Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Emerging from "Unaccustomed Earth"

Jhumpa Lahiri — author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake — made an appearance at Barnes and Noble's Union Square location in Manhattan last Tuesday. The appearance marked the release of her latest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth.

The evening itself ended up being much shorter than I anticipated, due to the fact that the Barnes and Noble staff seemed eager to get everyone out of the store as quickly as possible. I couldn't blame them, as a rather sizable crowd had gathered for the reading, but I wish there had been time to hear more from Lahiri. After she read from the title story of Unaccustomed Earth for about 20 minutes, Lahiri answered only three questions from the audience before the book signing began.

Though I was mildly disappointed that there wasn't much time for a more expansive discussion, I am glad that I went. I actually wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on The Namesake, so I felt as though things had finally come full circle.

And senior thesis aside, I do have a special place in my heart for Lahiri's first two books. The Namesake was the first Indian-American novel I'd ever bothered tackling and it was exciting for me to read about characters that had a background so similar to my own (even though I'm not of Bengali origins). This prompted me to seek out a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, which I found beautiful and tightly constructed. As a result, I found myself eagerly anticipating the arrival of Unaccustomed Earth.

Having completed the short-story collection this weekend, I am happy to say that I enjoyed it. Lahiri's prose remains clear as she continues delving into issues of identity, familial and romantic relationships, and isolation. I found the title story and the three-part "Hema and Kaushik" the strongest in the collection — the latter had an interesting narrative style and both stories addressed the subject of loss in a way that triggered my emotions. There is a strong emphasis, as seen in The Namesake, on the lives of second generation Bengali Americans as they build their lives in a world so different from the one their parents grew up in.

But while I could relate to aspects of these stories and while I would give Lahiri's efforts a solid B+, I realized that I did have a few issues — not necessarily with the book itself, but perhaps with how it might be received by the public.

Lahiri has not broken any new ground with this collection. This is something that she herself has admitted, even saying that she tends to write about what she knows (typically upper middle class Bengali Americans with advanced degrees in engineering, literature, and so on).

In a way, this is perfectly fine. It would be hypocritical of me to find fault with this when so many authors have become famous for writing about the same subject repeatedly. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the world of the "beautiful and the damned." Jane Austen wrote about romance in a particular portion of English society. And yet both are celebrated as great authors to this day.

That being said, a lot of people are beginning to point out the repetition in Lahiri's writing as a flaw of some kind, as if she's the only person in the world to do this. And though I can understand why she focuses on this tiny sliver of Indian and Indian-American society, I have to admit that I find it a bit problematic as well. I don't take fault with her writing, but I worry about the way the outside world might view Indians and Indian immigrants as a whole.

Much of Lahiri's writing depends on presenting readers with a glimpse into the Bengali American experience as she knows it, causing the press, critics, and some of her readers to focus rather intently on her "Indian identity." And because of that, I often worry that the public is getting a rather one-note view of the Indian diaspora. On the surface, many of Lahiri's stories tend to be bleak, filled with characters who struggle with their dual cultural identities and fight with their parents or children. Most of the marriages are unhappy; the few real love stories have a tendency to end tragically or with significant others cheating on each other. While Lahiri herself never seems to be trying to imply that this is what it means to be an Indian American, I am beginning to wonder if others might start viewing this particular group of immigrants as a particularly miserable bunch.

I guess my main issue here isn't with Lahiri herself then, but with the lack of variety in diasporic fiction. I love reading books by other authors of South Asian descent, because it gives me a chance to know that the world of fiction now has room for people that are somewhat similar to myself. But while there are other South Asian authors in the world, aside from Lahiri, I really don't think there is enough variety in the fiction offered to the general public.

The majority of stories out there — whether they're written by Punjabis, Bengalis, or Gujaratis — tend to present Indian immigrants and their children as people perpetually struggling with their cultural identities and a sense of loss. And while loss is always a part of the immigrant experience, I can't help but wonder why we can't see a more diverse array of Indian American characters in fiction. Even when the authors try to present other themes in their works, these themes get tied up in the concept of being Indian or being an immigrant, leaving the public with what I feel is a very skewed perception of a particular society.

And so while I admire authors like Lahiri and continue reading their work, I'd really like to see more diversity in diasporic fiction out there today. A little less angst could go a long way.

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