Jhumpa Lahiri: A serious voice that comes from nowhere
‘It is not easy to like,’ the candid author says of her latest novel, the Booker-shortlisted ‘The Lowland’
Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘American? Indian? I don’t know what these words mean. I’m asked where I am from. I’m from nowhere, I always was, but now I am happy knowing it.’ Photograph: Frank Miller
It all looks so easy: winning a Pulitzer Prize with her first book, a collection of short stories; then her debut novel is made into a movie, while her second collection of short stories wins the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; and then her second novel, The Lowland, is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which will be decided next week.
Except Jhumpa Lahiri doesn’t make it look easy – because it isn’t. There are no jokes, no surreal frenzies, no one-liners. Her language is plain, careful, measured, at times flat. The dialogue is invariably tense, often formal, as grown children speak to parents who represent a home country, India, that has been replaced by a new one, the US. Her stories are serious and real; lives unfold and fall apart, “because in real life, they do”.
Lahiri is a confirmed realist. She has also spent much of her life until now caught between cultures. She was born in London in 1967 of Bengali parents, and grew up in Rhode Island; the geography of New England’s coastline has shaped her work. In ways, so has the writing of Hawthorne and Henry James.
A difficult beginning
She says she found it difficult to begin with: “I had no confidence in my writing.” Yet she has been celebrated since her debut book, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Her novel The Namesake (2003) was filmed within three years. On its US publication, Unaccustomed Earth bypassed all comers to fill the number-one slot on the New York Times fiction bestseller list: that’s impressive for short stories, even more so for an uncontroversial author.
Jhumpa Lahiri is intelligent, astute, informed and genuine. There are no ready answers, although living in Italy has made her far more relaxed, less wary. She has been famous from the beginning of her career. She moved from New York to Rome with her husband and their two young children just over a year ago – “to experience somewhere else” – and is very happy for having done so.
“I had been learning Italian for years. I always loved Latin, but Italian is a living language; I’m writing in it now as well as reading it. It is so interesting delving further into language.”
She is reading Antonio Tabucchi and also loves the work of Giorgio Bassani and quotes from his Saluto a Roma in an epigraph to The Lowland. She could be from anywhere: Spain, Greece, Romania or Brazil – “The Italians always know that I’m not Italian” – and still has the light, youthful voice of a clever, enthusiastic college girl and the accent of an east-coast American.