The reluctant celebrity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am

Spend even a few moments with Jhumpa Lahiri and you can sense her profound discomfort with her literary fame. But celebrity barged into the life of this softly spoken American-Bengali author the moment she took the Pulitzer Prize for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, at the age of 32. One of the youngest authors to win the Pulitzer, she went on to garner The New Yorker Prize for Best First Book and the PEN/Hemingway Award, along with the kind of stardom rarely afforded authors.

She sealed her reputation as a deft chronicler of the Bengali immigrant experience with her 2003 best-selling novel The Namesake, making a fleeting appearance in the film adaptation of the novel by director Mira Nair. But Lahiri never really came to terms with her Pulitzer, or her celebrity.

'It seemed so unreal and so exaggerated for what I had done that it never quite registered,' she says. Even now, with a fresh wave of plaudits for her new collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, threatening to eclipse those afforded her previous books, she feels the same way.

Lahiri, now 40, is largely inured against all responses to her work because her husband tosses out the book-review sections of newspapers so she doesn't see them. 'The more I see that this or that book is coming out, the more easily I go into a very scared place. The ability to stay focused is a very vulnerable thing,' she explains.

So fragile is that focus for the London-born, US-based Lahiri that until the eve of the release of Interpreter of Maladies in 1999, her family and friends were not even aware that she wrote, even though she has done so since she was a child.

'I just didn't tell anybody or I told very, very few people that I wrote. I didn't have that bravery that is required, or just that sense of self, or acceptance of yourself I think you really have to have in order to create something. I struggled for so long in my life just to arrive at that point.'

But it seems she has arrived at a whole new level of emotional resonance in Unaccustomed Earth, which, remarkably for a work of serious fiction, let alone a book of short stories, entered The New York Times best-sellers list at the top.

Many reviewers and readers have confessed to being moved to tears by the final three connected stories in the book. Shaped around the experiences of the first generation of American Bengalis - the American-born children of those Bengali immigrants she wrote about in her first book - and set in the New England Ivy League terrain where much of her second book unfolds and where Lahiri grew up, this collection of eight tales is as plain as it is weighty. There is no hint of showiness in Lahiri's unadorned prose, no lyrical riffs, just an ability to distil the emotional weight of human existence from the mundane, the ordinary, the fleeting, that is second to none.

The book takes its title and its cues from Nathaniel Hawthorne's 19th-century observations about the need for humans to replenish successive generations by transplanting themselves, like potatoes, into unaccustomed soil, in his essay the 'Custom House', which Lahiri read while writing her title story.

'I felt such a connection with what Hawthorne had written because I was raised in New England, in Hawthorne country. But I felt for so much of my life and certainly for all of my childhood that his world, his legacy, was really the antithesis of the struggling-to-root-ourselves lives that my family was leading,' she recalls.

'It seemed that Hawthorne represented New England tradition and that my own family was at the other extreme. And yet when I read those words, I felt we weren't so different. It was just that it was happening at a different time, in a different way and that this was so much of not only what the United States is - being composed of so many different layers of populations that have uprooted and re-rooted themselves into unaccustomed earth - but so much of what the world has become.'

Lahiri excels at conveying the intimate silences and unfathomable distances between people; she plumbs the unspoken gulf between her Bengali American characters and their immigrant parents with heartbreaking skill. But Unaccustomed Earth is ultimately about what it is to be human. Her characters take tea, go shopping, drive or garden, while their lives and relationships take root in unfamiliar ground, bloom, grow strong, wither and fall apart.

It rankles with Lahiri that some reviewers have castigated her for her singular focus on Bengali Americans. 'Yes, these stories frequently concern characters from an immigrant background, but I always hope they will be read as stories about the human predicament,' she says.

'Growing up, death, regeneration and birth. Things falling apart. How can this possibly apply only to immigrants? It doesn't. I know it doesn't and I've lived long enough in the world to know these are universal experiences.'

For Lahiri Unaccustomed Earth owes its emotional depths not just to growing older but to the birth of her children and her fears of the inevitable death of her parents.

'Now that I'm a mother, I'm really aware of time as a physical thing, as something that is moving. I can see it, I can visualise it, I can hear it. And it's because children force you to do that every day when you see their growth. They're measuring time literally with their bodies and I think that along with time passing through them it affects everybody in the chain.'

She speaks passionately of a new sense of belonging that colours the book, which she attributes to marriage and family. But there is no escaping the sense of displacement that reverberates across these stories as powerfully as loneliness and loss. Lahiri has often said she inherited a sense of exile from her parents, but she insists it remains a thematic preoccupation not just for reasons of her upbringing.

'Some [stories] have to do with my upbringing, others have to do with my personality, with being honest. Or the way the things important to me didn't always seem to match the greater preoccupations of the people I knew.'

For much of her early life, admits Lahiri, who moved with her Bengali parents to the US at three, she 'didn't know what it meant to feel at home. I didn't know how one did that because my parents didn't know. So I didn't learn it from them. I think these are things I've acquired as I've come into adulthood.'

She turned to writing at a young age - roughly the age most children learn to read - and recalls it 'as something I preferred to playing or interacting with other kids because I always felt intimidated and scared to interact, to socialise. But I didn't really begin to write in any serious way until I was older, after I graduated from college. I think that for the whole in-between time of being a child and an adolescent I felt self-conscious. I loved writing essays about other books, but creative writing was not something I felt comfortable doing. I was afraid of it. I always looked at the world very carefully and felt things very deeply but I never felt I could take it to that final level of giving back my own rendition of what I was seeing. That was late in coming for me.'

Always a voracious reader, she is passionate about the work of other writers and what they give her.

'That's what it's all about. For me it all starts there. And for so much of my life I felt like a passive creature, just receiving, just looking, watching and receiving and not really doing anything. I think in writing, finally, I can do something. It is not passive to be a writer or any kind of creator.'

If there is one thing that enrages her it is the way in which the literary world panders to the novel at the expense of the short story.

'It is something that does upset me,' she admits. 'I'm always battling, I think, not only for myself but on behalf of so many other writers who write short stories exclusively and who have whole worlds contained in them. Writers like William Trevor or Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant are unbelievable, pure geniuses and yet there is that sense of, 'Oh, they never write novels. They'll never hit the big league,' and that maddens me.'

For Lahiri, writing brings consolation and excitement. But beneath that, what powers her writing, she explains, 'is the need. It's the need to take a step away from daily life and to withdraw and to rearrange the mass of life on my own terms. To try to preserve the experience of being alive and to organise it in a way that isn't presented to us. It's just handed to us day after day, everything mixed up, the good, the bad and the painful, the hilarious, the beautiful and the dreary. There is no ability to say, 'Can we have it divided up this way, please?'' she adds. 'We just don't know what's coming.'

Writer's notes

Name: Jhumpa Lahiri

Genre: literary fiction

Latest book: Unaccustomed Earth (Bloomsbury 2008)

Next project: perhaps a novel, perhaps short stories

Age: 40

Born: London

Family: married to journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. Two children

Lives: New York

Other works include: Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin 1999), The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin 2003)

Other jobs: teaching creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design

What the papers say: 'Splendid ... reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth.' The New York Times, on Unaccustomed Earth

'Lahiri's enormous gifts as a storyteller are on full display in this collection: the gorgeous, effortless prose; the characters haunted by regret, isolation, loss; and most of all, a quiet, emerging sense of humanity.' Khaled Hosseini on Unaccustomed Earth

Author's bookshelf

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop: 'Whenever I feel sad that no one writes letters any more, I turn to this intimate and inspirational self-portrait of an artist's life.'

The Collected Stories by Mavis Gallant: 'My personal yardstick.'

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe: 'An eternal, all-time favourite. The immediacy of the language, the sadness, the focus of it.'

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: 'The language of it. The intensity of it. I'm increasingly startled by the clarity of it, the modernity of it, more and more as I read it over time.'