Jhumpa Lahiri

Identification: British-born American author of Asian Indian descent

Born: July 11, 1967; London, England

Significance: Lahiri’s focus on cultural displacement highlights the Asian Indian immigrant experience from an intergenerational perspective. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning shortstory collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), concentrates on Indian immigrants searching for cultural connections and love. At a personal level, Lahiri considers herself American, but feels somewhat displaced herself, having been raised with a keen sense of her Indian heritage.

Born Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri in London, England, to parents fromBengal, India, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to the United States at the age of three and grew up in Rhode Island. She became an American citizen at the age of eighteen. Immersed in immigrant culture, she also spent a great deal of time in India, where her family made frequent visits to relatives in Calcutta (now called Kolkata).

Lahiri began writing in childhood to stave off the loneliness of feeling like an outsider because she looked different from her classmates. She wrote fiction throughout college. After graduating from Barnard College in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, she went on to earn three master’s degrees and a doctorate from Boston University. Her fiction won both accolades and awards after she finished her doctoral degree.

While Lahiri was still in school, she began consciously examining the immigrant experience, though she was initially seeking to understand her own identity. She used fiction to illustrate the Asian Indian immigrant experience, ranging from conflicts between Hindu and Christian lifestyles to an Indian immigrant’s loneliness and longing for "home.” She collected her stories into a book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. The title story is about an interpreter for an Indian physician who literally interprets the doctor’s diagnoses for patients. Three of the nine stories are set in India, and the other six are set in the United States and feature Indian immigrants. Her work concentrates on cultural displacement, Hindu family structures, and theWesternization of second- and third-generation immigrants.

American reviewers have almost universally praised Lahiri’s work for its depictions of the Indian American experience. Her work also had an immediate popular appeal in the United States, where the literature of other Indian Americans such as Bharati Mukherjee appealed more to academics and intellectuals. Critics in India, by contrast, have given her work a mixed reception, and some have criticized her for writing flat Indian characters, saying that she writes better about the general Indian immigrant experience.

Lahiri followed Interpreter of Maladies with a novel, The Namesake, in 2003, and again drew widespread critical acclaim. The novel concentrates on the issues faced by second-generation Indian immigrants and the importance of names to identity. Her second short-story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), also focuses on Indian immigrants, concluding with three linked short stories focusing on both American and Indian customs regarding love, including arranged marriages.

Lahiri has proved to be one of the strongest voices for Indian American immigrants of several generations, capturing their unique struggles to achieve an American identity without surrendering their Indian culture.

Jessie Bishop Powell

Further Reading

George, Sheba Mariam. When Women Come First: Gender and Class in Transnational Migration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Kafka, Phillipa. On the Outside Looking In(dian): Indian Women Writers at Home and Abroad. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

See also: Anglo-conformity; Asian American literature; Asian Indian immigrants; Association of Indians in America; Families; History of immigration after 1891; Intermarriage; Lim, Shirley Geok-lin; Literature; Mukherjee, Bharati; Sidhwa, Bapsi.

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