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At thirty-two years old, Jhumpa Lahiri became the youngest writer to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1999 book Interpreter of Maladies. Marked as an up-and-coming writer from that point on, Lahiri’s small output has focused on addressing the experience of minority Americans of immigrant heritage and their attempts to reconcile their forebears’ cultural heritage with the American culture they grew up in.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Lahiri was born Nilanjana Sudeshna in London, England, to Bengali parents. when Lahiri was three, her parents, a librarian and a teacher, relocated to South Kingstown, Rhode Island, where she grew up. Her family retained close ties to their cultural homeland, and Lahiri made frequent visits to family members in the city of Calcutta throughout her childhood. Lahiri’s mother made a conscious effort to maintain a connection to her family’s heritage while raising Jhumpa and her younger sister in America. ”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. This duality led to conflicting feelings for Jhumpa while she was growing up. She turned to writing at an early age, penning ten-page ”novels” to read to her classmates. ”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.”
After high school graduation, Lahiri attended Barnard College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature, then went on to earn three master’s degrees—in creative writing, comparative studies, and literature and the arts—from Boston University. While working on a doctoral dissertation in the field of Renaissance studies, Lahiri turned to writing as an escape from the pressures of academia. After receiving some positive feedback, she began to submit her short stories to magazines. She was awarded the Henfield Prize from Transatlantic Review in 1993 and the Louisville Review fiction prize in 1997. Eventually, the New Yorker reprinted three of her stories in their pages and had named Lahiri as one of the twenty best young writers in America.
Writer of Short Stories
Lahiri was inspired with the phrase ”interpreter of maladies” after visiting a friend who served as a Russian translator for a Boston doctor. 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.” The resulting story catapulted Lahiri into further literary fame when it was selected for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 1999 collection. That same year, Lahiri started collecting her stories for publication in a book. Along with ”Interpreter of Maladies,” which would become the title story of the collection, she assembled eight other stories, some previously published, and some others unpublished.
Interpreter of Maladies was released to immediate critical attention and acclaim. The stories all revolved around Indian and immigrant Indian characters—although Lahiri took pains to specify that none of the characters were biographical, the situations all completely invented. Nevertheless, she could not help but draw upon her own life and family for some of her stories, such as The Third and Final Continent,” which features an Indian librarian very much in the same vein as her father. ”I was filled with anxiety about it,” Lahiri commented. ”He’s not a very [expressive] person, but he said, ‘My whole life is in that story.’ That’s all I could ask for.” The publication of Interpreter of Maladies immediately established Lahiri’s literary reputation, earning her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000.
Lahiri’s interest in the Indian immigrant experience found more room for exploration in her first novel, The Namesake (2003). Described as a ”coming of age story” for an entire family, the book follows the progress of an Indian immigrant couple and their gradually growing family’s various adjustments to their new surroundings. In particular, Lahiri contrasted the experiences of her native-born parents to their children, born in a new country. Speaking of the son, ”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.”
In 2008, Lahiri published her second short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, which continues to explore the themes of the Indian immigrant experience and conflicted relationships. Lahiri continues to write, I have all these ideas that are percolating,” she told an interviewer.
The more I write, the more I’m learning about how very strange the experience is. It’s so difficult, so exasperating, so mysterious.”
Works in Literary Context
Lahiri took the writing world by storm with her first book, becoming the youngest author to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her work is often praised for its careful balance of precise, dense detail and flowing narrative. According to Lahiri, one motivation for her stories is the necessary combination of distance and intimacy with a place.”
The Search for Identity
In her stories Lahiri tackles the question of identity, an issue familiar to many immigrants in a culturally diverse country like America. I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children,” she says. On the other hand, the problem for the children of immigrants—those with strong ties to their country of origin—is that they feel neither one thing nor the other.”
”I’ve often felt,” Lahiri 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.” This feeling of displacement has informed the majority of Lahiri’s work. In this, Lahiri is merely the latest in a long and respected tradition of American literature, that of authors exploring what it means to be a new” American, a recent arrival or the child of immigrants who is attempting to reconcile the culture of the old world with that of the new.
Works in Critical Context
Reviewers of Lahiri’s works regard them as ”fresh and gripping,” combining multiple characters and themes with a conventional search for love. Newsweek reviewer Laura Shapiro comments that Lahiri writes such direct, translucent prose you almost forget you’re reading.” Caleb Crain writes in the New York Times Book Review that In Lahiri’s sympathetic tales, the pang of disappointment turns into a sudden hunger to know more.”
Interpreter of Maladies
Although Lahiri is of Indian heritage, her lack of experience with her family’s country of origin has led to some of her stories being criticized by some reviewers as inauthentic and stereotypical. Time International reviewer Nisid Hajari writes that two of the stories set in Calcutta survive on little more than smoothness. . . . Lahiri hits her stride closer to home—on the uncertain ground of the immigrant.” Other reviewers echo this last sentiment. A Publishers Weekly reviewer writes, 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, offers praise, stating, The whole is assured and powerful.”
Prema Srinivasan, writing for Hindu, calls Interpreter of Maladies ”eminently readable,” and notes that its author ”talks about universal maladies in detail, with a touch of humor and sometimes with irony which is never misplaced.” In a New York Times Book Review article, Michiko Kakutani calls the book an ”accomplished collection. … She is a writer of uncommon elegance and poise, and with Interpreter of Maladies she has made a precocious debut.”
- ”A Temporary Matter.” Short Stories for Students. Vol. 19. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
- Bala, Suman, ed. Jhumpa Lahiri, the Master Storyteller: A Critical Response to Interpreter of Maladies. New Delhi: Khosla, 2002.
- ”Jhumpa Lahiri (1967-).” Short Story Criticism. Edited by Jelena Krstovic. Vol. 96. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007.
- ”Lahiri, Jhumpa.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Edited by Dwayne D. Hayes. Vol. 56. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
- Patel, Vibhuti. ”The Maladies of Belonging.” Newsweek, Pacific edition (September 20, 1999): 60.
- Rothstein, Mervyn. ”India’s Post-Rushdie Generation.” New York Times (July 3, 2000): E1.
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