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August 23, 1999
A Writer Free To Write All Day
Radhika R Shankar in Houston
Jhumpa Lahiri, proclaimed by many leading critics as a wonderfully distinctive new voice, has been able to achieve something that most creative writers only dream of doing -- writing all day.
The decision to focus on being a full-time creative writer was not an easy one for the 32-year old writer, who was born in England, and raised in Rhode Island, and now settled in New York. After publishing her stories in many small literary magazines, she has been able to offer them in a book, Interpreter of Maladies , published in America by Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of such interesting writers as Paul Theroux and Penelope Fitzgerald.
Recently she was chosen by New Yorker magazine to be among two dozen American writers below 40 who held the most promise for the new millennium.
The process of earning a PhD from Boston University convinced Lahiri that she was not meant to be a scholar.
"I thought that it was something I should do and something I wanted to do as a more practical and secure career because choosing to write fiction is a much more risky," she explained.
Though writing was fun pastime during Lahiri's childhood, she ever felt confident of her creative writing during her undergraduate years at Barnard College. She believed that an academic career was more her future than a creative writing one.
"My her father is a librarian and my mother a teacher, and I was raised in a university town so it seemed a possibility that I might go into education," she said in her crisp voice.
A flurry of rejections from graduate schools delayed her vision of being an academic. "It was a blessing in disguise," said the author. She started working as a research assistant at a non-profit organization and discovered how a personal computer can be very motivating.
"I started writing fiction more seriously staying late and coming in early to work on my stories."
Her creative writing samples got Lahiri into the creative writing graduate program at Boston University. She continued to write stories while she looked for a secure job that would support her passion to write. "I have been persistent and never gave up and even now it is not an easy thing to do, it never is easy," Lahiri said.
Luck was on Lahiri side. Soon after she completed her PhD, she had an opportunity to do what she loved the most. "I had a seven-month residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. That was time and space to write without any other structure or interruptions and I did not have to support myself while writing."
During the seven months, Lahiri found an agent, sold a book and had a story published in the New Yorker. "I think that I have been fortunate but it seems to be a concentrated flight of time when things took off but that is relatively new, I have been writing for a long time and most of my experience writing has been one of frustration," she laughed.
Since October 1997, Lahiri has stuck with her plan to write fiction full-time. "I taught a class here and there at the Rhode Island one class but I would rather not have a full-time teaching job at this time."
When she saw her first story in print, Lahiri explains that her sentiments were mixed. "It was almost anticlimactic...because of the time that had passed between the writing process and the publishing, but I remember being also very excited because it was very special that the editor was also a teacher of mine. I felt it was a highest praise."
Lahiri's stories draw richly from her visits to Calcutta. "It is the place where my parents are from, a place I visited frequently for extended time and formed relationships with people and with my relatives and felt a tie over time even though it was a sort of parenthesis in my life to be there."
Lahiri feels fortunate that she was able to absorb the Indian culture in a natural way.
"My parent never consciously sat down and told me things about India, they sort of correctly assumed that I would learn things just by the virtue of being their child. I think it is has always been important to them to maintain strong social ties with Indians living abroad and visiting India."
The disinterest of her teachers and friends in the US about her frequent absence from school made her experiences in India more natural. "I never experienced anything but a very superficial interest from my friends and my teachers about India and so I was never felt motivated to know more," she said.
"I felt it my heritage was a private part of me to be experienced through my home and parents and so I was never motivated to write about my experiences in India."
After spending 30 years in the United States, Lahiri says "It is home to me but I feel a bit of an outsider too." She admits that there is less of a divide between American culture and Indian because of the greater access and communication channels, "But I have observed a sense of emotional exile in my parents and in their friends that I feel can never go away."
Lahiri initially drew heavily on her experiences in Calcutta because it gave her a perspective of her heritage. "I started writing short stories because there was more control, less material and there were certain margins, I wanted to know how a story worked."
When she has caught the narrative thread, Lahiri says she could spend the whole day writing, "The start could come from an image, a character or a description."
As she gained confidence, Lahiri began writing about the situations closer to her own experiences. Interpreter of Maladies, has not only gleaned rave responses from her peers and critics but has also been sold in Germany, the UK and several other countries.
Asked which writers have most influenced her, Lahiri's response was, "I always draw a blank when asked this question. I am sure I've been influenced in so many ways by so many writers... But I reread some writers like William Trevor, Mavis Gallant, Joyce and Chekov."
Though she says that she cannot talk much about her novel in progress she says it did start with a character. "I can't tell you specifics because I am very much in the middle of it," she said.
Lahiri plans on focusing on her creative writing for the time being, "I still feel that there is so much to learn about writing fiction that I still feel completely satisfied to progress to writing for other media."
Does the young author has a mantra?
"Try to write something every day," she says, but don't be too hard on yourself.
"One of the things that being in Provincetown taught me was to be more forgiving to the fluctuations of my work pattern because it is all a part of a larger process."
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