[(interview date April-May 2008) In the following interview, Lahiri discusses the theme of assimilation in Unaccustomed Earth, stylistic aspects of the stories in this collection, and the challenges of being classified as an Indian American writer.]
Jhumpa Lahiri has boasted an enviable literary career since nabbing the Pulitzer Prize for her 1999 debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which introduces Indians and Indian Americans grappling with, among other things, deracination and assimilation. In 2006, an adaptation of Lahiri's second book, The Namesake, by celebrated filmmaker Mira Nair, earned the kind of praise her internationally best-selling novel drew three years earlier. Lahiri's new story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf), should have no problem upholding her reputation. In the stories, some of which she began to write while working on The Namesake, we encounter first-generation Indian Americans--often married to non-Indians and starting families of their own--who've come of age in two cultures, America and the more insular if still vast world of their Indian parents and friends, whose expectations and experiences are in stark contrast to their own. Lahiri delves into the souls of indelible characters struggling with displacement, guilt, and fear as they try to find a balance between the solace and suffocation of tradition and the terror and excitement of the future into which they're being thrust. The title is borrowed from a line in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" ("My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth") and evokes the themes within the pages--pages that further establish her as an important American writer. I visited with Lahiri late one February morning at her lovely new Brooklyn brown-stone, where we talked about the generational distillation of cultural conventions, the intuition that informs her of the most effective form for each of her narratives, the characters who've haunted her for nearly a decade, and the grief of letting them go.
[Bolonik]: What did it feel like to return to short stories after writing a novel?
[Lahiri]: I've been writing long enough to feel like I have never left one form for another. Some of these stories were written during pauses when I was working on The Namesake, and I started up a few more after the novel was published. I wrote them when I was in a different point in my life, when there was no doubt that I was an adult [laughs]. I'd had new experiences: being married, having children, having a mortgage, the experience of death. My mother-in-law and my father-in-law both died within four years of each other. So this is a different book for me.
The first-generation Indian Americans in these stories--many of whom marry non-Indians--are reckoning with the growing chasm between the families they're creating and those in which they grew up. The Indian father in the title story observes of his daughter and his half-Bengali, green-eyed, fair-haired toddler grandson, "The more the children grew, the less they had seemed...