Catching Up With...Pulitzer Prize Winner Jhumpa Lahiri

Matthew Solan
From the September/October 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her first book, a short story collection called The Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), she phoned her father to ask him why it happened. "I was very perplexed. I always thought of the Pulitzer as something people won when they were deep into their careers," says Lahiri. "But my father said, ‘I don't know why you won, but you have to accept it graciously, keep it in its place, and move on.'" She took his advice to heart. She placed Interpreter on the shelf and didn't look back, though she did still hear the echoes of her success. Besides becoming the Pulitzer's youngest winner at age 32, Lahiri captured the PEN/Hemingway Award for best debut fiction, an O. Henry Award, and a slew of other literary prizes and praise, including being named one of the "20 Writers for the 21st Century" by The New Yorker, which published three of Interpreter's stories before her book came out. Enormous accomplishments from what Lahiri once described as just "nine little stories."

Interpreter stood out because it didn't try to stand out. There are no "shock plots"; she instead focuses on the uniqueness of ordinary life. You can relate to her characters because their plights could easily be your own—a young couple trying to stay together after losing a baby; a housewife yearning to be more independent. Beneath the surface, though, her fiction takes the pulse of first- and second-generation Indian Americans trying to bridge the gap between the country they call home and the heritage that defines them. This theme is also at the heart of her much-anticipated first novel, The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin), which is due out this month.

Spanning three decades, the narrative follows the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in India through their gradual transformation into Americans. The story centers on Gogol, a boy who grows up trying to shed his parents' ways and carve a life for himself from the world in which he feels more comfortable. Lahiri came up with the concept for The Namesake in 1997 and has been working on the novel on and off ever since. The idea began simply with her writing something about a boy named Gogol, an effort sparked by one of her trips to Calcutta. "A friend of my cousin's was actually named Gogol, and that always sat in the back of my mind as an interesting way to begin a story—about a young boy of Bengali heritage growing up in the United States," she says.

Lahiri has never lived in India, although she has close ties there. Her family made regular pilgrimages to visit extended family, sometimes staying for up to six months at a time. It was during these trips that the curious observer in her took over. On each visit she immersed herself in Indian life and cultures, scribbling her impressions. The experience gave her a wealth of characters and plots from which to draw. In fact, the only actual research she did for The Namesake was studying the life of the Russian writer Nikolay Gogol (after whom her main character is named) and reviewing newspaper stories of train wrecks for a scene about how the fictional Gogol's father, Ashima, survived one early in his life. "Everything else came from my experience—or my imagination," she says.

Immigrants finding their way in America is not a new subject in literature, but in The Namesake Lahiri focuses on the particular psychological conflicts of an atypical subset of immigrants. Her characters are not economically downtrodden, living on the fringe of society, but highly educated professionals. Their battles are not for physical survival, but rather for the survival of their identity in a new culture. "For people who come from India to make a new life here, there is a real threat of losing one's identity," she says. "But for the subsequent generation born here, it's another type of loss—one where your identity is not taken for granted and you have to build one yourself."

In many ways Lahiri is describing her life. Like the Gangulis in The Namesake, her mother and father came to the U.S. in the 1960s and settled in an academic town. While they continued to identify themselves as Indian, and encouraged Lahiri to do the same, she always felt stuck between her parents' heritage and an American identity she was trying to incorporate. "Throughout my life I have worked to reconcile the two traditions that have formed me—the world of my parents and their ways of looking at life, and the opposing views of an American culture that I've grown up with."

She found that the best way to do this was to put pen to paper. "That's the place where I try to confront these feelings and to explore this sort of dichotomy," she says. "Through my characters I can figure things out about myself." Lahiri began to explore and sharpen her fiction in graduate school at Boston University, where she earned master's degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative literature and a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies. It was during this time, as she was preparing for a life in academia, that she crafted many of the stories that eventually made up Interpreter. The more she wrote, the more it became clear that her future lay in writing. "I was devoting so much energy, and my soul, to fiction that I felt like my heart wasn't in becoming a teacher," she says. "At best, my years as a graduate student taught me that I wasn't meant to be a scholar. But I would have remained in academia willingly had I not met with this strange, sudden success."