YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The search for identity

An early-career Pulitzer sets Jhumpa Lahiri on a path she shares with many of her characters.

October 14, 2003|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

Jhumpa Lahiri is tired. Overwhelmed, talked out, with a brain that is, as she apologetically puts it, "fried." Two weeks into promoting her first novel "The Namesake," the 35-year-old author is in that peculiar Twilight Zone known as the national book tour, a whirlwind of readings, interviews, airplanes and takeout food.

Although she's brought her husband and their 16-month-old son on the road with her, she's not getting much time to see them. This day alone, she's flown to Los Angeles from the Bay Area, checked into her Beverly Hills hotel room, gone downtown for an on-air radio interview, then returned to the hotel in the late afternoon.

Now, curled into an armchair in a fifth-floor reception area, she checks her watch periodically like a nervous student waiting for the start of an exam. In an hour, she'll be on her way back downtown to do a reading at the Central Library, after which she'll finally get a little downtime or, more likely, some much-needed sleep.

"To me," Lahiri says, "this all seems surreal, out of proportion. There's a strange sense these days that you have to have a great book, a big book, right from the outset. But when I think about the writers I admire, their greatest work often came many books down the line. So I'm wary, even though I'm a recipient of all this attention. I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I don't really understand it. I don't relate to it, frankly. I am very much a young writer. I only have two books."

What Lahiri's talking about is the conundrum of contemporary media culture, the way writers and other artists can become -- for a moment, anyway -- celebrities, in a manner that has little to do with their work. For her, this is an unanticipated legacy of her first book, "Interpreter of Maladies," an exquisitely rendered collection of nine stories that came out in 1999.

"Interpreter of Maladies" traces the experiences of Bengali immigrants in the greater Boston area (Cambridge, mostly), exploring the question of culture clash by framing it as an expression of daily life. The characters here are caught in their own kind of Twilight Zone, halfway between the traditional Indian society they come from and the eclectic Americanness to which they aspire.

Published as a paperback original, with virtually no advance publicity, the book became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Three years later, Lahiri still is dealing with the fallout, which emerges not only in the full-court press with which her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, is promoting "The Namesake," but also in the expectations of her readership.

"At one of the readings for this book," she recalls, "someone asked me, 'Why did you decide to write a novel? Is it because you're an expert at the short story?' I'm not an expert at the short story. I wrote nine stories that are in one book I wrote when I was in my late 20s and early 30s. The experience I have on a day-to-day basis is one of still learning, of still having miles to go. Get back to me in 45 years."

Lahiri's learning process is very much evident in "The Namesake," which, in many ways, picks up where "Interpreter of Maladies" left off. The story of Gogol Ganguli, a Boston-born Bengali who cannot quite navigate the complex crosscurrents of his identity, the book unfolds slowly, at an almost stately pace, beginning a few weeks before the birth of its protagonist and following him for the next 30 years.

As with Lahiri's short fiction, the focus here is on small, domestic dramas -- first love, the death of a parent, the heartbreaking miscommunication between a father and a son. "It really stems from what I like to read," Lahiri explains. "I admire Chekhov and Joyce and William Trevor, who write about the behind-closed-doors side of life. When I think about writing, those are the moments that haunt me, and when I think about characters, that's how I accompany them. What is it like to stand and wait for the elevator to open? What is the person thinking about?"

Twists and turns

This is a short story writer's aesthetic, although, Lahiri notes, there's a certain overlap with the novel, as well. "It's basically the same," she says of the relationship between long and short fiction. "And equally difficult. It's writing sentences you can tolerate, and creating lives out of thin air. But I felt poised to write a novel because my stories were getting longer and I wasn't really seeing them as stories anymore. For me, a story is about a singular event. One thing happens, and there's a turn. Whereas in a novel, there are twists and turns and twists and turns. And as I wrote more stories, I realized they were taking more twists and turns."

Los Angeles Times Articles