[(essay date fall/winter 2004) In the following essay, Brada-Williams contends that The Interpreter of Maladies is more than a random collection of short stories, as evidenced by its careful structural balance and recurring motifs.]
It may at first seem strange to describe Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies as a short story cycle rather than simply as a collection of separate and independent stories. After all, from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio to Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street, readers of the modern short story cycle are often cued to the unity of a collection by a single location and/or a small ensemble of recurring characters that serve to unite the various components into a whole, while Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning work features diverse and unrelated characters, a variety of narrative styles, and no common locale. Indeed, the text even transcends national boundaries, being set in both India and the United States. However, a deeper look reveals the intricate use of pattern and motif to bind the stories together, including the recurring themes of the barriers to and opportunities for human communication; community, including marital, extra-marital, and parent-child relationships; and the dichotomy of care and neglect.
The short story cycle is a notoriously difficult genre to define. Forrest L. Ingram points out this difficulty by describing the cycle's method of making meaning:
Like the moving parts of a mobile, the interconnected parts of some short story cycles seem to shift their positions with relation to the other parts, as the cycle moves forward in its typical pattern of recurrent development. Shifting internal relationships, of course, continually alter the originally perceived pattern of the whole cycle. A cycle's form is elusive.(13)
Susan Garland Mann asserts that the essential characteristic of the short story cycle is the "simultaneous self-sufficiency and interdependence" of the stories which make up the whole (17). Mann comments on Ingram's conception of the tension which short story cycles create between the individuality of its components and the unity of the whole by noting that the "tension is revealed in the way people read cycles" (18).
An analogous tension can be found in the way people read ethnic literature. The unique vision of an individual artist and the unique representation he or she provides of a community are often challenged by readers from both within and outside the community being represented as various readers lobby for the value of one representation over another. Such claims on writers include the demand for more sanitized, more stereotype-affirming, or simply more diverse, representations.1 Examples range from controversies over the use of dialect in early twentieth-century African American literature to the depictions of sexuality and gender roles in virtually all ethnic American literatures up to the present time, including, most recently, Lois-Ann Yamanaka's depiction of a Filipino American sexual predator in Blu's Hanging. Although most rational readers are aware of the diversity and individuality of any given ethnic group (especially the vast population Lahiri engages of South Asia and its diaspora), the logic of...