portrait Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

interviewed by Arun Aguiar

Published in Issue No. 28 ~ September, 1999

Jhumpa Lahiri, 32, was born to Bengali Indian parents in London, moved to Rhode Island before she could say her first haw haw, often vacationed in Calcutta during her youth, and now lives on the border of Greenwich Village. After graduating from Barnard, she attended Boston University’s creative writing program and obtained a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. A two-year fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center followed.

The muse of writing first visited Lahiri in primary school and, at the ripe old age of seven, she began co-authoring “books” with a classroom friend during recess. Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection of 9 short stories, was published in June.

The longest story covers 28 paperback pages, and the shortest, 13. Three were published in The New Yorker in the last year. The title story secured the author the O’Henry Award.

While Lahiri’s stories bear the stamp of the same painstaking craftsmanship as Buddhist sages apply to the making of a mandala, their lives are far from fleeting. Most of Interpreter‘s characters play out a simultaneous existence in two cultures. They are Indians living in America or India, and/ or their lovers, neighbors, or landlords are. With informed cultural chiseling, their creator shapes them into sharply sculpted personalities.

The stories with an American setting presage a changing national cast of real and fictional characters. For instance, Mrs. Sen, the protagonist of her eponymous story, is hardly a fish out of water for feeling diminished without a daily regime of fresh halibut: at least 50,000 other immigrants from Bengal share her piscine tastes.

As for the stories set abroad, Lahiri ensures, with exquisite attention to exotic detail, that all of the cultural i’s are topped by vermilion dots and their Indian t’s refreshingly crossed.

Arun Aguiar interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri on July 28, 1999 for Pif Magazine. He reports, “Searching for convenient ground led us to walk away from the conversation-filled Xando Café and Java & Jazz coffee shop in favor of an air-conditioned office kindly made available by Ann Benner of Mariner Books/ Houghton Mifflin near Union Square in Manhattan. Wearing a bare-armed black blouse, offset by brown glasses perched on her head and bracelets the color of bronze, Lahiri fielded questions with ‘If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium’ insouciance.”

Arun Aguiar: If I may, I’m going to start this discussion by taking up one of the 9 stories. To set this up, will you please summarize the story titled “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”?

Jhumpa Lahiri: It’s about a misfit, a young woman, living in a rundown building in Calcutta, and she’s in the care of her cousin and his wife, who run a shop. She’s epileptic, and she lives a very sheltered life; so she’s rather naïve. The story is basically about the town’s involvement, to a greater and lesser degree, with her over her marriage and in the idea of finding her a husband.

AA: She is a rare and unusual character, and one most people would not easily encounter. How on earth did you get to know the Bibi Haldar’s of India so well?

JL: From going to India, and observing people. For that story, I took as my subject a young woman whom I got to know over the course of a couple of visits. I never saw her having any health problems – but I knew she wanted to be married. She lived in the same building as my aunt and uncle, and we struck up a friendship, not terribly deep and abiding, but a friendship, nevertheless. I learned from my aunt that she had some epileptic-like disease…

AA: Yet, you described with verisimilitude Bibi having a seizure on the street, and the crowd doesn’t know what to do until someone cries “Leather!” Is someone else the real narrator of your Indian stories, and you the writer?

JL: No. I had a brief conversation with my aunt about the last time this woman had a spell, during which she said, “If you hold up something close to her that’s made of leather, it helps her.” It sort of stuck in my head. She didn’t really describe anything to me, she’s not a storyteller in that sense.

AA: Now, what if the narrator had witnessed the story unfolding as, for instance, a teenager rather than an older woman and mother? Would the focus have shifted from the sick woman to, perhaps, the impact on the narrator herself?

JL: Maybe, maybe not. The narrator is not anybody in particular. It’s a group of women, so there’s no particular identity to the narrative voice. A Faulkner story [“A Rose For Emily”] I admired used that voice and I wanted to try it out. That’s why I wrote the story the way I did. It was an experiment for myself.

AA: How necessary or useful is it to visit a foreign locale before setting a story in it? In the `60s, a British writer of detective fiction novelist spawned a slew of stories featuring one Bombay Police Inspector Ghote, but he revealed, some years later, that he had never been to Bombay.

JL: I have also written stories set in places and/ or times of which I had no idea, and had no access to, and I’ve had to rely on a little bit of research, and questions, and get some details that way. It’s easy to set a story anywhere if you get a good guidebook and get some basic street names, and some descriptions, but, for me, yes, I am indebted to my travels to India for several of the stories.

AA: The timeless Indian Tales of the Panchatantra, like Aesop’s Fables, often end with a moral. Your stories primarily dwell on relationships.

JL: Relationships do not preclude issues of morality … When I sit down to write, I don’t think about writing about an idea or a given message. I just try to write a story (which is hard enough). And there’s obviously a message, or a moral, or something (smiles). I think that’s good — but it’s not something I actively think about, to be honest with you.

AA: You’ve read from Interpreter to Indians, to Asian American groups, and to general audiences in bookstores. Have their reactions differed?

JL: The reactions haven’t differed; the concerns have been different. When I read for a predominantly Indian audience, there are more questions that are based on issues of identity and representation. That also happened in England last week. Some Indians will come up and say that a story reminded them of something very specific to their experience. Which may or may not be the case for non-Indians. But I’ve also been receiving incredibly touching letters from people who are not Indian, not women, but (I’m assuming) older American men commenting on the story [The Third and Final Continent] in The New Yorker‘s recent fiction issue about a young man’s odyssey in the United States, and connecting to it in a way that I find quite remarkable.

AA: Did you ever look at a zine like Pifmagazine.com for an audience?

JL: I’ve never had Internet access (sighs). Actually, I have looked at things on other people’s computers as a bystander. A few times in my life I’ve opened email accounts, twice actually … but it’s something I don’t want in my life right now.

AA: Does that say anything about you in terms of being traditional versus modern?

JL: No (chuckles). The whole Internet world seems like a distraction for me. Especially since it would be on my computer, which is where I write. I like to think of the computer, psychologically, more as an empty space rather than as “I can push a button and the world could appear” …

AA: You have been contracted to write a novel. Can you give us a hint of the essence of the book?

JL: It’s hard for me to talk about anything I’m doing at the moment. It’s only after I finish something that I can actually describe it in words.

AA: Some short stories become novels.

JL: I’ve seen novels that have grown out of one story in a collection. But it hasn’t occurred to me to take any of those stories and build on them. They seem very finished for me, so I don’t feel like going back and dredging them up.

AA: Would you advise a beginning short story writer to send his or her first submission to The New Yorker or to less known publications or simultaneously to all?

JL: I would not send a first story anywhere. I would give myself time to write a number of stories.

I started writing, and then I bought a book on where to send stories. I would send them out, they all came back, then I would write something else, this went on for years. Sometimes I got a nice note, and that gives you a little bit of inspiration for the next time you sit down to write. It’s a combination of being attuned to that whole world out there, the editor, the publisher, blah, blah, blah, but also knowing that really is not the goal. If it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t happen for a long time, that’s okay too.

AA: Finally, is that a rhinestone ring you’re wearing? Because there’s this Neil Diamond song, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, which goes: ” … Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know; and offers comin’ over the phone … .” With your book taking off, are you feeling like a rhinestone cowboy?

JL: Ha, ha, ha! I just feel tired, I have to say. It’s been a very hectic summer.

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Arun Aguiar writes a weekly Arts & Culture Column for News India-Times, a Manhattan-based English language newspaper serving the 1 million-strong Asian Indian community in the USA. Another way he doesn't make a living is by advising struggling non-profits on programming issues and generating earned revenues as an alternative to grant writing and other forms of supplication.