There are a handful of writers whose books I buy in hardback as soon as they’re released. At the top of that brief list is Jhumpa Lahiri, short story writer, novelist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and mother of two.
I still remember sitting in a sweaty back-to-school faculty meeting when my friend Michael passed me a paperback and a hastily scrawled Post-It: “You MUST read this.” The book he handed me was Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, one of the books on My Ideal Bookshelf and the one that taught me to reconsider the potential power of the short story. Since that remarkable debut, Lahiri has captivated readers with her stories that are ostensibly about Indians and Indian immigrants, but are really about “the human condition” – and she’s done it while mothering two young children.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, but moved to the United States when she was two. The daughter of Bengali immigrants, she often visited family in Kolkata as a child and still doesn’t easily think of herself as American, “[m]ainly because my parents didn’t think of themselves as American. You inherit the idea of where you’re from. So calling myself an American would have been a betrayal…, but going to Indian as a child made it apparent that I simply did not have a claim to either country.” Although she found the U.S. to be “ultimately a more welcoming place,” Lahiri has talked about the particular challenges of being the child of immigrants – “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 put on myself to fit into American society (one that wasn’t necessarily made easier by a kindergarten teacher who asked Lahiri’s parents when they went to register her for school with her “good” name whether “they had anything shorter”).
No underachiever, after graduating from Barnard with a degree in English literature, Lahiri spent the next several years earning four advanced degrees at Boston University – in English, creative writing, comparative literature, and Renaissance studies – all the while submitting short stories that she couldn’t seem to get published. Of that time, Lahiri has said, “It took me a long time to even dare envision myself as a writer. I was very uncertain and hesitant and afraid to pursue a creative life. And it did happen, but it was slow and it was a strange process and then once I felt that I was inside of it and committed to it, a lot of really remarkably unusual things started happening quickly.” A breakthrough of the greatest sort happened in 1999 when her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was released. Not only did the title story win the O’Henry Award, but the book secured the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, an award rarely bestowed on either a first time author or a story collection. Interpreter of Maladies became a commercial success as well, selling more than 600,000 copies. Her overnight success caught Lahiri off-guard. She declared herself, “absolutely shocked. I had no idea. I didn’t even think it was possible.”
In 2001 Lahiri married the journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. The next year, the couple had their son Octavio. Daughter Noor followed in 2005. Meanwhile, Lahiri published her first novel, The Namesake, in 2003 and her second story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, in 2008, both to critical acclaim. She is also a member of President Barack Obama’s Committee of the Arts and Humanities and is Vice President of the PEN American Center. Lahiri publishes frequently in The New Yorker, a gift to her many fans who eagerly await each new offering from her. Indeed, Lahiri has distinguished herself as an author who can move books. When Unaccustomed Earth debuted at the top spot on the New York Times fiction bestseller list, NYT Book Review editor Dwight Garner remarked, “It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction — particularly a book of stories — that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout.”
Precocious in many ways as a writer, Lahiri wrote convincingly about marriage and motherhood before she was married or a mother herself. She still finds both challenging to capture on the page, but says that “the experiences of marriage and motherhood have changed me profoundly, have grounded me in a way I’ve never been before. Motherhood, in particular, makes me look at life in an entirely different way. There’s nothing to prepare you for it, nothing to compare it to. And I imagine that my future work will reflect or otherwise be informed by that change.” More practically, she takes her place in a long line of mother-writers who have faced the challenges of simultaneously raising children and nurturing a writing career. Although Lahiri and her family currently live in Rome (a choice about which she has said, “Now I’m a foreigner in a different way…sort of lost, but happily”), a journalist has described their Brooklyn brownstone as having “walls lined with books and floors dotted with toys” – sounds like my ideal decorating scheme. In 2008, when her kids were 3 and 6, she described working upstairs in her house while her children were at school for half the day: “They’re around a lot at the same time, but I just try to work around the times when the house seems to be most mine.” In another interview that year she explained, “It is hard with kids, and so I write whenever I have time to myself. It’s getting more and more complicated, but on an ideal day there’s time in the morning to work. If everything else can be kept at bay, I can make some time. I’m much more practical about it now.” (I suspect many of us can relate.)
In response to receiving a 2006 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lahiri wrote, in words whose power and resonance give me goosebumps every time I read them:
I am currently at work on a collection of short stories. I am also the mother of two young children and, needless to say, the time and energy I devote to them in the course of each day is considerable. The fellowship is a gift in two ways. First it will allow me to finance childcare, making it logistically possible for me to write. Second, in a period when my creative life often threatens to vanish behind the responsibilities of motherhood, my grant will remind me that I am also a writer, and that as compromised as the hours at the desk may be, they are necessary and vital. This belief is essential for a writer at any stage of his or her career. Without it one is unmoored. No amount of prior accomplishment makes facing the empty page any easier; what anchors us is the conviction that we must work even when it feels impossible or inconsequential. This is the root of making art, the source that allows the imagination to thrive.
Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, already on the short list for the Booker Prize, will be released on Tuesday. You can bet I’ll be at the bookstore when it opens, ready to buy the next great book from one of my favorite authors.