A serious voice in a brash world

Sat, Sep 27, 2008, 01:00

INTERVIEW:Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of this year's Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, talks to The Irish Times Literary Correspondent and member of the judging jury, Eileen Battersby

ALL THE WAY to Cork, as Tyrone and Kerry battled it out, the same nagging doubt kept pulsing in the background, "Jhumpa Lahiri does not enjoy being interviewed".

The winner of this year's Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award had, however, agreed to do a public interview following her reading last Sunday evening. Interviews represent for Lahiri the most unpleasant aspect of a successful writer's life. There would be no print interview - only the public one. Such information tends to make the interviewer fairly uncomfortable so I was squirming aplenty as the long road to Cork became shorter and shorter.

A tense encounter in a one-to-one situation is awkward enough but with a total stranger before the all-seeing eyes of an audience? That's when stage fright becomes a certainty.

A little over three months earlier, on a typical Irish summer's day of torrential rain and flash floods, the same long road had lead to a meeting with my fellow judges to select the winner. Lahiri had been on my mind that midsummer's day as well; her second collection, Unaccustomed Earth, was the strongest contender and the obvious winner. As a writer, she possesses an interesting, traditional voice: quiet, deliberate, unshowy, insistent, all the while slowly and carefully amassing the meticulous detail which is the defining feature of her work.

And no, she doesn't make it look easy because it isn't. There are no jokes, no surreal frenzy, no one-liners. The dialogue is invariably tense, often formal, as grown children speak to parents who represent a home country that has been replaced by a new one, America. Her stories are serious and real; lives unfold. Born in London of Bengali parents, she grew up in Rhode Island. The geography of New England's coastline has shaped her work. In ways so does the writing of Hawthorne - whose The Custom House is the source of the title - and Henry James. She must feel caught between cultures, or does she?

In many of her photographs she looks like a model, romantically posed as if sitting for a 19th century painter, not a photographer. In a few more recent shots, she looks more like an Indian academic with her hair in a tight bun.

Yet she has been celebrated since her debut book, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. This is not an emerging talent who has just appeared from nowhere. Her novel The Namesake (2003) was made into a movie. On its US publication, Unaccustomed Earth bypassed all comers to fill the number-one place on the New York Times fiction bestseller list - impressive for short stories by an uncontroversial author.

The quietly beautiful woman being photographed in the foyer of the City Hall in Cork, while her audience filled the seats on the other side of the wall, appears western in appearance. Had I not known it was Jhumpa Lahiri, I would not have guessed who she was.

Her jacket was elegant, slightly Chinese in style, and the black high-heeled boots visible beneath smart black trousers could have been Italian. Her black shoulder-length hair was bobbed; her expression polite, if slightly apprehensive.

Jhumpa Lahiri is many things, intelligent, astute, informed - but she is not slick. There are no ready answers, no chatty small talk. For all her book-tour experience, she remains diffident. Wary but likeable, she is 41 and a mother of two, and has the light, youthful voice of a clever, enthusiastic college girl and the accent of an east-coast American, if not one likely to hold forth on Sarah Palin. Lahiri is a writer, not a public person.

While standing in the foyer, Liadain O'Donovan, the daughter of Frank O'Connor, presented her with a very special book The Happiness of Getting It Down Right, the correspondence between O'Connor and his New Yorker editor, the great William Maxwell. The letters which were written between 1945 and 1966 chart a literary friendship. Published in 1996, the letters were edited by Michael Steinman.

Lahiri was genuinely delighted, exclaiming that O'Connor and Maxwell were among her favourite writers and that she had been searching for the book for a long time but had failed to track it down. Minutes later when accepting her prize, she spoke of her love of the work of Frank O'Connor, William Trevor and Joyce, saying quite openly that Ireland had been in her imagination since she was a teenager.

Apparently treated as a celebrity in the US, she doesn't act like one . It is difficult to believe that her wedding in Calcutta in 2001 to a Guatemalan-American journalist was treated as a Hollywood event, including photo shoots. She seems too shy, never mind too serious to have been involved in such excessive publicity .

The obvious question to ask her is how she manages to take the ultimate risk in writing in today's era of the brash literary voice, the risk of taking no risks. She seemed surprised but then accepted the observation. She doesn't attempt linguistic fireworks, her characters are not crazy, there is no violence, none of the exasperated humour so common among many of the leading Indian writers. The most intense emotion in her stories is reflective anger. Her characters allow their grievances to fester, they pick over old wounds. For her the major risk in writing is writing itself, the act of attempting to give shape to "the messy lives which people live".

She makes no secret of the fact that she finds writing extremely difficult. If some writers give the impression their 'art' flows from some magic source, Lahiri is wonderfully honest, conscious of the effort it takes.

Our public interview felt more like a private conversation, the only pressure coming from waiting for the wrap-it-up signal. Lahiri's large brown eyes fix on you and she listens to everything, weighing up each question. Her unblinking gaze is solemn, though not intimidating.

Whereas the Japanese, American and Chinese-American writers have long since fitted into US literary life, the Indian-American is still relatively new. Japan and China are realities for most Americans, war has seen to that. Many Americans served in both countries, but India remains elusive, the place where the hippy trail ended. The complete opposite is true of Britain where the Indian experience and its post-colonial world provide such an important element in British literature. India has never really been fully foreign in England; the cultures are too closely linked by a shared colonialism. The young Indians of V.S. Naipaul's generation came to Britain, drawn by British literature. Meanwhile English writers such as Paul Scott set off with the army to serve in India and Malaya and his experiences in time inspired The Raj Quartet.

There is also the fact that while Japanese and Chinese, traditionally emigrants, came to the US to seek labouring jobs, Indians usually came for further education. This college student, graduate and, more often than not, academic class dominate Lahiri's stories. College life is her terrain. Her father, Amar Lahiri, has worked in the library of the University of Rhode Island since 1970 and now holds the post of professor librarian. Her parents had initially left India for Britain where Amar Lahiri was working in the library of the London School of Economics when Lahiri was born in 1967.

She first arrived in the US as a two-year-old. Although I was at first surprised to hear her describe herself as "an American writer", it soon begins to make sense. Her story has parallels with that of Anita Desai, who is of Anglo-Indian descent with some German blood, all of which gives Desai's work such a rich cross-cultural texture, similar to that of Lahiri's. Throughout her childhood, Lahiri made regular trips back to Calcutta with her parents. But she was more pitied than envied; her classmates regarded the journeys as marathon ordeals, not adventures. For her, India was never home. She belongs to a generation who are the children of parents who left from choice, not need.

Her characters are sophisticated, middle-class academics or at least belong to that world. In Year's End, the powerful middle section of the Hema and Kauskik sequence in Unaccustomed Earth, Kauskik, the narrator, finds he is unable to deal with his widower father having married a much younger Bengali woman and brought her to live in the American home established by his beloved dead mother. "She spoke to me in Bengali, I to her in English, as had been the case the night before. I thought that my slack Americanised pronunciation would be lost on her, but she seemed to follow what I said."

NO, JHUMPA LAHIRI is not like any other Indian writer precisely because her literary voice is far closer to say that of Richard Ford, Alice Munro or the wonderful Mavis Gallant. There is also the architectural sweep of Lahiri's stories which are as closely constructed as the fiction of Henry James. It was James who likened the writing of a story to the building of a house and this is nowhere more obvious than in The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

Lahiri thinks stories unfold bit by bit "like life". It is interesting because that approach would seem to be more suited to the novel than the short fiction. She has not yet decided which she prefers, the novel or the story. "Maybe in 30 or 40 years time, I will know." But she believes in the purity of the short story which can say as much as a novel.

Another voice that has guided her is that of William Trevor. To my remark that several of her stories have the feel of Trevor "without the menace", she peers at me in her careful way and says, "but that menace is not in all his stories". I hadn't meant that it was, but it shows that interviewing her is really more like having a conversation. When she mentions reading all of Trevor's short stories, she makes the pleasure sound comparable to eating several boxes of chocolates all at once. She draws you in, just as her stories do.

Of all the reasons for reading her work, the central one is: here is a writer who is actively looking towards 19th-century fiction techniques. When I mentioned Hardy's novels, her face lit up. She rereads him all the time and admires the way individual stories work through the novels.

Another writer she looks to is the late American master Richard Yates. Returning to the theme of her as an American writer, albeit one with a rich cultural range of references to draw on, I ask how she felt on being represented last year by A Temporary Matter in Richard Ford's intriguingly updated, multicultural selection The New Granta Book of the American Short Story? "Oh I didn't know about that book," she says looking slightly taken aback and interested. "Is it a book of American stories that Richard Ford has put together?"

Unaccustomed Earthby Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Bloomsbury