Lahiri, Jhumpa 1967–
Lahiri, Jhumpa 1967–
Born 1967, in London, England; daughter of a librarian and a teacher; married Alberto Vourvoulias (a journalist), January 15, 2001; children: two. Education: Barnard College, B.A.; Boston University, M.A. (English), M.A. (creative writing), M.A. (comparative literature and the arts), Ph.D.
Home—New York, NY.
O. Henry Award, 1999, for "Interpreter of Maladies"; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 2000, for Interpreter of Maladies; Transatlantic Review Award, Henfield Foundation; fiction prize, Louisville Review; fellow, Fine Arts Work Centre, Provincetown.
Interpreter of Maladies (short stories), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
(Author of introduction) Xavier Zimbardo, India Holy Song (photography collection), Rizzoli (New York, NY), 2000.
The Namesake (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Unaccustomed Earth: Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 2008.
The Namesake was adapted for a film directed by Mira Nair.
London-born writer Jhumpa Lahiri, the daughter of Bengali parents, has spent considerable time with her extended family in Calcutta, India. This locale serves as the setting for three of the nine stories in her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. The stories in the collection, three of which had already appeared in the New Yorker, deal with such themes as marital problems, experiences of Indian immigrants to the United States, and translations of not only language, but experience. Newsweek reviewer Laura Shapiro wrote that Lahiri "writes such direct, translucent prose you almost forget you're reading." Caleb Crain wrote in the New York Times that Lahiri's collection "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."
The stories in Interpreter of Maladies include the title story, which earned an O. Henry Award in 1999, as well as "A Temporary Matter" and "This Blessed House," among others. "This Blessed House" is the story of Indian newlyweds Twinkle and Sanjeev, who are at odds over Twinkle's laid-back habits and her fascination with the Christian knickknacks left by the previous homeowners. They include a Nativity snow globe, a paint-by-number picture of the 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."
Other stories featured in the collection include "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," the story of ten-year-old Lilia who learns about the politics and hardships of India from a family friend; "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; and "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 fresh fish, which reminds her of her native Calcutta. She is sustained by aerograms from her family, who envy her, and the little boy she cares for, who learns what it's 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 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."
Because Lahiri was not born in India, her stories set in India have been criticized by some reviewers as inauthentic and stereotypical. Time reviewer Nisid Hajari wrote that two of the stories set in Calcutta "survive on little more than smoothness…. The reader is lulled by Lahiri's rhythmic sentences and, for her Western audiences, no doubt by the Indian setting. Lahiri hits her stride closer to home—on the uncertain ground of the immigrant." Other reviewers, however, have offered Lahiri nothing but praise. A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote: "Lahiri's touch in these nine tales is delicate, but her observations remain damningly accurate, and her bittersweet stories are unhampered by nostalgia." Hajari, too, offered praise, saying: "The whole is assured and powerful, and it is perhaps not too harsh a criticism to say that readers should look forward to Lahiri's second book." Prema Srinivasan, writing for Hindu, called Interpreter of Maladies "eminently readable," and noted that its author "talks about universal maladies in detail, with a touch of humour and sometimes with irony which is never misplaced." In a New York Times article, Michiko Kakutani called Interpreter of Maladies an "accomplished collection…. Ms. Lahiri chronicles her characters' lives with both objectivity and compassion while charting the emotional temperature of their lives with tactile precision. She is a writer of uncommon elegance and poise, and with Interpreter of Maladies she has made a precocious debut."
Lahiri's much-praised debut into the world of fiction led to a lot of speculation surrounding the appearance of her second effort, a novel titled The Namesake, which deals with identity, the importance of names, and the effect the immigrant experience has on family ties. Gogol Ganguli finds himself saddled with a pet name, rather than a proper Bengali first name. Since he does not find out the significance of his name and its connection to a major incident in his father's life until he is older, the name seems empty to him. Gogol too feels somehow incomplete, and this feeling adds to his confusion and insecurity as an outsider trapped between two cultures: that of India, his parents' homeland, and that of the United States, his country of birth. While Gogol's parents followed the conventions of an arranged marriage, their son does not hold his family's cultural heritage in that high a regard, and he wants more than his parents seem to have. Gogol's inner turmoil is also reflected in his unsuccessful romantic relationships. It is not until Lahiri's dissatisfied young protagonist comes to understand who his parents are that things begin to come together for him.
Women's Review of Books critic Mendira Sen wrote that this "beautifully crafted and elegantly written novel will speak to many." In the Antioch Review, Ed Peaco noted that, despite the lack of action on the part of the novel's fictional protagonist, "Lahiri's delicate details and soft rhetorical touch create an absorbing reading experience in which characters become friends in the sense that we can rely on them for wit, insight, and affirmation." Praising the author for her "spare, lyrical prose," Herizons contributor Irene D'Souza added that The Namesake is a "wondrous, gentle book" whose major strength is that it "demystifies a culture that often finds itself at odds with the majority."
In 2008, Lahiri's second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth: Stories, was published. This collection of eight short stories, like The Namesake, deals with the theme of being of being trapped between two cultures. This time, however, it is from the perspective of the American-born children of immigrants who must navigate between the traditional values of their parents and the modern American values of their peers. The first five stories in this book stand on their own, while the last three are grouped together as "Hema and Kaushik." These three stories explore the intertwined histories of the title characters, a girl and boy from two Bengali immigrant families, at three different points in their lives.
Unaccustomed Earth was met with praise by many critics, although some complained about the fact that several of the stories had already been published in the New Yorker. Mostly Fiction reviewer Poornima Apte claimed that, with this book, Lahiri "delivers her best work yet," adding that "this new collection feels more mature and the topics Lahiri tackles reflect more complicated issues that the immigrant community must deal with in a new land. Topics such as teen alcoholism that she explores beautifully in the story ‘Only Goodness’ are especially sensitive for the usually conservative Indian American community—one that is often labeled a ‘model minority.’" "Lahiri's voice, always distinct, grows deeper and more masterful. Her strength is the short story form, and these stories shine with insights into human behavior, deftly illustrated, never highlighted," wrote Sudheer Apte in a review of the book for Mostly Fiction. The Village Voice reviewer Lenora Todaro felt that "her new stories are better, stronger—evidence of a writer pushing herself to a deeper level." "Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints. She allows them to grow as if unguided, as if she were accompanying them rather than training them through the espalier of her narration. Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth," observed Liesl Schillinger in her review of the book for the New York Times.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, summer, 2004, Ed Peaco, review of The Namesake, p. 581.
Atlantic Monthly, March 18, 2008, Isaac Chotiner, interview with Jhumpa Lahiri; April 1, 2008, review of Unaccustomed Earth: Stories, p. 107.
Booklist, June 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Namesake, p. 123; November 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, "Voices of India," p. 574; February 1, 2008, Donna Seaman, review of Unaccustomed Earth, p. 5.
Entertainment Weekly, September 19, 2003, Gregory Kirschling, review of The Namesake, p. 40; September 19, 2003, Jennifer Reese, "A Name to Remember," p. 88.
Esquire, October, 2000, Sean Flynn, "Jhumpa Lahiri," p. 172.
Explicator, summer, 2001, Simon Lewis, review of Interpreter of Maladies, p. 219; winter, 2004, Jennifer Bess, review of Interpreter of Maladies, p. 125.
Herizons, summer, 2001, Irene D'Souza, review of Interpreter of Maladies, p. 32; summer, 2004, Irene D'Souza, review of The Namesake, p. 36.
Hindu, April 12, 2000, "Pulitzer for Jhumpa Lahiri"; February 5, 2001, "Beyond Bengal and Boston."
Kenyon Review, summer, 2004, David H. Lynn, "Virtue of Ambition," p. 160.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2003, review of The Namesake, p. 773; February 1, 2008, review of Unaccustomed Earth.
Library Journal, July, 2003, Starr E. Smith, review of The Namesake, p. 123; February 1, 2008, Sybil Kollappallil, review of Unaccustomed Earth, p. 65.
Marie Claire, April 1, 2008, Sarah Z. Wexler, review of Unaccustomed Earth, p. 100.
Nation, October 23, 2004, David Bromwich, "The Man without Qualities," p. 36.
New Leader, September-October, 2003, Benjamin Austen, "In the Shadow of Gogol," p. 86.
Newsweek, July 19, 1999, Laura Shapiro, "India Calling: The Diaspora's New Star," p. 67; September 20, 1999, Vibhuti Patel, "Maladies of Belonging"; August 25, 2003, Barbara Kantrowitz, review of The Namesake, p. 61.
New York Times, July 11, 1999, Caleb Crain, "Subcontinental Drift: Most of the Characters in These Stories Move between India and the United States," p. 11; August 6, 1999, Michiko Kakutani, review of Interpreter of Maladies; April 11, 2000, Felicity Barringer, "Author's First Book Wins Pulitzer for Fiction"; September 28, 2003, Stephen Metcalf, "Out of the Overcoat," p. 11; April 6, 2008, Liesl Schillinger, review of Unaccustomed Earth.
Publishers Weekly, April 19, 1999, review of Interpreter of Maladies, p. 59; July 7, 2003, Edward Nawotka, interview with Lahiri, p. 49; September 15, 2003, Daisy Maryles, "See Jhumpa Jump," p. 17.
Spectator, January 17, 2004, Lee Langley, "Cola versus Curry," p. 39.
Time, September 13, 1999, Nisid Hajari, "The Promising Land," p. 49; April 7, 2008, "India Ink," p. 63; May 19, 2008, "The Quiet Laureate," p. 40.
Times of India, April 16, 2000, Ratnottama Sengupta, "Mira Nair to Film Jhumpa Lahiri Story." USA Today, April 3, 2008, "Lahiri Leaves No ‘Earth’ Untilled," p. 5.
Village Voice, April 1, 2008, Lenora Todaro, review of Unaccustomed Earth.
Washington Post Book World, September 14, 2003, Christopher Tilghman, review of The Namesake, p. 10.
Women's Review of Books, March, 2004, Mendira Sen, "Names and Nicknames," p. 9.
World and I, January, 2004, Linda Simon, review of The Namesake, p. 230.
Bookbrowse.com,http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (August 3, 2004), "A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri."
Houghton Mifflin Web site,http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/ (July 1, 2008).
Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (April 24, 2008), Poornima Apte, review of Unaccustomed Earth; Sudheer Apte, review of Unaccustomed Earth.
PBS Web site,http://www.pbs.org/ (August 3, 2004), Elizabeth Farnsworth, interview with Lahiri.
PIF Magazine Online,http://www.pif.com/ (August 3, 2004), Arun Aguiar, interview with Lahiri.
Slate Magazine,http://www.slate.com/ (April 3, 2008), Ann Hulbert, review of Unaccustomed Earth.