Affect, History, and the Ironies of Community and Solidarity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 251. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,241 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Moynihan examines the mainstream success of Lahiri’s first collection, concluding that comments by reviewers make her “ethnic difference … safe by the emphasis on what seems to be universal.” Moynihan questions “the turn to emotions and emotional identification as an uninterrogated basis for a ‘universal’ human connection,” insisting that more productive attention may be paid to contradictions, fractures, and differences.]

As detailed in the introduction to this volume, Jhumpa Lahiri has enjoyed an extraordinary success few writers ever hope to achieve, most notably by winning the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, the 1999 short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Seeking to explain Lahiri’s meteoric rise, reviewers of the American mainstream press sometimes seem caught in their efforts to reconcile her widespread appeal with her difference as a South Asian American writer and a writer of the Indian immigrant experience, a supposedly circumscribed milieu.1 As Lenora Todaro puts it in her review of Unaccustomed Earth for The Village Voice, Lahiri is “an artist of a particular ‘narrative’: the Bengali family and its discontents as it assimilates into America. … Lahiri’s story stock, however, is rife with characters that are larger than the Bengali immigration experience, experiences larger than mere discontent. She’s an artist of the family portrait, drawing upon the shades of love that color us as we crawl from childhood to old age. …” Like Todaro’s emphasis on what she calls Lahiri’s “emotional wisdom,” other reviewers have turned to Lahiri’s savvy depiction of her characters’ emotions and her ability to foster a reader’s connection with her characters in this way. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times writes of Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies: “Ms. Lahiri chronicles her characters’ lives with both objectivity and compassion while charting the emotional temperature of their lives with tactile precision” (“Liking America”). Likewise, in her review of Unaccustomed Earth, Kakutani stresses Lahiri’s “intimate knowledge of their conflicted hearts” and “her emotional wisdom and consummate artistry as a writer” (“Wonder Bread and Curry”). Charles Taylor, reviewing Interpreter of Maladies for, emphasizes the “ardor of empathy” distinguishing the text and finds that “Lahiri’s gift is to invest the ordinary with an emotion that makes us feel we’re seeing it anew. What is beyond her empathy is not yet apparent.” Reviewers consistently ground the appeal of Lahiri’s writing in the effectiveness of her emotional portrait.

As many reviews also stress, the emotional complexities of Lahiri’s characters play out in the dynamics of their relationships and the challenges of communication, the supposedly inner turmoil of emotion further frustrated in its outward reach toward others. Gillian Flynn’s review of Interpreter of Maladies for Entertainment Weekly, locating Lahiri’s inspiration in her background as a child of diaspora caught between worlds,2 states: “Little wonder, then, that Interpreter’s tales revolve around communication: misinterpreted gestures, unexpressed longings, and the occasional shocking connection” (Flynn). When asked by Newsweek interviewer Vibhuti Patel if she would claim the role of “interpreter of our maladies...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420124238