Showing posts with label Memoir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Memoir. Show all posts

6.10.2011

Has Jhumpa Jumped the Shark?

(In response to Lahiri's latest essay in The New Yorker)

I have been a passionate defender of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing over the years, defending her publicly on blogs (see this old blog post of Manish's), in academic contexts, and even at friends' book clubs. I’ve taught her books and even written an essay on naming that does a close reading of her 2003 novel The Namesake. Some critics and readers who are not fans complain that her books leave them cold -– there’s not to go on in terms of plot, and the characters, with their bourgeois New England backgrounds and relatively quiet lives, are not exactly the stuff Michael Bey movies are made of. Other friends and acquaintances of mine have come to her writing expecting her to be an “Indian” author, and been disappointed to discover that she’s really “not very Indian” –- South Asia only figures in her work periodically.

My defense of Lahiri has generally followed a two-fold pattern: first, craft matters, and Lahiri pays attention to her sentences. That's why I value Lahiri and have generally dismissed sentimental Indian diaspora writers like Meena Alexander or Chitra Divakaruni. Secondly, Lahiri has been one of a very small number of writers to explore the mainstream second-generation immigrant experience with a degree of seriousness and care. For that reason, I respect the fact that Lahiri does not try to play her Indian cultural heritage for "multicultural" exoticism, but rather considers it as merely one among many pieces of the contemporary American puzzle. (If some people are disappointed at the absence of the smell of curry powder, perhaps we should be asking them to reconsider what they were looking for to begin with.)

Alongside her short stories, Lahiri has published several autobiographical essays in recent years that have all covered somewhat similar ground (see this essay, for example, from 2009).

With her latest piece in the New Yorker Lahiri seems to me dangerously close to jumping the shark. Lahiri’s essay is ostensibly a reflection on her childhood experience of books and her growing interest in becoming a writer. While there is as always a high degree of care and precision –- the emphasis on craft again –- the full extent of Lahiri’s navel-gazing often leaves the reader struggling to remain interested:

In the fifth grade, I won a small prize for a story called “The Adventures of a Weighing Scale,” in which the eponymous narrator describes an assortment of people and other creatures who visit it. Eventually the weight of the world is too much, the scale breaks, and it is abandoned at the dump. I illustrated the story—all my stories were illustrated back then—and bound it together with bits of orange yarn. The book was displayed briefly in the school library, fitted with an actual card and pocket. No one took it out, but that didn’t matter. The validation of the card and pocket was enough. The prize also came with a gift certificate for a local bookstore. As much as I wanted to own books, I was beset by indecision. For hours, it seemed, I wandered the shelves of the store. In the end, I chose a book I’d never heard of, Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories.” I wanted to love those stories, but their old-fashioned wit eluded me. And yet I kept the book as a talisman, perhaps, of that first recognition. Like the labels on the cakes and bottles that Alice discovers underground, the essential gift of my award was that it spoke to me in the imperative; for the first time, a voice in my head said, “Do this.”

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/06/13/110613fa_fact_lahiri#ixzz1OumKmTyV(link)

Read charitably, this passage is simply an incidental event from childhood that helped validate Lahiri’s early interest in writing and her confidence in her abilities as a storyteller. Read less charitably, the passage could be read as: I decided I wanted to become a writer when I won a prize for a story I wrote in the fifth grade.

Again, this essay is far from all bad. There is a poignant passage where Lahiri describes how she came to write her first story as an adult (at age 30) after taking a trip with her parents to Bengal: “It [the first story] was set in the building where my mother had grown up, and where I spent much of my time when I was in India. I see now that my impulse to write this story, and several like-minded stories that followed, was to prove something to my parents: that I understood, on my own terms, in my own words, in a limited but precise way, the world they came from.”

But not long after this, we are back into personal anecdotes that feel distinctly like padding to take advantage of the New Yorker’s generous per-word pay scale –- the story of another Indian family dealing with the loss of a child in childbirth, life for Indian immigrant families in the suburbs, and so on.

When I read these sorts of reflections, I worry that Lahiri has perhaps run out of ideas or inspiration. Aren’t there other kinds of narratives to work through than the one she has by now dealt with several times (in both essays and stories): of growing up as an Indian American in New England, going to college and graduate school, and finally, deciding, perhaps against her family's wishes, to become a writer? Doesn’t Lahiri have an interest in representing or engaging voices other than her own?

I will probably continue to be a fan of Lahiri’s, but I must admit my patience is wearing thin.

8.13.2007

Brief Review: Ishmael Beah, "A Long Way Gone"

I recently read Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, after hearing a great deal about it earlier this spring. (Beah was interviewed all over the place, and the book was actually on sale at Starbucks at some point...)

This is one of those cases where the hype is actually on target.

The basics of the story will be familiar to many readers. Beah is a former child soldier, who was displaced from his home and separated from his parents near the beginning of the civil war in Sierra Leone. He was 12 at the time. For several months he, his brother, and a group of friends walked through the jungle fleeing the rebels that had destroyed his village. But as they encounter various kinds of violence along the way, Beah is periodically separated from the group; at certain points he walks through the jungle entirely alone, and forages for food to survive. Eventually, Beah is "recruited" into the Sierra Leonean army, which struggled to keep up with the the RUF rebels throughout the mid-1990s. Beah becomes a soldier who fights ruthlessly, all the while hopped up on speed and cocaine mixed with gunpowder ("brown brown").

What's remarkable about the story is the way in which Beah, who was later removed from the conflict by UNICEF, and eventually adopted by a woman in New York City, manages to preserve a sense of innocence in his account of the darkest chapters of his childhood experiences. Sometimes the naivete of his voice seems a little forced, but for the most part it is quite effective at conveying what is in essence a horrible paradox: Beah was a child who was trained to be a vicious killer.

A blogger has posted an excerpt from the passage where Beah describes his first experience in combat here.

But my favorite passages are actually not the gory, "thick of battle" scenes, but rather some of the quieter moments, as in the following account of the month Beah spent (again, at age 12 -- and this is also before he got involved in combat) walking through the jungle:

The most difficult part of being in the forest was the loneliness. It became unbearable each day. One thing about being lonesome is that you think too much, especially when there isn't much else you can do. I didn't like this and I tried to stop myself from thinking, but nothing seemed to work. I decided to just ignore every thought that came to my head, because it brought too much sadness. Apart from eating and drinking water and once every other day taking a bath, I spent most of my time fighting myself mentally in order to avoid thinking about what I had seen or wondering where my life was going, where my family and friends were. The more I resisted thinking, the longer the days became, and I felt as if my head was becoming heavier each passing day. I became restless and afraid and was afraid to sleep for fear that my suppressed thoughts would appear in my dreams.

As I searched the forest for more food and to find a way out, I feared coming in contact with wild animals like leopards, lions, and wild pigs. So I stayed closer to trees that I could easily mount to hid myself from these animals. I walked as fast as I could, but the more I walked, the more it seemed I was getting deeper into the thickness of the forest. The harder I tried to get out, the bigger and taller the trees became. This was a problem, because it got difficult to find a tree that was easy to climb and had suitable branches to sleep in.


Though Beah wrote these lines as an adult (he apparently started work on the book while studying at Oberlin College), to my eye he's quite good at capturing the way a child might experience life in complete isolation in the jungle. (Not that I've been there or done that!)

I think Beah should consider trying his hand at fiction for the next book.