Migration, Assimilation, and Inebriation

Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries) BY Jhumpa Lahiri. Vintage. Paperback, 352 pages. $15.

The cover of Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)

Jhumpa Lahiri has boasted an enviable literary career since nabbing the Pulitzer Prize for her 1999 debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which introduces Indians and Indian Americans grappling with, among other things, deracination and assimilation. In 2006, an adaptation of Lahiri’s second book, The Namesake, by celebrated filmmaker Mira Nair, earned the kind of praise her internationally best-selling novel drew three years earlier. Lahiri’s new story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf), should have no problem upholding her reputation. In the stories, some of which she began to write while working on The Namesake, we encounter first-generation Indian Americans—often married to non-Indians and starting families of their own—who’ve come of age in two cultures, America and the more insular if still vast world of their Indian parents and friends, whose expectations and experiences are in stark contrast to their own. Lahiri delves into the souls of indelible characters struggling with displacement, guilt, and fear as they try to find a balance between the solace and suffocation of tradition and the terror and excitement of the future into which they’re being thrust. The title is borrowed from a line in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” (“My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth”) and evokes the themes within the pages—pages that further establish her as an important American writer. I visited with Lahiri late one February morning at her lovely new Brooklyn brownstone, where we talked about the generational distillation of cultural conventions, the intuition that informs her of the most effective form for each of her narratives, the characters who’ve haunted her for nearly a decade, and the grief of letting them go.

Jhumpa Lahiri, New York, 2007.
Jhumpa Lahiri, New York, 2007.

BOOKFORUM: What did it feel like to return to short stories after writing a novel?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: I’ve been writing long enough to feel like I have never left one form for another. Some of these stories were written during pauses when I was working on The Namesake, and I started up a few more after the novel was published. I wrote them when I was in a different point in my life, when there was no doubt that I was an adult [laughs]. I’d had new experiences: being married, having children, having a mortgage, the experience of death. My mother-in-law and my father-in-law both died within four years of each other. So this is a different book for me.

BF: The first-generation Indian Americans in these stories—many of whom marry non-Indians—are reckoning with the growing chasm between the families they’re creating and those in which they grew up. The Indian father in the title story observes of his daughter and his half-Bengali, green-eyed, fair-haired toddler grandson, “The more the children grew, the less they had seemed to resemble either parent—they spoke differently, dressed differently, seemed foreign in every way.” In “Hell-Heaven,” an Indian man’s twin daughters “barely looked Bengali and only spoke English and were being raised so differently from . . . most of the other children.”

Tabu as Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair, 2006.
Tabu as Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair, 2006.

JL: Some of the culture goes by the wayside, or the link is never made. I was aware of that myself when I had my kids. I really felt a sense that I was the end of a line, and that it was a very short line [laughs]. I knew my parents had parents and so on, but to me, the universe was my parents and they were the far end and I was the near end. There were certain intensities to the experience of that first generation and their offspring that don’t carry over. I’m very aware of my parents’ experience, how I grew up, and now how my children are growing up. There is such a stark difference in those two generations.

BF: You were born in London. What characterizes assimilation for an Indian family living in a country that has a centuries-long history of colonizing its nation?

JL: My family left when I was two, so I didn’t experience life there, though we were connected to England in many ways and we visited. England and India have had a relationship that goes deep into history, a relationship that India and America have never had and that brings its own complications and presumptions and false assumptions to the mix. The US is a unique country for the immigrant experience, and my general impression is that America, at least for my family and the families I knew growing up, was ultimately a more welcoming place. I don’t mean to say that it was any easier or harder to emigrate to one place or the other. It was hard for my parents to move to England, and it was hard for them to come here.

BF: What brought your family here?

JL: A job for my dad. America seems much more of a diffuse, watered-down, eclectic place. London is a very international city, certainly, but there are parts of it that are still untouched and the disparity seems so great, whereas even in my lifetime in this country I’ve witnessed change, and I think there is a sense of acceptance. That said, the families I know still in England, I think even in the second generation, there is a greater degree of cohesion; here, that cohesion sort of ended with the first generation.

BF: You’ve said about your stories in Interpreter of Maladies that the characters were composites or that you used personal stories you knew as jumping-off points. Are these new stories culled from similarly personal observations?

JL: Yes, I think it’s the same general stockpot [laughs]. Some bits and pieces are taken from my own parents and other parents that I knew growing up. And sometimes they’re totally invented. The thing I took for granted when I was growing up is that I was living in a world within a world. It was a tight world, but I knew a lot of people and was privy to the whole spectrum of types and personalities and characters. To me, they don’t represent immigrants or anyone specific. They just represent the human condition.

BF: Unaccustomed Earth is split into two parts: The stories in the second half of the book interconnect to tell the story of two young people, Hema and Kaushik, whose lives intersect through their parents.

JL: Those characters have been with me for a decade—I started thinking about them before I even began The Namesake. I knew that this story had two families, and that one family was going away and then they’d come back. I tried to write something about them way back then, and at one point, I wrote a crude draft of a story that now constitutes a very, very early draft of “Once in a Lifetime.” Around three years ago, I took that very naked draft and started work on it again and finished it. But when it was done, I felt curiosity for the first time about what might happen after the ending of that story and what happened to the families, to Kaushik. So I just followed him for the second story. And then, I thought, there needs to be another one, so I wrote the third one. It was the first time I’d done that.

BF: In these stories, you do something you’ve never done before: write in the first person. In “Once in a Lifetime,” Hema is telling her story to Kaushik; in the next story, “Year’s End,” he is narrating and occasionally addressing her.

JL: “Once in a Lifetime” started in the third person, and I never liked it. It started to come alive when I had Hema addressing him. I’ve always been curious about that form of narrative and that point of view. There’s a beautiful short novel by William Trevor called Fools of Fortune, which goes back and forth in the same mode, and I was inspired by that novel, so I tried to put it to work. I felt like I couldn’t sustain it for a third story, and it didn’t make sense for Hema to be, twenty-five years later, addressing Kaushik, because there’s been such a long hiatus, and it was their parents who were binding them in some way. I realized I was doing some strange things [laughs] that I hadn’t done before—that’s why it’s nice to have an editor like Robin Desser [at Knopf], who would tell me if it was crazy or if it wasn’t making sense.

BF: What was it like to see your work adapted for the big screen?

JL: I felt almost completely detached from The Namesake by the time Mira Nair was working on it—in a good way, in a healthy way. And I felt really grateful because I had an instinctive trust and connection and respect and admiration for the director because I knew her work, and I knew her a little bit: She was a familiar stranger, and we became friends through the process of making the film. Mira wanted us involved and wanted my family in it. She put a lot of these little things in the film that are very personal to me and my family, like having us appear in there for a split second and using a painting of my grandfather’s—things that only make sense for five or six people in the world. Mira seemed to have really absorbed the book, and that was really powerful, and humbling to think that there is someone connected to my work and who cares about it so deeply that she is going to make something out of it. It’s no small feat to create anything, but a film is a massive undertaking. It’s a little bit like what a translator does—there’s that intimacy that takes place when someone translates your work.

BF: Drinking appears in several of these stories to different effects: In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a man gets drunk at the wedding of a woman he once loved, which loosens his reserve enough for him to reveal marital frustrations to a female guest, before he passes out; “Only Goodness” introduces a man struggling with alcoholism. And in “Once in a Lifetime,” Hema’s parents are at once astonished and disturbed by their old friends’ new love for Johnnie Walker. What does it mean for your characters to drink?

JL: I realized after I put the book together that there was a lot of drinking in it. There were people who drank and people who didn’t, and there was this sort of moral judgment on both sides because drinking is a Western custom. In the West, most people drink—it’s part of the culture, regardless of class. Alcohol is not a part of life among average lower-middle-class or middle-class people in India. In “Only Goodness,” it really is a story about alcohol—well, alcoholism isn’t ever really about the alcohol, of course, but about this man struggling with alcohol in a very obvious way, whereas I think Amit [from “A Choice of Accommodations”], naturally there would be a lot to drink at a wedding, and it just made sense to me that he would have one too many.

BF: Amit is normally reserved, and alcohol renders him very vulnerable. He realizes his resentment at his wife and his deep concern for the state of their marriage as he speaks frankly about it with a disgusted stranger. For Kaushik’s parents in “Once in a Lifetime,” the drinking seems to be emblematic of the decadence the family is embracing.

JL: Yes. They’re richer, and their catered lifestyle is both real and also exaggerated through the eyes of Hema’s mother. She makes more of the drinking than it really is, brings to it her feeling of being left out, feeling like her friends left her in the dust somehow. But drinking is simply something Kaushik’s parents have come to enjoy.

BF: It’s an interesting way to explore these two families, who do not hail from different classes but have been made uneasy by the financial disparity between them here in this country.

JL: In this story, that sort of experience is happening a lot. And in “Hell-Heaven,” there’s an engineering student in this foreign land, and he finds a person who speaks the same language, and there’s a connection. But at the same time, there’s this huge disparity of how you grew up and what kind of place you come from. I always found it interesting, and the older I got, the more interesting I found it, because I realized the way I made friends and connections was motivated by very different criteria than my parents. My parents befriended people simply for the fact that they were like them on the surface, they were Bengali, and that made their circle incredibly vast. There is this de facto assumption that they’re going to get along, and often that cultural glue holds them, but there were also these vast differences. My own circle of friends is much more homogenous, because most of my friends went to college—Ivy League or some other fine institution—and vote a certain way.

BF: When more than two writers of a similar cultural background publish a work of fiction, the American media and the publishing industry announce a zeitgeist.

JL: I get frustrated by this tendency to flatten whole segments of the population, like the Indian immigrant or the Jewish immigrant. I know these are just words and phrases, but I think people tend to see these other groups as a people. They are “other,” and it’s harder to see the nuances and the variations because they’re just a group of people. I have been sensitive to it my whole life, and annoyed by it. As a writer, I didn’t set out to represent a certain group of people, but I acknowledge that I write about Indians and Indian Americans. And I hope at least in writing about these characters, you can prevent those generalizations.

BF: At what point do you think writer can escape the labels and just be a writer?

JL: A writer always wants to feel that she’s just a writer. The way writers are perceived or categorized or featured is not the writer’s business, because it’s not in the writer’s control. I try to stay aloof from it, because it doesn’t really affect what is important to me.

BF: Is there a story in Unaccustomed Earth that is especially close to your heart?

JL: There’s one story that took more or less a summer—the second story in that trilogy. I think it’s because I’d written “Once in a Lifetime,” and it had taken a lifetime [laughs]. Suddenly I knew what was going to happen in that second story. I just saw the whole thing in my head, which is rare. The more time I spent with these characters, the more they become part of you, and I had a hard time emotionally letting go of them. I felt very sad with this book, more than I’d felt with the previous two books. I knew that the stories were done—I felt they were done. But it’s taken me until now, and I’m finally beginning to imagine what will come next some day in the future.