Reporter’s Notebook: Novelist Jhumpa Lahiri gives reading at CMC

Writing within the limited subject of lives of Bengali immigrants in America, Jhumpa Lahiri has found a wide cross-cultural audience. Her stories truthfully portray the feeling of alienation felt by an expatriate. Perhaps for this very reason, she has mass appeal in America, the land of immigrants.

On Monday, The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum’s The Fortnightly Reading at CMC welcomed the author as guest speaker.

I am a fan of Lahiri’s work and I found myself the best seat possible for a non-CMC student at the Athenaeum. After coming to America from India, I rediscovered The Namesake, Lahiri’s novel that deals with adjustments made by an immigrant couple in trying to raise a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lahiri is a truly a master in her realm, for I got the impression that the couple was feeling alienated in the same way I do now. Her writing has such a simplistic, discursive tone, never once using a word beyond the vocabulary of an eighth-grader, yet her subjects are complex and mature. She includes almost no jokes, but instead surprises readers with the dark humor implicit in the lives of her characters.

Her latest offering, a collection of short stories called Unaccustomed Earth, was published in April 2008. The book brought her further accolades from readers and critics alike and made it to theNew York Times Book Reviewlist of the “10 Best Books of 2008.” At the reading, Lahiri read the story “Hell-Heaven” from Unaccustomed Earth.

Lahiri read in a calm, soothing voice. Though she did not sound shy, I thought that she read with the same hesitant tone a young Bengali girl in Calcutta would. Perhaps this was just my imagination, for Lahiri in fact considers herself American.

Disappointed that there was no interactive session at the reading, I gate-crashed a discussion session she had with CMC students the next morning. It was an animated discussion within a small group.

Since she came to America at the age of two and considers herself a thorough American, I asked her where she got inspiration for her characters who are almost desperate in their feelings of separation from their surroundings.

Lahiri attributed the inspiration to her parents’ small yet strong Bengali community with its “several rings,” which made her a part of the rich array of immigrants and their children. The fact that these immigrants lived in America and interacted with Americans, but never considered the country their own, impacted her. She also said that since her mother was a student of Bengali Literature, stories by Rabindranath Tagore are in her subconscious mind while she writes.

On being asked about the process of writing, she described it as a “very long, lonely road.” Before she became a parent she would often go through the entire day without speaking to anyone, just “living in my head.” She said that being lonely and “being okay with being alone” was a part of being a writer.

Lahiri’s career is only three books old, and she tasted success with her first book, so she can rest assured that her fans will not let her stay lonely. I, at least, am looking forward to her next work, which she said will be a novel.

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