AAPI Feature: Jhumpa Lahiri
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri is a first-generation Bengali American who writes about the spaces in between. Her short stories and novels, which focus on immigration, family, love and loss, have transformed the literary world by gently drawing the Western and Eastern experiences of shifting generational identities together.
Lahiri’s work is known for its simplistic use of language as well as its intimate portraiture of human life against the revolving backdrop of multiculturalism. Her characters search for identity within the spaces between their countries––mainly India and the US––and within themselves. The push and pull of their knowing and unknowing reminds the reader that the immigrant and first-generation experiences are one of constant evolution.
Through the voices of forgotten housekeepers and widows, Lahiri discerns that to examine one’s culture is to confront many difficult realities. Her first book, the short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies, gathers the voices of the Indian American diaspora as it reaches back to the dusty, crowded corners of Kolkata and stretches across oceans to the quiet, cold brick buildings of New England.
Lahiri’s voice is intimate and gentle, but it picks apart the typical, romanticized lyric of “cultural writing.” In “A Real Durwan,” a residential building in Kolkata throws out their aging housekeeper in a race for relevance. The city struggles to balance its rich cultural heritage with the demands of a new age, the elderly residents finding themselves either dragged along or left completely behind. Where much diasporic writing has painted an idealized version of the “old country” that is full of resilient characters and colorful food, Lahiri focuses on the difficult nuances of a country and culture in shift.
In this dissection of reality, the collection probes the opposite sides of idealization. The title story “Interpreter of Maladies” places the first-generation Das family in the hands of a disillusioned, once-brilliant, working class tour guide named Mr. Kapasi, whose potential disintegrated over years of family duty and tragedy. It is a story of empty love and yearning—while we criticize through Mr. Kapasi’s eyes the disinterest and apathy festering among the Westernized family, we also follow his own disappointment inward, as his fantasy of the “American dream” unravels. We examine a second coming-of-age in the middle of the character’s lives, a jolt from reality that shatters the romanticized illusion of “the other side.” Mr. and Mrs. Das’s dissociation from their cultural heritage and roots materialize in their disjointed admiration and fetishization of rural Indian poverty and hardship, and Mr. Kapasi’s idealization of Western life and the Western woman come to an abrupt conclusion when he witnesses the unhappiness deeply rooted in the Das family.
After The Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s work has continued to explore culture and identity. Her quiet voice echoes through stories of want and loss, shining a warm light on the forgotten and urging the reader to look inward. In The Namesake, young Gogol navigates life in between: his struggle between his immigrant parents and the urge to assimilate into New England culture manifests in confusion over his home name, which in Indian culture is intimate and exclusive to the family, and his “outside” name, a different title for the outside, white world. These lines are drawn further into Lahiri’s second short story collection, An Unaccustomed Earth, which dissects spaces between each generation, following immigrant families into the second generation as they stumble between assimilation and loyalty to their cultural roots. In her second novel, The Lowland, Lahiri peers deeper into the politics of moving across cultural and national lines through characters who struggle between loyalty to country, filial responsibility, and their own personal ambitions and wants. Her most recent publication, Whereabouts, written originally in Italian in 2018 and translated into English by Lahiri herself, is a more intimate portrait of the self as it follows a woman around the city while she reflects on her solitude.
As Lahiri moves into the second decade of her writing career, we follow in cycles of introspection and outward reflection. Cultural fiction and writing have grown immensely since her first publication at the beginning of the millennium, but amongst the colorful and boisterous murals of Asian American art and literature, her work investigates new territory while maintaining its gentle compassion.
If you like stories like this, subscribe to Chopsticks Alley.
Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Contributor
Dina Klarisse is a writer/poet/editor/YouTube binge-watcher living in the Bay Area. Her writing explores identity, religion/atheism, and the Filipino-American immigrant experience, all from shifting feminist, postcolonial, and lapsed emo gurl perspectives. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in ASU's Canyon Voices, Marias at Sampaguitas, Rejection Letters, The Daily Drunk Mag, and Emerging Arts Professions SFBA. More of her writing can be found on her Instagram @hella_going and blog www.hellagoing.com.