September 22, 2013
Jhumpa Lahiri, who at 46 has already won a Pulitzer Prize (for her first book, the 1999 story collection "Interpreter of Maladies"), and was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for her new novel, "The Lowland"), does a number of things obviously well: Not one for literary gymnastics, she is a precisionist, a realist, not an ironist. She does not bend genre, slum among dystopias or gauge the state of the nation. A stern admirer of Thomas Hardy, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant — all of whom remained thematically, stylistically, put — she writes about middle-class South Asian families, assimilation and estrangement.
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"The Lowland" tells the story of two brothers from Calcutta, one of whom leaves for the United States and becomes an academic, the other of whom stays, becoming a political radical whose involvement in the Naxalite movement (a splinter sect of the Communist Party of India) will haunt several generations of his family. It is, as with many of Lahiri's stories, sprawling, unapologetically tearful; among her generation of literary stars, Lahiri seems arguably the most willing to veer in the direction of melodrama. But only veer.
One less obvious gift, though, is her attentiveness to place — a low-cost Cleveland apartment complex in "The Namesake" (her best-seller, adapted into a Mira Nair film), fishing villages of northern New England during the winter in "Unaccustomed Earth" (her 2008 story collection), the mud flats of Calcutta in her new novel ("The flooded plain was thick with water hyacinth. The floating weed grew aggressively. Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. Green in contrast to the blue of the sky").
That understanding of landscape is not without reason: Lahiri is the Bengali-American daughter of parents who moved to London from Calcutta, then to Rhode Island from London when Lahiri was 2 years old. Indeed, asked in a phone interview why she and her husband and two children — she's married to journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush — moved recently from Brooklyn to Rome, she suggested an innate restlessness.
The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: "The Lowland" is, for a large part, set in Rhode Island, and as a native Rhode Islander myself, I have to thank you, because we don't get many novels. We're often seen as, the book points out, so marginal that we tend to be identified on maps by an arrow pointing inward from the ocean.
A: I'm from Kingston, R.I., sort of on the University of Rhode Island campus, on the margins of that, actually. My parents still live there, about two miles from the campus. I think I have written about Rhode Island in the past, but I think in the earlier books I was reluctant to mean it, to mention it. In the first book I was certainly picturing and pondering Rhode Island in my head but I didn't write the words "Rhode Island." At first I set work in Massachusetts, which I found a good alternative, and it was a place I also knew very well. Still, if there is any fact written on the back of my books, it's that I grew up in Rhode Island, so I don't know what it was exactly — probably out of not feeling like I could picture the state properly in my writing. Also, my relationship to the state, I didn't know what it was. Not that my relationship to it is the relationship that people in this book have. Maybe it's simply because it is where I am from. Plus, my upbringing felt so charged and confused in a lot of ways, I wasn't ready to make where specifically I was from so explicit yet.
Q: "Charged and confused?"
A: That's a long conversation, but being raised from Bengali immigrant families in the 1970s in a small town in Rhode Island was a charged and confusing experience, certainly. Fortunately, the nice thing was I was in school with a small group of kids who were the children of professors from a lot of parts of the world, including India. I was lucky that way; I wasn't a member of the only family from India. I knew people who had that experience. Still, it was a challenging place for my parents to live in many ways. I was aware at an early age how difficult living there could be for them. Even among the children I knew, many of my friends had never left Rhode Island at all, had never left New England, been on a plane or been issued a passport. They had a very different sense of the world than I had — since before I can even remember I was always flying back and forth between Calcutta and New England, these two very different worlds. That couldn't help but inform my experience of growing up in Rhode Island, or adding to the confusion that I was alluding to.
Q: To what degree do you think your writing is about place itself?
A: Well, in this novel at least, place becomes very central, since the book is set in two specific, different places, and the pivotal event in the book is very much bound up in that place where it happened. The fact that the characters leave the place they were originally from — a place where they are expected to continue to belong, despite not being there — is a theme that I have been circling from the beginning of my writing.
Q: There is also a real sense in your stories about these places being lonely, no matter where.
A: Many of my characters struggle with loneliness, that is fair to say. In this book, some of the characters never leave their worlds, and some are more itinerant. And again, I think these are themes I have been working for a while. If you look at my characters as a group, they all have a different relationship with the way that places can signify emotion in them — and the way those bonds can be shattered. The lowlands, where the story begins — and what happens there one evening, which lasts only 20 minutes, I imagine — never leaves them. That moment never ends. Even characters who weren't there to witness the moment carry it with them. I think the title spoke to the arc of the book as a whole, because I do return to that place by the end.
Q: Plus, Rhode Island is kind of the lowlands of New England.
A: Yeah, very true, but I didn't think of the title in the sense of Rhode Island, though I do mention at some point how the characters are aware of similarities in the terrain. You can find swamplands in Rhode Island, and it's a place close to sea level. It's this radically different place than Calcutta, yet so strangely familiar.
Q: How much of your parents' story is in the book's story of the couple who move to New England?
A: Not much. (My parents) moved to London first, which is where they got their sea legs as members of the Indian diaspora. Then they left for Rhode Island, and arrived by way of Cambridge (Mass.). Calcutta is a huge city, London is a huge city and Cambridge has an urban energy. Not until rural Rhode Island was it very different for them. It was quiet, little development, lots of open space, fishing villages, sleepy, pretty coastal places. My parents befriended a lot of young students who came there from Calcutta, so the couple who arrive in the book are probably based much more on the people who my parents knew who moved there directly.
Q: Why did you move to Rome?
A: I felt I had to be somewhere outside of America for a while. I had studied Italian for many years. It was important to me to become day-to-day fluent and functional in another language, and about 10 years ago I went to Rome for the first time and felt an instant gut connection and wanted to get to know the city. I started reading in Italian before I moved here, but now that I am here I am reading only in Italian. It feels very natural, and it has opened up a whole other door in terms of what I read. I'm a writer, and so I connect to the world through writing and other writers, both alive and dead. And though reading and writing in Italian is still something outside of myself, outside of my comfort zone, I like that. Just doing everyday things, like going to the dentist and making friends, you realize you have this growing intellectual life in another language.
Q: Are you writing stories in Italian?
A: Trying to. As an experiment. I didn't plan to. I just started one day and haven't stopped. I don't know where it will lead, but at the moment it feels very much of a piece. I don't know if that will lead to a finished product in Italian or it will just be a bridge back into English. Or just a new muscle. I don't know where I am.
Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features reporter.
By Jhumpa Lahiri, Knopf, 342 pages, $27.95
Jhumpa Lahiri will discuss “The Lowland” with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich at 7 p.m., Oct. 8, at the Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe St. Visit printersrowjournal.com for details.
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