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October 3, 2003

Lahiri fulfills her Pulitzer promise with new novel

Even with a Ph.D. and a couple of M.A.s under your belt, it must be hard to chat about the identity politics of your own first novel. Yet such a chat characterized the question-and-answer session following Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri's reading at International House on Wednesday, September 24.

Did Lahiri intend to continue writing about people of South Asian descent?, listeners wanted to know. Had her writing been influenced by Bengali literary tradition? What did Lahiri predict for second-generation Bengali-Americans? These questions might equally appropriately have been addressed to the gentleman who introduced Lahiri, a professor not of literature but South Asian Studies. Then again, maybe the packed I-House auditorium was just giving Lahiri a hearty U of C welcome. Here at the university of theory, identity politics might as well be an initiation ritual.

Lahiri was born in London in 1967 and grew up in Rhode Island. Her 1999 debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as well as several other literary honors. The characters in Interpreter of Maladies, most Indian or Indian-American, cope with the day-to-day alienation conferred by distance, whether it be the geographical and cultural distance of a remote homeland or the charged domestic distance between unhappy lovers.

In the first short story, "A Temporary Matter," Shoba and Shukumar tip-toe around each other in their Boston apartment in the months following the stillbirth of their child. In a rare shared moment, the couple stands "side by side at the sink, their reflections fitting together in the frame of the window. It made [Shukumar] shy, the way he felt the first time they stood together in a mirror. He couldn't recall the last time they'd been photographed. They had stopped attending parties, went nowhere together. The film in his camera still contained pictures of Shoba, in the yard, when she was pregnant."

This paragraph is emblematic of Lahiri's genius. She is able to articulate nuances of non-belonging, mundane disconnects that indicate a greater void. In an interview published in Newsweek International four years ago, Lahiri explains: "The characters I'm drawn to all face some barrier of communication. I like to write about people who think in a way they can't fully express."

If Interpreter of Maladies orbits around ideas of belonging and alienation, The Namesake, Lahiri's second book and first novel, published this year, deftly fuses these two poles into the story of a Bengali-American family. The Namesake follows Gogol Ganguli from his birth to an immigrant Bengali couple in Cambridge, through his adolescence in a Boston suburb and into his adulthood as an architect in New York. As Gogol's mother, Ashima Ganguli, waits to deliver her son in a Boston hospital, we are privileged with perhaps Lahiri's finest portrayal of what it is to be an immigrant. To Ashima, "without a single grandparent or parent or uncle or aunt at her side, the baby's birth, like most everything else in America, feels somehow haphazard, only half true."

The passage that Lahiri read aloud on that Wednesday evening begins with Gogol's first day of kindergarten, a day of import not only for the nervous five-year-old, but also for his emigrant parents, since the beginning of American schooling marks the end of impulsive plans to return home. Before long, Ashima and Ashoke must contend not only with the strange newness of America, but with the fact that "their children sound just like Americans, expertly conversing in a language that still at times confounds them, in accents they are accustomed not to trust." As the Ganguli family becomes rooted in American life, Ashima and Ashoke feel the distance between Boston and Calcutta acutely.

"In some sense, Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extremely aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost, those who survive and are consoled by memory alone. Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch. Voices on the phone, occasionally bearing news of births and weddings, send chills down their spines. How could it be, still alive, still talking?"

As Gogol ages, his relationships with women again allow us to witness Lahiri's dexterity with "characters [who] face some barrier of communication." In Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri's eye for the effects of physical and cultural distance, and her ear for echoes in the emptiness between unhappy lovers, enrich separate stories. But in The Namesake, Gogol and his first post-college girlfriend, Maxine, split when Maxine overlooks the importance of Bengali tradition following the death of Gogol's father.

We watch Gogol and Maxine drift apart inches at a time, as Maxine's imperceptible daily neglect of Gogol's heritage begins to accumulate. On her first visit to the Ganguli household, when Gogol warns Maxine that they will not be able to drink alcohol or to embrace, "these restrictions amuse her; she sees them as a single afternoon's challenge, an anomaly never to be repeated." As they near Gogol's former home, the cultural gap and the emotional gap between Maxine and Gogol begin to blur.

"Once they get off at his parents' exit he senses that the landscape is foreign to her: the shopping plazas, the sprawling brick-faced public high school from which he and Sonia graduated, the shingled houses, uncomfortably close to one another, on their grassy quarter-acre plots. The sign that says CHILDREN AT PLAY. He knows that this sort of life, one which is such a proud accomplishment for his own parents, is of no relevance, no interest, to her, that she loves him in spite of it."

Here, finally, is the connection between geographical and conjugal distance, the two phenomena about which Lahiri writes so skillfully. A new lover or a new land demands allegiance, and the loved one or the immigrant must negotiate a tortured compromise, the soul's equivalent of the Thanksgiving turkey that the Gangulis season with garlic and cumin instead of cranberry sauce. Lahiri's own family history bears out this connection. Lahiri explains in the interview for Newsweek International: "Marriage had changed my mother's life—she came West as a bride, dealing simultaneously with being foreign and with being a wife."

Equipped with this rich understanding of cultural and familial allegiance, Lahiri was poised perfectly to respond to the young man who asked, at her reading, about second-generation Bengali Americans, wondering whether these grandchildren of Bengali immigrants would inherit a further dilution of Bengali culture. Lahiri replied that they would. Like any lover, America stakes a jealous claim. Each succeeding generation loses more of its access to the old world and gains freer entry into the new. "That's what America is about," Lahiri concluded that evening, "a loss and a gain."

And to those that would draw lessons in identity politics from Lahiri's writing, the author cautioned that she is "not really writing for an audience. My work is a very selfish project," Lahiri conceded, to appreciative laughter. Thus the silence between Shoba and Shukumar, the blurred reality of Ashima Ganguli's Boston pregnancy, and even Gogol's struggle to reconcile his Bengali heritage with his American identity are not fodder for clinical study or sociological conclusions.

They come from a place simpler and less partisan. Some of us have "the urge to tell stories," Lahiri responded to a question about whether writers are born or made, "these are the stories I felt compelled to tell."