[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Dutt-Ballerstadt considers Lahiri’s placement within the literary canon, with reference to her depictions of Bengali migrants and their American children and the cultural-generational differences between them.]
It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri became a global figure virtually overnight. First came the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies, then The Namesake, and then Kal Penn as “Gogol Ganguli.” Her works are taught in Asian-American, postcolonial, and American literature courses throughout American universities. In spite of her popularity both in the United States and abroad, there seems to be a nagging question about her place in the English literary canon. Some of the poignant subjects that she addresses in her works, such as gendered migration of the intellectual class, homelessness, the symbolism of death and second-generation predicaments of belonging, race, and hybridity intersect the fields of postcolonial and Asian American studies. However, Lahiri’s broader theme of migration and immigration to America, and in particular her representation of the “model minority” position, is a topic of much exploration in American literature. She specifically focuses on the various nuances of migration, mostly the immigration of the Bengali intellectual (immigration through the special skills provisions in the 1965 Immigration Act) to America, who fundamentally reconfigured the demography of South Asian America. Lahiri’s narratives focus on the effect of such migrations on the first-generation subjects and their American-born offspring. N. V. M. Gonzales’s terminology, “fusion of migrancy and exile” (82), used to describe Filipino/a American literature, is also applicable to Lahiri’s works. Lahiri’s not only creates the first-generation migrant subject as “exilic,” and foreign, but also continues to show how the second-generation American-born subjects are both exilic and foreign, nomadic and displaced in both their land of birth and elsewhere in the world.
In determining the place of Lahiri within the canon of postcolonial and Asian American studies, David Palumbo-Liu, in regards to canonization of ethnic literatures, alerts us to investigate “how the texts of a particular ‘group’ may occupy specific institutional positions” (19) and how “ethnic texts become canonized and reconfigured as they move across national cultural spaces? (19) Lahiri’s works have received much attention in India and abroad, particularly among the Bengali diasporic community. Unlike the charges brought against Bharati Mukherjee as representing narratives that are historically positioned as inaccurate and faulty, and her characters often one-dimensional, predictable, and deliberately “exotic,” Lahiri’s narratives echo a kind of balanced authenticity and complexity of vision in representing the Bengali diasporic community that until now has been underrepresented. Robin E. Field, in her article “Writing the Second Generation,” captures the scope of Lahiri’s contribution to literature aptly:
Her books underscore the evolving nature of both immigrant and mainstream...