Lahiri, Jhumpa

views updated

Lahiri, Jhumpa

Personal

Born 1967, in London, England; daughter of Amar (a librarian) and Tia (a teacher's aide); married Alberto Vourvoulias (a journalist), January 15, 2001; children: one son. Education: Barnard College, B.A. (English literature); Boston University, M.A. (English), M.A. (creative writing), M.A. (comparative literature and arts), Ph.D. (Renaissance studies).

Addresses

Home—New York, NY. Agent—c/o Houghton Mifflin, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116-3764.

Career

Fiction writer. Instructor of creative writing at Boston University and Rhode Island School of Design.

Awards, Honors

Transatlantic Review Award, Henfield Foundation, 1993; Louisville Review fiction prize, 1997; Provincetown Fine Arts Work Centre fellow; named among twenty best young writers in America by New Yorker magazine; O. Henry Award, 1999, for "Interpreter of Maladies"; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 2001, and shortlisted for M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, James Beard Foundation, 2001, both for Interpreter of Maladies.

Writings

Interpreter of Maladies (story collection), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.

(Author of introduction) Xavier Zimbardo, India Holy Song (photography collection), Rizzoli (New York, NY), 2000.

The Namesake (novel), Houghton (Boston, MA), 2003.

Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Story, Agni, and New Yorker. Stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, 1999.

Adaptations

Lahiri's short story "A Temporary Matter" was adapted for a film directed by Mira Nair.

Work in Progress

A novel.

Sidelights

Jhumpa Lahiri writes fiction about the Indian immigrant experience in America. She surprised the literary world in 2001 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her very first full-length effort, a collection of short stories titled Interpreter of Maladies. The daughter of Bengali parents who immigrated to the United States, Lahiri attended school in New England, but also spent considerable time while growing up visiting her extended family in Calcutta, India. She uses Calcutta as the setting for three of the nine stories in Interpreter of Maladies and accurately contrasts Indian values with American values in her other stories. The eloquent language, mature observations, and delicate insights belied Lahiri's newcomer status, according to many critics, who welcomed her second work of fiction, 2003's The Namesake. Lahiri's first novel, the book details the story of a young Indian man trying to maintain his family's traditional values while dealing with everyday life in America.

Lahiri was born in London, England, and raised in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, from age three. Her father, Amar, a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, and her mother, Tia, a teacher's aide at a Rhode Island elementary school, immigrated to the United States from Calcutta, India. Lahiri also has a sister seven years her junior. A shy child, Lahiri sought out other quiet children who liked to read. She began writing in grade school, composing ten-page "novels" at recess with her friends. "Writing allowed me to observe and make sense of things without having to participate," she remarked in a Newsweek International interview. "I didn't belong. I looked different and felt like an outsider."

Develops Multicultural Perspective

Although Lahiri grew up in the United States and considers herself an American writer, she has found that it is sometimes difficult to see herself as an American. Her parents always considered India their home, even after living abroad for thirty years. "It was important to my mother to raise her children as Indian, thinking and doing things in an Indian way, whatever that means," Lahiri recalled to Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times. While growing up, Lahiri visited India often, usually every few years, and her visits there lasted from three weeks to as long as six months at a time. Still, Lahiri did not feel at home in that country either. "I've often felt," she told Barbara Kantrowitz in Newsweek, "that I am somehow illegitimate in both cultures. A true Indian doesn't accept me as an Indian and a true American doesn't accept me as an American."

After graduating from South Kingstown High School, Lahiri went on to Barnard College, where she earned her bachelor of arts degree in English literature. Subsequently, she received three master of arts degrees—in creative writing, comparative studies, and literature and the arts—from Boston University. She also obtained her doctorate in Renaissance studies there. After completing her education, Lahiri taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

In 1997, while Lahiri was completing her dissertation on representations of Italian architecture in early-seventeenth-century English theater, she worked as an unpaid intern at Boston magazine. Burned out on academia, she now considered becoming a writer. Her work at the magazine, however, involved writing flattering items about consumer products. Meanwhile, though, she had begun to write short stories and had by now received some positive feedback: her stories had been awarded the Henfield Prize from Transatlantic Review in 1993 and the Louisville Review fiction prize in 1997. In addition, the New Yorker had reprinted three of her stories in their pages and had named Lahiri as one of the twenty best young writers in America.

Assembles Work into Interpreter of Maladies

Lahiri began attracting even more notice after her story "Interpreter of Maladies" was included in Best American Short Stories 1999, edited by novelist Amy Tan. This tale of an Indian physician's interpreter who moonlights as a tour guide eventually became the centerpiece of her short-story anthology of the same title. The inspiration for the story came to Lahiri after visiting a friend who acted as a Russian liaison for a Boston doctor. The phrase "interpreter of maladies" later came to her, and she found it poetic and filed it away, thinking about it on occasion. As she recalled to Gillian Flynn in Entertainment Weekly, "Over the years it was fading, and every so often I'd come across it and think, 'Am I ever going to do something with it?' Then one day I did."

In 1999 Lahiri's full collection was released to a positive critical reception. Though Interpreter of Maladies is full of characters searching for love, the tales are fresh and gripping, reviewers wrote. Lahiri often deals with people who have been culturally displaced, and sets up a broader existential metaphor of people who feel detached from their surroundings. Her highly detailed descriptions of her stories' settings draw readers fully into her fiction, transporting them into the alleys of Calcutta, spartan rental rooms in eastern U.S. college towns, or into a fragrant living room where a woman chops vegetables for the evening meal. The Indian characters in her stories are often displaced, whether immigrants in a strange country or those returning to their home communities, thus reinforcing the author's themes of isolation and loss. In many of her stories Lahiri displays a sensitivity to the issue of marriage. Instead of glorifying the romantic notions of matrimony, she digs into how much work it takes to sustain and refresh relationships over the long term. Caleb Crain wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Interpreter of Maladies "features marriages that have been arranged, rushed into, betrayed, invaded, and exhausted. Her subject is not love's failure, however, but the opportunity that an artful spouse (like an artful writer) can make of failure—the rebirth possible in a relationship when you discover how little of the other person you know. In Lahiri's sympathetic tales, the pang of disappointment turns into a sudden hunger to know more."

Though many of the characters in the collection are Indian or Indian immigrants, Lahiri claims the tales are strictly fiction. "The characters are semireal—most are composites—but the situations are invented," she noted in Newsweek International. However, she has admitted that her own family members played a large role in some of the stories. For example, "The Third and Final Continent," which tells of a librarian putting together the basics in his rented room in anticipation of the arrival of his wife, is based on her father. "I was filled with anxiety about it," Lahiri commented to Flynn. "He's not a very effusive person, but he said, 'My whole life is in that story.' That's all I could ask for."

Other stories in the collection include "Mrs. Sen," the story of a lonely Indian wife trying to make do in the United States. She wears her beautiful saris as she prepares the fresh fish which reminds her of her native Calcutta. She is sustained by aerograms from her family in India, who envy her, and the little boy she cares for, who learns what it is like to be isolated and lonely. In an interview in Newsweek, Lahiri told Vibhuti Patel that Mrs. Sen is based on her mother, who babysat for other children in their home. "I saw her one way," she explained, "but imagined that an American child may see her differently, reacting with curiosity, fascination, or fear to the things I took for granted."

"This Blessed House" is the story of Indian newlyweds Twinkle and Sanjeev, living in America, who are at odds over Twinkle's laid-back habits and her fascination with the tacky religious knickknacks left by the previous owners in their new home. They include a Nativity snow globe, a paint-by-number picture of the three wise men, and a Virgin Mary lawn ornament. Crain wrote that Lahiri "is not out to convert Hindus here, nor is she indulging in sarcasm at the expense of sincere belief. But not even religion is sacred to her writerly interest in the power of a childlike sympathy, going where it ought not go."

Critics were often complimentary in assessing Lahiri's stories. Prema Srinivasan, writing for Hindu, called Interpreter of Maladies "eminently readable," and noted that Lahiri "talks about universal maladies in detail, with a touch of humour and sometimes with irony which is never misplaced." A Publishers Weekly reviewer explained that "Lahiri's touch in these nine tales is delicate, but her observations remain damningly accurate, and her bittersweet stories are unhampered by nostalgia." Newsweek reviewer Laura Shapiro commented that Lahiri "writes such direct, translucent prose you almost forget you're reading."

If you enjoy the works of Jhumpa Lahiri

If you enjoy the works of Jhumpa Lahiri, you might want to check out the following books:

Monica Ali, Brick Lane, 2003.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, 2003.

Yann Martel, Life of Pi, 2001.

Moves into Longer Fiction

Lahiri continued her examination of the Indian immigrant experience with the 2003 publication of her first novel, The Namesake. The author "sees it as a kind of coming-of-age novel, although not in the traditional sense," Kantrowitz explained in her Newsweek review. "A whole family, rather than a single protagonist, must come to terms with a new identity." The story begins when a young Indian couple, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, immigrate to America to start a new life. Ashoke is an engineering student eager to adapt to American ways, but his wife, Ashima, is homesick for India and keeps as many of the traditional customs as she can. When they have a family, the couple must adjust to the many differences between how they see America and how their American-born children see the country. The novel focuses on the family's son, Gogol, who Ashoke has named after the famous Russian writer. Ashoke was reading a book by Gogol when he was almost killed in a train wreck in India; a superstitious man, he believes the name will bring good luck to his son. When Gogol becomes a teenager, however, he wants to change his name to something more Indian, despite his father's desires, and legally changes it to Nikhil. After his father's death, Nikhil must face the guilt he feels over defying his father's wishes. "In the book, Gogol spends most of his life convinced his name is an accident or a random and meaningless misrepresentation of who he is," Lahiri told Edward Nawotka in Publishers Weekly. "One of the things I want to have happen for him in the book is for his name to make sense." Starr E. Smith, reviewing the novel for the Library Journal, described The Namesake as a "poignant treatment of the immigrant experience . . . a rich, stimulating fusion of authentic emotion, ironic observation, and revealing details." Donna Seaman, in a review for Booklist, dubbed Lahiri's book a "deeply knowing, avidly descriptive, and luxuriously paced first novel."

In January of 2001 Lahiri married American-born journalist Alberto Vourvoulias in a traditional Hindu ceremony at Singhi Palace in a suburb of Calcutta. Soon the mother of a son, Lahiri continued with her writing and by 2004 was working on a second novel. "I have all these ideas that are percolating," she told Kantrowitz. "The more I write, the more I'm learning about how very strange the experience is. It's so difficult, so exasperating, so mysterious."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

AsiaWeek, January 25, 2001, "Oh Calcutta! The Only Place to Wed...."

Booklist, June 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Namesake, p. 1710.

Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 2000, p. 100.

Esquire, October, 2000, p. 172.

Hindu, April 12, 2000, "Pulitzer for Jhumpa Lahiri"; February 5, 2001, "Beyond Bengal and Boston."

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2003, review of The Namesake, p. 773.

Library Journal, July, 2002, Starr E. Smith, review of The Namesake, p. 123.

Newsweek, July 19, 1999, Laura Shapiro, "India Calling: The Diaspora's New Star," p. 67; August 25, 2003, Barbara Kantrowitz, "Who Says There's No Second Act?," p. 61.

Newsweek International, September 20, 1999, Vibhuti Patel, "Maladies of Belonging," p. 80.

New York Times, April 11, 2000, Felicity Barringer, "Author's First Book Wins Pulitzer for Fiction."

New York Times Book Review, July 11, 1999, p. 11; August 6, 1999.

People, September 15, 2003, review of The Namesake, p. 49.

Providence Journal (Providence, RI), January 19, 2001, p. C1.

Publishers Weekly, April 19, 1999, review of Interpreter of Maladies, p. 59; July 26, 1999, p. 20; November 1, 1999, p. 46; July 7, 2003, review of The Namesake, p. 48, and Edward Nawotka, "Pulitzer Winner Finds Much in a Name," p. 49.

Time International, September 13, 1999, Nisid Hajari, "The Promising Land," p. 49.

Wall Street Journal, July 23, 1999, p. W6.

OTHER

Rediff.com,http://www.rediff.com/ (April 11, 2000), "Jhumpa Lahiri Wins Pulitzer."

South Asian Journalists Association Web Site,http://www.saja.org/ (May 5, 2000), "Jhumpa Lahiri."*

About this article

Lahiri, Jhumpa

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article