20 Questions with Jhumpa Lahiri
Interview by Gaiutra Bahadur
Philadelphia City Paper
September 16-23, 1999
In her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books), Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles the attempts of married couples, adulterous lovers and immigrants to cross borders and, as E.M. Forster wrote, “only connect.” In “This Blessed House,” a recently married couple finds Christian bric-a-brac – a 30-pound bronze bust of Christ and a 3-D postcard of St. Francis of Assisi – in their Connecticut house and also discovers the jagged outlines of each other’s personalities. In “The Third and Final Continent,” set in 1969, an Indian immigrant takes up temporary lodging with a 103-year-old woman who clings to Victorian culture. Months later, when the immigrant’s wife arrives from Calcutta, it’s the woman who bridges the gaps of an arranged marriage. Lahiri’s work has received plenty of accolades. Three of the stories were published in The New Yorker last year, and the title story was selected for the O. Henry and Best American Short Stories collections. Lahiri, 32, spoke from her home on the fringes of the East Village and Gramercy Park in Manhattan.
Q: You were born in London and raised in Rhode Island, and your parents are from Calcutta. Yet your stories are not preoccupied with issues of identity. Does identity interest you as a writer, or is it a cumbersome expectation to be “multicultural”?
A: It’s always a bad thing to try to answer people’s expectations. There hasn’t been a lot of writing from the perspective of Indian-American writers and some people will look to my writing to answer some of those questions. But I never think of self-consciously trying to answer issues of identity. I work from a character and a conflict in a character’s life.
Q: Two of your stories that are set in India, “A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” are not portraits of upper-middle-class life, but of servants and marginal figures. Why did you make that choice?
A: Both of those characters came out of observation, my own observations of people when I was there. What drew me to writing about them was partly a projection of my own feelings of being marginal when there. Of not being a part of the culture. Of feeling foreign even though this was a place my parents call home and refer to in their minds as home, even though they’ve been away for 30 years.
The reason I portrayed these characters out of the fray was because I felt that. I could imagine it more easily than assuming the role of a more “ordinary,” adjusted Indian character. I didn’t have very much mobility when I was there. As a young adult and an adult, I wasn’t really able to leave on my own. I felt not only sort of alienated, but trapped.
Q: Which story was the most difficult to write and why?
A: “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” was hard. It was the first time I began to write closer to my own experience, though it’s not an autobiographical story. It took several years to come to that point of view and to feel secure working from that point of view. “The Third and Final Continent” was difficult, because it was written from the point of view of a man and in the first person, which seemed like an extra step. There was the added challenge of writing something based in real life. It was based on my father’s past. There was the challenge of working with real facts and preserving truth, yet having to disguise them to make it fiction.
Q: Did being a second-generation American play a role in your aspiring to be a writer?
A: It didn’t make me want to be a writer so much as it made me want to write. To seek solace through observation and recording my impressions in a space that was very much my own, on the page. That’s the place where I answered only to myself, from a very young age.
One of the things I was always aware of growing up was conflicting expectations. I was expected to be Indian by Indians and American by Americans. I didn’t feel equipped even as a child to fully participate in things. In the act of writing, it was more justified to withdraw into myself and have that be a vital experience, rather than just feeling neglected or left out.
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