Questions For Jhumpa Lahiri
By John Glassie
(Portions in The New York Times Magazine, September 2003)
Q. You made a spectacular debut with your first book "Interpreter of Maladies," winning the Pulitzer Prize and a bunch of other prestigious awards. Here's the inevitable question: Did you feel pressure writing this upcoming novel, "The Namesake"?
A. When all of that happened, I felt that I was watching it happen to another person. It was so deeply unexpected, unanticipated, and unwished-for. It was like being a kid and getting a senior citizens' discount. I felt like I wasn't there yet. The same manuscript that got rejected by little short story contests now has a big gold sticker on it. You have to take it with a grain of salt. People somehow think the prize changes me -- that now I'm a really expert writer. And it doesn't. It didn't help me this morning when I was working on a new story.
Q. Was there ever a question in your mind about whether to write in English or Bengali?
A. There was no choice. I speak Bengali, but I read and write at a five-year-old level -- because I learned to read and write it when I was five. Bengali is the language I use to speak to my family. It has very specific role.
Q. "The Namesake" furthers themes in "Interpreter of Maladies" related to Indian immigration and assimilation into American culture. What did you hope to accomplish in writing it?
A. Thematically, I wanted to focus more on the experiences of people who were born and raised in the States by Bengali parents. This novel looks at their struggles.
Q. Your parents came to the States in the sixties, like those of your main character. Is "The Namesake" your story?
A. In a very obscured way. I tried to make a composite character out of people I know and things they went through.
Q. In the book you explain that all Bengalis have private, pet names and public, "good names." But the main character in "The Namesake" has only one name: Gogol, after the Russian writer.
A. That happened to me. My name, Jhumpa, which is my only name now, was supposed to be my pet name. My parents tried to enroll me in school under my proper name, my good name, but the teacher essentially asked if they had anything shorter. Even now, people in India ask why I'm publishing under my pet name, instead of a real name.
Q. What does Jhumpa mean?
A, Jhumpa has no meaning. It always upset me. It's like Jhuma without the P, which refers to the sound of a child's rattle. In this country you'd never name your child Rattle. I actually have two good names. The first is Nilanjana and the other is Sudeshna. My mother couldn't decide. All three are on the birth certificate. I never knew how to write my name. Am I Jhumpa N. S. Lahiri? Am I Jhumpa Nilanjana S. Lahiri? I just never knew.
Q. This all figures into to questions of identity that you explore in "The Namesake." You've said that despite living virtually all your life in the States, you still find it hard to think of yourself as an American. Why?
A. Mainly it was because my parents didn't think of themselves as American. You inherit that idea of where you're from. My parents didn't identify themselves as Americans, so calling myself an American would have been a betrayal. Growing up, even if I wanted to call myself an American, I couldn't, because I was always questioned about my background. I continue to be hesitant to call myself an American, but I also feel hesitant to call myself anything else.
Q. So you're not comfortable calling yourself an Indian or a Bengali?
A. No. No. My parents told me I was an Indian but going to India as a child and traveling there made it apparent that I simply did not have a claim to either country. No matter where I was I had to explain myself. In the eyes of Indians who never left, I'm not an Indian at all.
Q. There seems to be infusion of Indian culture in the West and in the United States these days -- from films such as "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bend It Like Beckham" to fashion to yoga and spiritual practices. Is Indian culture becoming hip?
A. This is something I don't like to think about because I want my work to be acknowledged on its merits as fiction. People have said "Oh, you only sold your book because Indian things are hot."
Q. They've said that to your face?
A. Yeah, sure, and it's very upsetting to me. And there's generally a sense that I have advantages because of the larger desire for diversity. Comments like this float around.
Q. So how do you feel about the growing popularity of Indian culture? Does it turn you off?
A. I always had such an ambivalent relationship to things Indian, and to the fact that I was an Indian in America, that I don't feel any pride when I see this stuff happening. I don't feel, for instance, that "we've made it!" I don't feel part of any sort of "we." Often, it's funny. For instance, nobody I know in India practices yoga. It's practiced by a very few people in India, within a certain segment of the population. You don't have people rushing home from their jobs to make the six o'clock yoga class. I am amused to see Indian clothing coming into popularity. I rebelled against traditional Indian clothing as a kid because I wanted to wear jeans. So now when I see someone like Madonna sporting the Indian look, it's very ironic to me. I'm coming from a different place. I grew up with people always saying, "What's that on your Mom's forehead?" -- and not in a nice way.
Q. You are now raising your 15-month-old son in the States. What expectations do you have for him as a second generation Indian-American?
A. Slash Guatemalan-Greek.
Q. Sorry. How much more American can you get?
A. Exactly. I want him to have respect for his traditions and for all traditions. It's not the same as it was for me. I'm never going to tell him not to think of himself as an American.
Q. You've taken advantage of educational and other opportunities in America, your first book won the Pulitzer Prize, you are now bringing up a family in a lovely Brooklyn home. Do you think that in a sense you are living a form of the American Dream?
A. I've never thought that. I will say that the Pulitzer meant so much more to my parents than it did to me. They were very proud and it really meant something to them. They came here, they left a lot behind to make a better life. And freaky things happen.