|HOME | US EDITION | BOOKS|
June 19, 1999
New Yorker Chooses Lahiri As One Of 20 Writers For 21st Century
R S Shankar
Not too long ago, Jhumpa Lahiri thought she did not have a future in writing. So she went to a graduate school and got her Ph D.
"It was something I did out of a sense of duty and practicality," she says, "but it was never something I loved." She wrote stories on the side, publishing them in literary magazines with a few thousand readers.
But about two years ago, she decided to join a writers' workshop and found a place in the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in Massachusetts. "And that changed everything," says Lahiri.
"In seven months, I got an agent, sold a book (Interpreter of Maladies) and had a story published in the New Yorker."
"I've been extremely lucky. It's been the happiest possible ending."
But the editors at the New Yorker, with more than two million readers, think it is just the beginning for Lahiri.
This week, they selected Lahiri as one of the 20 American writers for the 21st century. Some of the writers included in the list and whose works are found in the current Summer Fiction Issue are such best-selling writers as A M Homes (Music for Torching) and Junot Diaz (Drown). The cut-off year for the writers was 40.
Lahiri's story, The Third and Final Continent, is featured in the issue. This is her fourth story for the magazine in less than 15 months. When was the last time this has happened, wonders Ann C Benner, senior publicist at Houghton Mifflin, Lahiri's publisher.
In interviews and at book readings, she is often asked about the settings for her stories -- some in India, and others in America.
"When I began writing fiction seriously, my first attempts, for some reason, were always set in Calcutta," says the London-born writer, "which is a city I know quite well from repeated visits with my family, sometimes for several months at a time.
"These trips to a vast, unruly, fascinating city so different from the small New England town where I was raised shaped my perceptions of the world and of people from a very early age. I learned there was another side, a very different version to everything.
"I went to Calcutta neither as a tourist nor a former resident -- a valuable position, I think for a writer. I learned to observe things as an outsider, and yet I also knew that as different Calcutta is from Rhode Island, I belonged there in some fundamental way, in the ways I didn't seem to belong in the United States. The reason my first stories were set in Calcutta is due partly because of that perspective, that necessary combination of distance and intimacy with a place."
But as she gained a little more confidence, she says she began to set stories in the United States, "and wrote about situations closer to my own experiences. For me, this has been a greater challenge."
In the stories set in America, Lahiri writes about Indian immigrants as well as their children. Is there any distinguishing experience of the former from the latter?
"In a sense, very little," says Lahiri. The question of identity is always a difficult one, she says. "...But especially so for those who are culturally displaced, as immigrants are, or those who grow up in two worlds simultaneously, as is the case for their children."
"The older I get," Lahiri who is in her early 30s continues, "the more aware I am that I have somehow inherited a sense of exile from my parents, even though in many ways -- superficial ones, largely -- I am so much more American than they are."
"In fact, it is still very hard to think of myself as an American," she continues, adding that it is complicated by the fact she was born in London, though she has spent most of her life in America.
"I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children."
"On the other hand, the problem for the children of immigrants, those with strong ties to their country of origin, is that they feel neither one thing nor the other. That has been my experience in any case."
Could she give an example?
"I never know to answer the question -- 'Where are you from?' If I say I'm from Rhode Island, people are seldom satisfied. They want to know more, based on things such as my name, my appearance, etc. Alternatively, if I say I'm from India, a place where I was not born and have never lived, this is also inaccurate. It bothers me less now. But it bothered me when I grew up, the feeling that there was no single place to which I fully belonged."
Now, she knows where she belongs.
"Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say, 'Read This!' " says the best-selling and critically acclaimed writer, Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club).
Publishing industry insiders say if Lahiri has a new book right now, there will be a bloody bidding war.
Lahiri says it is important to her that her next book, a novel, is just as good as she wants it to be. She is not setting any deadlines.
BOOK SHOP | MUSIC SHOP | GIFT SHOP | HOTEL RESERVATIONS | WORLD CUP 99
EDUCATION | PERSONAL HOMEPAGES | FREE EMAIL | FEEDBACK