Re-Rooting Families: The Alter/Natal as the Central Dynamic of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth

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Author: Ambreen Hai
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 251. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,764 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Hai examines how the stories of Unaccustomed Earth focus on the difficulties of human transplantation, particularly of middle-class Bengalis into American culture.]


As announced by its epigraph (below), Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, takes its title from “The Custom-House,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s semi-autobiographical introduction to The Scarlet Letter, where the fictional narrator (putatively Hawthorne himself) reflects on the benefits of “frequent transplantation” for the human “stock”:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.(Hawthorne 26)Rooted in his “natal spot” Salem, Massachusetts, having descended from British Puritans who were “the earliest emigrant[s] of [his] name,” and reared literally breathing the “dust” of their remains, the narrator describes both his reluctant affection for his ancestral place, “assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family struck into the soil” (26), as well as his aversion, as he announces his paternal(istic) determination to “sever” that “connection, which has become an unhealthy one” for his own children (28). Identifying thus a tension between his “natal” or birthing environment and the richer alternative ones he would choose for his offspring, Hawthorne draws repeatedly upon horticultural and agricultural imagery to endorse the projects of human transplantation and migration to an “unaccustomed earth” that arguably would provide new and better nutrients, and better chances of survival than the “worn out soil” of one’s natal culture.

By quoting Hawthorne’s lines, Jhumpa Lahiri may well be implying that more recent immigrants like Bengali Americans also become stronger by uprooting from their parents’ faraway homelands or natal cultures, and rerooting in the unaccustomed earth of American culture. Yet Lahiri’s apparently deferential doff of the cap to her American literary progenitor (establishing by the way her own belonging and credentials as an American writer, well-versed in the New England canonical tradition) belies itself. Her allusion to Hawthorne also calls into question his comfortable assurance with his roots, as her collection refocuses attention on the costs of this process of rerooting, and addresses how it may not be quite so uncomplicatedly beneficial for immigrants of another time, place and race. Not all plants, let alone humans, survive transplantation, and, as Lahiri’s stories show, for some the process of transplantation is impossible or irremediably damaging.1 Yet in this collection Lahiri also, like Hawthorne, draws upon a conceptual tension between the natal, or the family and culture into which one is born, and the non-natal, or the family or culture that one chooses or creates. Indeed, as I will argue in this essay, all the stories in this collection are animated by the painfulness of this tension between the demands of or allegiances a character feels towards her or his natal family, versus what I...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420124240