Jhumpa Lahiri: Speaking of the Indian Immigrant Experience

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Jhumpa Lahiri: Speaking of the Indian Immigrant Experience

On this last week of Women’s History Month, we have chosen to profile Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born immigrant of Indian heritage whose family moved to the United States when she was two years old.

Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author who has achieved international fame for her plain-speak writing about the Indian immigrant experience.

Where It Began for Lahiri

Lahiri, now 49, grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island in the United States. She visited her Calcutta, India with her family often throughout her childhood, and was imbued with a strong sense of heritage and culture.

“I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.”

–Jhumpa Lahiri

Her father was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, and her childhood storytelling probably bore some of his literary influence.

This childhood literary passion continued on to college where Lahiri got her English literature degree from Barnard College, and then an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies from Boston University.

The Pulitzer Prize and Onwards

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies.

Her first book “Interpreter of Maladies,” an internationally-bestselling collection of short stories, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as multiple other awards. The publishers had it translated into 29 different languages.

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

–Jhumpa Lahiri, “Interpreter of Maladies”

A newcomer into the world of published literature, Lahiri’s immediate success made her instantly very visible. Her subsequent books did quite well—her first novel “The Namesake” won acclaim and made lists in many notable publications from Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times. A popular film adaptation of “The Namesake” was released in March 2007. Lahiri was able to make a cameo in this movie, appearing as “Aunt Jhumpa.”

Immigrant Scrutiny and Praise

In her first two major works “Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake,” Lahiri heavily focused on the Indian-American experience. She writes:

“When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.”

Jhumpa Lahiri Book SigningLahiri’s work largely focuses on first-generation Indian American immigrants and how they navigate the complexity of instilling traditional values in their children, but also integrating into the fabric of a new country. She uses her own experiences, as well as those of her parents and the people in her Bengali Indian community, to enrich her storytelling.

Her work received praise in the United States, but more mixed reviews from Indian readers in India and abroad. Many were dismayed by Lahiri’s portrayal of India, wishing it was more positive. Others believed her characterizations of the country and the Indian immigrant experience were exaggerated or flat out incorrect.

Lahiri’s second book of short stories, “Unaccustomed Earth,” was published in 2008 and became a #1 New York Times Bestseller. It was a slightly different venture from her earlier writing. In this book, Lahiri focuses on the challenges of second and third generation immigrants as they assimilate into American culture and follow different paths than their immigrant parents.

Lahiri’s Current Life

Jhumpa Lahiri The LowlandIn 2012, Lahiri, her husband and her two sons moved to Rome, Italy, a place she had fallen in love with when she went on holiday to Italy with her sister back in her 20s. In Italy, Lahiri immersed herself in the Italian language, forgoing reading and writing, and even speaking in English.

Her newest book, written and published in Italian in 2015 and in English in 2016, is called “In Other Words” and it’s about her journey learning Italian. She desired the toil of learning Italian because of her struggle with an Indian-American identity.  Due to Lahiri’s inability to read or write in her mother tongue of Bengali, she has always had trouble with her dual cultures.

“Because of my identity, or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient. Maybe there is a linguistic reason—the lack of a language to identify with.”

– Jhumpa Lahiri

She joined the faculty at Princeton University in 2015 as a professor of creative writing. President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Jhumpa Lahiri has had to take on many obstacles on her path to becoming an established writer, but now she is one of our most notable ones. She comes top of mind when discussing prominent female authors or immigrant authors, and we are so glad to have been able to profile her for Women’s History Month and our #WeAreImmigrants campaign.

Nisha Katti

About Nisha Katti

Nisha Katti is BlueTone's Marketing Coordinator. She specializes in content writing and social media management, among other activities. Nisha is a native of Atlanta, yet her heart will always lie with the magnificent magnolias of Athens, Georgia, where she attended the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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