Lahiri speaks on life, literature, and libraries

Pulitzer prize-winning author gives talk as this year’s Kestnbaum Writer-in-Residence

By Dani Brecher

Jhumpa Lahiri writes for a very specific audience—herself. During two events on campus yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake spoke about writing stories with personal resonance, as well as her diverse literary influences, the obligation of the writer, and the importance of public libraries.

Lahiri, this year’s Kestnbaum Writer-in-Residence in the Division of the Humanities, spent Monday afternoon and evening on the Chicago campus talking to students and community members about her literary work. An intimate question-and-answer session with a small group of undergraduates started off Lahiri’s visit and was followed several hours later by a large and well-attended public reading and interview in the International House’s Assembly Hall.

The afternoon Q-and-A focused mainly on Lahiri’s writing process. Responding to student questions about the origins of her short stories, Lahiri described the organic process through which her stories and characters take shape, sometimes over a period of many years.

“Something strange happens in that the characters live inside me for that time ,” Lahiri said. “Not like multiple personalities or anything, but I become the characters a little bit when I’m working with them, perhaps in the way an actor does.”

Lahiri also stressed the indebtedness of her writing to the influence of other authors. For her three interlocking short stories comprising “Hema and Kaushik,” Lahiri turned to the works of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, but claims equal inspiration for her latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth, from Nathaniel Hawthorne. While rereading the introductory essay to The Scarlet Letter several years ago, Lahiri was struck by a passage about the flourishing of immigrants in their new country. The passage included the phrase “unaccustomed earth,” from which she took the title of her collection.

Reading aloud, “I felt like I was shaking his hand, like reaching into the grave,” Lahiri described. “Why does one write? Why does one read? For moments like that, moments of connection.”

The I-House event began with a reading from Lahiri’s “Year’s End,” a story from Unaccustomed Earth. Donna Seaman, an associate editor at Booklist, then interviewed Lahiri about the use of detail and the New England landscape in her writing.

During both sessions, several audience members asked Lahiri if she felt a responsibility to represent the Indian-American community in a specific way. However, Lahiri firmly maintained that she has neither a political nor educational agenda when she writes.

“I feel under no obligation when I write fiction. That’s why I write it,” she said. “For me, writing is a place of freedom and exploration, not at all about obligation.”

Lahiri closed the evening by talking about the importance of books. While she affirms, “I will have books for the rest of my life,” Lahiri, the daughter of an academic librarian, is even more invested in the continued existence of the public library.

Growing up in Rhode Island, Lahiri says that the local library was “as meaningful to me as a child as food and water and shelter. Without it, I don’t think I would have survived.” She worries that, without libraries, appreciation for “imaginative writing” will evaporate.

Outside of the Assembly Hall, though, a table selling books both by Lahiri and her predecessors, including Gallant and Munro, was almost cleaned out by the end of the evening. In Hyde Park, at least, appreciation for Lahiri’s brand of beautiful writing continues to run deep.