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Off the Page: Jhumpa Lahiri

With Jhumpa Lahiri
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
Tuesday, October 7, 2003; 1:00 PM

The name of the protagonist in Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, is clearly a metaphor for someone caught between worlds. Gogol Ganguli is the first son of Indian immigrants in America, named for the Russian writer his father adores--to which world does he belong?

The theme will be familiar to readers of Lahiri's collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer in 2002 -- an astonishing feat for a first book by a woman then merely 32 years old.

_____The Post on Lahiri_____
The Writer Who Began With a Hyphen
Review: 'The Namesake'
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I still remember reading one of those stories, "A Temporary Matter," in The New Yorker, well before she'd been awarded any other prizes (well, except getting published in The New Yorker!) For all reviewers talk about her Indian immigrant characters, that story, about a couple on the verge of separating who share secrets during a series of blackouts, stood out because it was sad, and true, and human.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. She's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Welcome to the second week of "Off the Page!" We have another fantastic fiction writer with us this week, Jhumpa Lahiri. Jhumpa, thanks so much for joining us. Let's get right to our first question.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I look forward to reading your book. In reading the reviews, I am confused. Is your book about people caught between different cultures, or is it your intention to point out the similarities amongst cultures? Or perhaps your argument is both: despite our many differences, many similarities emerge. Or, maybe you do not have any such theme in mind. Did you intend to have any special commentary on cultural differences?

Jhumpa Lahiri: Hello everyone. I'm delighted to be talking with you today, and welcome your questions.

My intention was to write a story about a family adapting to a life in a new world. As a result, I'm talking about the existence of different cultures and how they intersect and sometimes don't intersect. But I don't have a specific commentary on cultures per se. I think that's something a reader might bring to the work. But I think my work does highlight the value and significance of tradition and culture to individuals, and that is a universal feeling, that we all yearn to feel at home in the world.

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Wexford, Penn.: As a writer and native of the Indian subcontinent, I'm a huge admirer of your writing. I've found when I start writing (fiction or fact), I'm often discouraged, wondering whether anyone other than myself cares about my stories. Did you ever experience that and, if so, how did you get over it?

Carole Burns: My dear Wexford, take comfort: I think all writers experience that!

Jhumpa Lahiri: It's just part of the process, dealing with discouragement and hitting walls and feeling lost. It's just you can't really create without confronting those things. Trying to meet with those challenges and work through them is what it's all about. It's sort of like solving a puzzle. It's not meant to be easy.

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Northfield, Minn.: What was your upbringing like and do you believe it had much of a factor in your learning the discipline to become a writer? Were your parents strict? Were they lenient? What were you spanked for, if ever? Were they encouraging? How did this help shape your writing, if at all?

Jhumpa Lahiri: I can answer some of that question! My upbringing was essentially being raised by parents who came from one part of the world and who were learning to live in another part of the world. I have two influences all the time. I spoke two languages on a daily basis, I ate two kinds of food, I knew two parts of the world, in a way. I think one of the things that drew me to writing was the opportunity to create my own world. I felt somehow inadequate in both my Indian side and my American side. I always felt I was coming up short somehow because I was not fully one thing. In writing, I felt I didn't have to answer to anyone's expectations other than my own.

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Washington, D.C.: D.C. signing: Is it correct that you're signing tomorrow? If so, where?

Thanks!

Jhumpa Lahiri: Yes, I am reading Wednesday night at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 4900 Connecticut Avenue, NW, at 7 p.m. The reading is being sponsored by Politics and Prose.

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Washington, D.C.: I really loved your story "The Third and Final Continent." I read in the Best American Stories that year that the story was mostly (or partly) based on your father's immigration to the Boston area. But, where did you get your idea for the old lady who played piano until her hands hurt? Was that true? I just really loved that character and her apparent dedication to playing piano.

Jhumpa Lahiri: According to my father, his landlady, who was 103 years old, was a piano teacher. I made up the detail about her hands hurting. I don't know if that was true.

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Carole Burns: It's always interesting how one small fact can turn into an entire character, or an entire story. Can you talk about that process?

Jhumpa Lahiri: It really depends from work to work, the proportion of real life and invention. Sometimes the characters really are totally invented, and other times there's a real life analog, in the case of "The Third and Final Continent," certainly. But there's really no way to predict how much is drawn from experience, and how much is imagined.

In Third and Final Continent, the story grew out of an anecdote that my father sometimes told about his arrival in the United States. I was struck by the circumstances of a man coming to a new country in the recent wake of the moon landing, and how that historical event strangely paralleled what this character was experiencing and what my father was experiencing. When my father spoke of that time, he spoke of it very briefly. I only had a few details to work with. I knew he lived with the old woman who played piano, and that she couldn't stop talking about the fact that man had landed on the moon. That's all I had. Everything else, I had to build from my own imagination and my own experiences of coming to a new place and being in a foreign environment and learning to adjust.

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Arlington, Va.: Did your idea to incorporate the Russians into the "The Namesake" come before you decided on the overall plot, or did you know from the start you wanted to do that?

Jhumpa Lahiri: The entire novel was inspired by the fact that I knew someone named Gogol, so I never questioned that. As a result, it wasn't even a question for me. That was the starting point for the whole book. It got me thinking about the names we have, and why we have them, and the people who give them to us, and how names can mean very different things in different places and parts in the world. I meditated on these things for several years, and I tried to bring some of those thoughts to the novel, which is very much about searching for identity. And names obviously speak so much about who we are.

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New York, N.Y.: As the person cutoff from your recent New York book signing (the person in front of me was the last person admitted), may I please ask a self-serving question: will you consider returning to next year's New Yorker book signing?

Jhumpa Lahiri: I have a number of additional readings in New York in the month of October. I'm reading tonight at 7 p.m. the Poly Prep Lower School in Brooklyn, at an event sponsored by the Community Book Store. Then I'll be reading Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. at KGB Bar, and Oct. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Asia Society.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Lahiri, I really enjoy your writing...one story in particular in The New Yorker stands out for me (about the man from India who moved into the older woman's home outside of Boston).

Do you think that MFA programs are helpful for unpublished fiction writers? Are they worth the expense?

Jhumpa Lahiri: I think they can be helpful. I think one shouldn't have unreasonable expectations, but I think they're helpful in that they force you to write, which is the essential thing, after all, and they can give you very helpful feedback, and make you look at your work in a more objective way, which I think is necessary to a writer. I think they're valuable in the sense that they force you to write on a regular basis and they open your eyes, in a way.

But I don't think people should assume that an MFA program will necessarily lead to publication, or literary success overnight, or anything like that. I'm sure that some people experience that, but for the majority of people, it's a way to make writing a priority in your life, and you sort of take it from there. It's not so much what you learn in your time in the program, but how it teaches you the work for the rest of your life.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Jhumpa - As a child of Indian immigrant parents, your stories really resonate with me. The feeling of being neither here nor there at times. With raising your own child, are you doing anything different than what your parents did raising you? Anything to give your child a feeling of belonging? I'm looking forward to reading "Namesake."

Jhumpa Lahiri: I think my son's upbringing will be very different from mine, because I feel much more at home in America than my parents did when they had children, and in many ways, I'm so much more American than they are, as a result of how I grew up. Even though I might not ever feel fully American, whatever that means, I generally feel so much more at home than my parents did. So the way I approach raising my son will be very different. My parents didn't have any family in this whole country when they were raising us. My parents now live three hours away from my home. My son is going to see his grandparents, I saw my grandparents every few years. So he'll have a very different connection. I think those things are very big differences. So as a result, I think my son will feel that much more at home in the United States.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello,
I have no question but I wanted to say that I read "The Namesake" over the weekend and I haven't stopped thinking about. I found to be completely absorbing and just beautifully written.
Thank you.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Thank you. I'm very grateful for your kind words. Glad you liked the book.

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Mt. Airy, Md.: When you wrote "The Namesake," did you base Gogol and Sonia on the typical first-generation Indian-American? I'm continually struck by how much more American-leaning the characters seem, compared with my Indian-American friends. While my friends certainly have a mix of both cultures present in their everyday lives, the emphasis is always on their families' traditions. For example, I can't see any of them ever dating a non-Indian, or dating anyone casually, for that matter. Or could there be a difference between the way Bengali parents raise their American-born children versus, say Marathi or Telegu parents?

Jhumpa Lahiri: I'm never speaking for all Indian Americans, or all Bengali Americans for that matter. These are just individual characters, brought up in a particular way, as everyone is. I would caution a reader not to draw general conclusions about how people live based on a character in my book. I will say that Gogal and Sonia are sort of based on a collective body of people I knew when I was growing up, and an invention of many different people I knew.

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Washington, D.C.: How has your success changed your writing process? Is it easier or harder to get to the keyboard? How have your expectations of yourself changed (if they have!)?

Jhumpa Lahiri: It hasn't changed the process at all. I approach my work as I always have. The promise of success has never inspired me to write, and a lack of it will never keep me from it. I think writing does get harder as you go on, but only because you're setting up bigger challenges for yourself. I work to meet my own expectations, and not anybody else's. Success doesn't make writing any easier, and for me it hasn't made it any harder easier. It's always hard. I don't think about how my work is perceived or receives when I'm at my desk. You have to approach every new work with humility, and a sense of awe, and you have to remain humble in a way to that act, to that process.

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Carole Burns: You're a fantastic writer, but it seems too often you're mentioned for your Indian-American characters. Do you ever find that frustrating?

Jhumpa Lahiri: No, it's a fact about my writing, that I write about characters of a certain background. But I don't see them as Indian-American characters. I don't see through that screen of difference. Sometimes people ask me, Did you grow up eating Indian food? And I don't think of it as Indian food. I think of it as food. So it's the same with my characters. I just think of them as characters, as people. I think it's inevitable, given that I live in a country where Indians are not a majority.

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Carole Burns: Thanks so much for being with us today, Jhumpa. And I hope you all visit "Off the Page" next week when Charles Baxter writer and writing teacher extraordinaire, comes online Thursday, Oct. 16, at 1 p.m. See you then!

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