Belle Lettres: Jhumpa Lahiri

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Hello all, and welcome to August’s edition of Belle Lettres, featuring Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri is a short story writer, an essayist, and a novelist. Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000, and she was appointed by President Obama to be a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Lahiri — who goes by her nickname Jhumpa — was born Nilanjana Sudheshna Lahiri on July 11, 1967, in London, England. Her parents, Amar and Tapati Lahiri, are Bengali and immigrated to London from Calcutta. When Lahiri was a young child, her family moved to Kingston, Rhode Island, so that her father, who was a university librarian, could find work.

In 1989, Lahiri graduated with her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College. Later on, she earned an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies from Boston University. Between 1997 and 1998, Lahiri held a fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center.

Lahiri released her writing debut, a short story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies, in 1999. The themes that are explored in Interpreter include marital and domestic discords and the disconnect between two generations of immigrants in America. Lahiri based the stories on her experience of trying to bring together two worlds of her Indian American heritage. Even though Interpreter of Maladies was panned by Indian critics, it won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In 2003, Lahiri published her first novel, The Namesake. The Namesake tells the story of a young Bengali boy from babyhood to young adulthood as he navigates the two cultures of India and the United States. Lahiri dives into themes such as familial and traditional expectations, cultural identity, and the influence that names have in how we view ourselves. Like Interpreter of Maladies, the protagonist in The Namesake experiences the issues of the cultural gap between generations. The Namesake was adapted into a film in 2007.

Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s second collection of short stories, was released in 2008. Throughout the eight stories, Lahiri focuses on how the characters find their strongest connection in the place where they discover who they are instead of in the country where they are tied to by birth or blood. Unaccustomed Earth won the 2008 Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award. The novel also made number one on the New York Times’ book review list of the “10 Best Books of 2008.”

Lahiri has published a number of short stories in the New Yorker, such as “The Long Way Home; Cooking Lessons,” in which she discusses how food plays an important role in her relationship with her mother. Lahiri also wrote an essay for the New Yorker, titled “Teach Yourself Italian,” which chronicles her experience in learning Italian and being a part of a different culture. In 2010, Lahiri, along with five others, became a member of the Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She has also been serving as vice president of the PEN American Center since 2005.

In 2013, Lahiri published her second novel, The LowlandThe Lowland tells the story of brothers Udayan and Subhash Mitra, who are total opposites; one is shy and responsible, and the other is wild and rebellious. Not only do the brothers have to adjust to the cultural differences between Calcutta and Rhode Island, but they must also learn to deal with the results of their behavior. The Lowland won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2014, and it was also a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013.

Lahiri currently lives in Rome, Italy, with her husband and their two children. In 2015, she joined the faculty of Princeton University by becoming a professor of creative writing for the Lewis Center for the Arts. Lahiri’s writing is based on her personal experiences as well as the experiences of those close to her, observing how they cope with their anxieties and struggles of immigrant life. The characters in her stories deal with bi-cultural identity and the shift in viewpoints between generations. Lahiri’s storytelling gives us a look into the lives of everyday people who make a home away from home while still holding onto parts of their history that make them who they are.

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