A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri
As a child of immigrants in America, would you discuss the conflicts you felt growing up?
For me, it was always a question of allegiance, of choice. I wanted to please my parents and meet their expectations. I also wanted to meet the expectations of my American peers, and the expectations I placed on myself to fit into American society. It's a classic case of divided identity, but depending on the degree to which the immigrants in question are willing to assimilate, the conflict is more or less pronounced. My parents were fearful and suspicious of America and American culture when I was growing up. Maintaining ties to India, and preserving Indian traditions in America, meant a lot to them. They're more at home now, but it's always an issue, and they will always feel like, and be treated as, foreigners here. Now that I'm an adult I understand and sympathize more with my parents' predicament. But when I was a child it was harder for me to understand their views. At times I felt that their expectations for me were in direct opposition to the reality of the world we lived in. Things like dating, living on one's own, having close friendships with Americans, listening to American music and eating American food — all of it was a mystery to them. On the other hand, when I was growing up, India was largely a mystery to Americans as well, not nearly as present in the fabric of American culture as it is today. It wasn't until I was in college that my American friends expressed curiosity about and interest in my Indian background. As a young child, I felt that 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.
Do you think there is anything particular to the Indian immigrant experience that differentiates it from the experience of other immigrants to America?
I have always been interested in why so many Indians come to America, because typically it is for very different reasons from, say, those of many of the European groups who have come, and those of many non-European groups as well. On the whole, Indians are not escaping some sort of dire political situation, a war, a famine, or social or religious persecution. These are the reasons so many of the great immigrant groups came historically: the Jews during World War II, the Irish, even the Puritans. Nothing is driving Indians out the same way. Certainly, India is a poor country with more limited scope for personal advancement, but I know that if my parents had stayed in India they would have led a perfectly fine life, they wouldn't have suffered. In many ways they would have been happier because they wouldn't have had to go through the enormous effort of figuring out life in a new country, which remains an ongoing and draining and difficult process for them.
In my parents' case, therefore, the distinction is that they didn't have to come here for their very existence, their survival. They were here for the sake of greater opportunities, perhaps a better standard of living. And yet it was tough, because they had taken such a huge step and left so much behind. The way my parents explain it to me is that they have spent their immigrant lives feeling as if they are on a river with a foot in two different boats. Each boat wants to pull them in a separate direction, and my parents are always torn between the two. They are always hovering, literally straddling two worlds, and I have always thought of that idea, that metaphor, for how they feel, how they live. It is an enriching experience if you look at it in positive ways. I think being an immigrant must teach you so much about the world and about human beings, things you can't understand if you are born and raised and live your whole life in one place. It must be an amazing experience in many ways, but it has a price.
Now that you've written both stories and a novel, which do you prefer? And what was the transition like?
I feel attracted to both forms. Moving from the purity and intensity of the short story to the broader canvas of a novel felt liberating and, at times, overwhelming. Writing a novel is certainly more demanding than writing a story, and the stakes are higher. Every time I questioned something about the novel, it potentially affected hundreds of pages of writing, not just ten or twenty. The revision process was far more rigorous and daunting. It was much more of a commitment in every way. And I was juggling more than I ever have in a story, more characters, more scenes, more points of view. At the same time, there's something more forgiving about a novel. It's roomier, messier, more tolerant than a short story. The action isn't under a microscope in quite the same way. Short stories, no matter how complex, always have a ruthless, distilled quality. They require more control than novels. I hope I can continue to write both.
Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote The Namesake?
I never think of an audience as I am writing. I am really, really writing for myself and to make sense of something for myself. That is the ultimate impetus behind what I do. I am trying to understand things about life, about human beings, about the human condition, about what I both have experienced and haven't experienced and am afraid of experiencing and perhaps will never experience. All of those things fuel my desire to write. I certainly write about what I know, but I write a lot about my fears, my worries, my concerns, my worst nightmare. I try to write about experiences that are foreign to me: What might it be like to lose a parent or a child? What might it be like to immigrate? Certainly the novel is very much a collage of things I have gone through and have never gone through. But I can't possibly think of a reader as I am writing because so much of the process to me is answering a question. I am terrible at math, but it is sort of like a math problem in which you are just trying to figure out the answer for yourself, to understand what the equation means in the end. I think because I feel very much a part of two worlds, I am always trying to explain things to myself and to reconcile those two sides in my writing.
You write frequently from the male point of view. Why?
In the beginning I think it was mainly curiosity. I have no brothers, and growing up, men generally seemed like mysterious creatures to me. Except for an early story I wrote in college, the first thing I wrote from the male point of view was the story "This Blessed House," in Interpreter of Maladies. It was an exhilarating and liberating thing to do, so much so that I wrote three stories in a row, all from the male perspective. It's a challenge, as well. I always have to ask myself, would a man think this? do this? I always knew that the protagonist of The Namesake would by a boy. The original spark of the book was the fact that a friend of my cousin in India had the pet name Gogol. I had wanted to write about the pet name–good name distinction for a long time, and I knew I needed the space of a novel to explore the idea. It's almost too perfect a metaphor for the experience of growing up as the child of immigrants, having a divided identity, divided loyalties, etc.