stories were simmering for two to three years, minimum.
Jill: Do you think about the architecture, or shape, of these stories, while you're writing them?
Lahiri: I think about the structure, sure. I think about what's going to happen, and how it's going to happen, and the pace. But I think if I stop to think about it in an abstract sense, I feel very daunted. I just try to enter into the story and feel my way through it. It's a very murky, intuitive way of going about it.
Jill: Do you prefer to shift back and forth between the novel and short story forms?
Lahiri: I'm enjoying shifting back and forth, and I don't really see a dividing line between the two. I think of everything as being a story. I think of it that way in terms of my own writing, but I always think of it that way as a reader, too. There have never been stories as opposed to novels, in my mind. It's all just fiction to me — sometimes it's shorter, and sometimes it's longer, but everything is ultimately a story, whether it's War and Peace or a very brief five pages by Saki. It's the same thing — it's sentences, it's characters, it's a situation.
Sometimes it's a very complicated situation, sometimes it's a layered situation, and sometimes it's a more straightforward situation. But I don't ever think that short stories are the more straightforward, simple kind, and novels are the more complicated, layered kind, because they're not. There are simple novels and there are layered stories. To me, it's just a matter of the idea and what the idea demands. Some ideas demand to be stories and need to be stories and some ideas need to be longer works with more formal components to them.
Jill: I was curious if you've ever written poetry, in part because of your gorgeous sense of metaphor (not that that's not necessary in fiction, too).
Lahiri: No; I wish! I love reading poetry, and yet, at this point, the thought of writing a poem to me is tantamount to figuring out a trigonometry question. [Laughter] It feels deeply foreign to me; it's a total mystery. I just don't understand the language of it at all from the creative perspective. I feel like I could write a play more easily, because plays are dialogue, and dialogue is an aspect of fiction.
I took a few writing classes, and in some of the classes you had to write in each genre — a story, a play, a poem. The poem was absolutely the thing I felt least comfortable doing.
Jill: Moments of revelation or realization come very slowly and gradually in most of your stories, but in several, they do emerge. How do you work up to, or around, an illuminating moment in a character's life?
Lahiri: I really can't explain how I write, or what I'm thinking of consciously. I studied literature for so long, and was taught all of these things so deeply, all too well. I was trained to read stories, and to appreciate these elements, but when I write the stories I become a different person altogether. Everything goes out the window, and nothing applies in that sense.
Before I had my first child, I took Lamaze classes. They walk you through all of the things, and the experiences, and you practice, and you learn it in a sort of theoretical way. Then I remember the actual experience of giving birth, and nothing was registering at that point, you know? [Laughter] It wasn't like at one point I could turn to my husband and say, "Oh, let's do that thing that they taught us!" It was so purely in the moment of what was happening. In a way I feel like when I write, I'm just in that moment of writing, and none of the knowledge I have is able to penetrate.
Jill: In earlier interviews, you've said you find writing very difficult. I'm curious if it's becoming any easier.
Lahiri: No, I think it becomes more difficult. With each book, it's become more difficult. I think the process grows more familiar, and there's a comfort in that. I've grown more familiar with the ebb and flow, the ups and downs, the rush of ideas, and the strange moments of stasis where it doesn't seem to be growing in any discernible way or progressing. It becomes easier in that it becomes easier to bear.
But it is inherently for me a very difficult, demanding thing, one that I love the challenges of — I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. Though the process becomes a little easier, certainly the writing itself doesn't. I think if anything it's become harder, just because one wants to grow with every book, and one wants to not make the mistakes of the previous book, and try to get it a little bit better and go a little bit deeper and get a little cleaner.
Jill: It's difficult to come up with comparisons for your work. Your concerns and settings are very modern, but your writing style manages to seem somehow older and almost nineteenth-century. Who would you name as your literary mentors?
Lahiri: Among short story writers, certainly Chekov, and Joyce's stories in Dubliners. Flannery O'Connor, Hemingway — those are all in the "twentieth-century but no longer living" camp. Then there are still-living authors, like William Trevor and Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, for stories.
I actually have recently been reading a lot of nineteenth-century novels, and when I was working on the stories in Unaccustomed Earth, I read and reread a lot of Hawthorne, from which I got the epigraph and ultimately the title of the title story in the book. I was also reading and rereading a lot of Hardy. I feel that Hardy and Hawthorne — it seems so different from anything I could ever possibly do, and yet it speaks to me so deeply. So if you want to call it an influence, I hope it can influence me somehow, but to me it's more inspiration. It's where I'm getting my inspiration from.
Jill: What are you reading these days?
Lahiri: I just finished reading Adam Bede by George Eliot, which was her first novel. I finished that last week. I haven't picked up anything since that book, but before that I was on this Hardy kick all winter and much of last year. I read The Woodlanders, which is a novel of his that I hadn't read previously. I'm not sure what I'm going to read next. I should probably get something soon.
There's the absolute practical matter of wanting slim things on plane travel so as to not weigh me down. A friend of mine gave me a copy of Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, which is a very slim novel which I'll probably put in my bag for the next leg of my tour. It's hard for me to concentrate on planes, so sometimes magazines are the way to go; they're almost television in print. Entertainment, just to pass the time.
I spoke with Jhumpa Lahiri on the phone on April 4, 2008.
Books mentioned in this post