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.


Anonymous said...

Jhumpa Lahiri is all craft and no spark. She takes herself much too seriously. Like you, I admire some aspects of her work, but find her so devoid of humor, so witless, so earnest, that it's tedious. Is there an opposite for "wry." That's Jhumpa Lahiri.

W.T.F. Ittabari said...

Amardeep, perhaps your patience with Jumpa Lahiri is running thin. Books have a dimension beyond their spiritual content. As objects. The image I saw in my head when I read the selected paragraph evoked the author as a child. Like a world-famous surgeon-to-be sitting in the front lawn on her tricycle with a mock plastic stethoscope around her neck. Many of us also keep books we have won in competitions as talismans. In that way, winning a prize for writing as a child may be a common experience but a unique one nonetheless. It merits a well-told telling.

Sukhmani Khorana said...

I think it takes a lot of writerly courage to lay bare one's personal life, and particularly one's memories in the way that Jhumpa Lahiri does in both her fiction and her essays. While her stories and novels may not have a conventional plot as such, it is rather refreshing to real details of the domestic South Asian immigrant kitchen (for instance), or the everyday pain of being a mother soon after losing your own. These are not epic incidents, but still remarkable for bestowing the ordinary with a deal of poetry.

shrabanti said...

I just found your blog and found that from wikipedia. But, you have wrote about Jhumpa Lahiri. She is Bengali and me too. So I am proud of her. Great post to let us know about her as I am currently migrated to another state away from Bengal . Thanks Amardeep

AVM said...

I cannot dismiss either Chitra Banerjee or Jhumpa Lahiri. They are essentially different people. Ms.Lahiri has said that she tends to observe,removing herself from situations. Perhaps it is her style as a writer to relate experiences as vividly as possible, never letting her emotional landscape be glimpsed. The expectations that her work should rouse some sort of familiarity is our own. Perhaps because we imagine characters with Indian names to be livelier than she portrays them. But as a second generation American, she is drawing on familiarity. That being Indian names, places and American attitudes.
I admire her work.

Dr. Ally Critter said...

As someone who loves to read and tries sometimes to write (but fails miserably) I find myself in awe of Ms Lahiri's work. However, I found that Unaccustomed Earth had more than a regular dose of what I call "Immigrant Angst". I found myself wondering if she had found a formula and decided to stick to it. Because compelling though it is, this tale of a second generation immigrant gets old after a while. Sure there is more to the writer and her unique experience than the whole alien in a familiar yet alien land narrative. Reading this piece in the New Yorker, I wonder if maybe that is so. She is just this same person she keeps writing about- and no more than that. Will I continue to read her, yes I definitely will- but considerably less starry eyed .

Thank you for providing legitimacy to my impression of Chitra Banerjee.