Jhumpa Lahiri: The Life We Wish We Had
by Dara Courtney Evans
Best-selling author Jhumpa Lahiri visited Rutgers on March 31, as part of the Writers at Rutgers series. Ms. Lahiri’s collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making her the youngest author ever to receive that honor. During her visit she spoke to creative writing classes, answering questions about her work and discussing her approach to writing with great candor. Later at the public reading, she read a portion of her new novel, The Namesake, to an audience of about five hundred people.
Scott Hall was Ms. Lahiri’s first stop. There she spoke with three classes about her life as a confused college student, an apprehensive academic, and a dreamer who loved to write. She explained that after graduating from Boston University as an English major, she felt she had a “duty” to continue her education and went on to receive an MA in both Creative Writing and Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. By the time she graduated, though, she had grown disenchanted with academia and got a job working at a nonprofit organization for a year. This is where she first experienced writing stories on a computer, and where she typed much of Interpreter of Maladies. While on a fellowship the following year, Ms. Lahiri sold her first book. Becoming a full-time writer, though, took her by surprise. “I didn’t think writing was a career,” she said. “I thought it was a hobby, something you do on the side of your ‘real’ job. I never knew it could be like this, and I just got very, very lucky.”
Ms. Lahiri told creative writing students that, like them, she had studied literature from both a creative and critical standpoint, but realized that with her own writing she needed to keep her scholastic training separate from her creative voice. “They are two completely different parts of my brain,” she said. In fact, she admitted that when she goes into her writing studio, she tends to “block the world out,” in order to stay focused. “Writing, for me, is a form of meditation. Writing is selfish,” she divulged to the large crowd of students. “Most creativity is. It’s something totally from within yourself to satisfy the creator – totally.”
Raised in Rhode Island by parents who had immigrated from Calcutta but remained deeply rooted in Indian culture, Ms. Lahiri felt tension between her allegiance to her parents’ traditions and the American world of her friends and her education: “I felt that the Indian part of me was unacknowledged, and therefore somehow negated, by my American environment, and vice versa. I felt that I led two very separate lives.” The Namesake tells the story of a family in a similar situation, with parents adjusting to life in a new land as their children struggle, much the way Ms. Lahiri herself did, to work out a cultural identity for themselves.
When asked about the inspiration for her fiction, Ms. Lahiri noted that personal experience often forms the basis of a work of art, but that other influences are important as well, such as other writers and books you admire and also the observations you make. “You work not only with the life you have,” she explained, “but also with the life you wish you had, or the life you never want to have, all by exploring the world outside of you.”
At the reading, Rutgers English Professor Wesley Brown – author of two novels and three plays himself – praised the rich texture of Ms. Lahiri’s writing, and her ability to emphasize common and unifying themes even while exploring important differences between cultures. The selection Ms. Lahiri chose for the reading described Gogol, the main character of The Namesake, starting public school. The section begins by describing the Bengali tradition of giving a child a private family “pet” name and an official public “good” name for everyone else to use. The book depicts a school administrator who cannot (or will not) understand this concept, and who instead pressures the young child to choose his own name, illustrating Professor Brown’s point precisely. This significant event, when the main character is being required to create a cultural identity for himself while still a child, was delivered with a seriousness that made the moment resonate for Ms. Lahiri’s listeners, but also with a graceful sense of humor that made the audience fill the room with laughter several times.
After the reading, Ms. Lahiri signed books and chatted with fans at a public reception featuring Indian food. Her visit, sponsored by the Office of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Programs, with additional support from the Graduate Student Association and the Friends of Rutgers English, inspired many students with a glimpse of “the life they wish they had.”
The Writers at Rutgers Series including the schedule of writers for 2004-2005
More information about Jhumpa Lahiri
“A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri”