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JEFFREY BROWN: In 2000, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded to a book of short stories, which is unusual. It was also the first book by the winning author, which is even more unusual. Now that author, Jhumpa Lahiri, has written her first novel, “The Namesake,” about two generations of Indians from Calcutta becoming Americans. Jhumpa Lahiri joins me now. Welcome.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: So a young couple comes from India to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they and their children find themselves somewhat between worlds.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: It’s what my world is, and what I’ve always been aware of. My parents came from Calcutta. They arrived in Cambridge, much like the parents in my novel. And I found myself sort of caught between the world of my parents and the world they had left behind and still clung to, and also the world that surrounded me at school and everywhere else, as soon as I set foot out the door. So I’ve never not been aware of that division in my life, and I wanted to write about that in the book.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there is of course a great tradition of writing in American literature about the immigrant experience.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Sure.
JEFFREY BROWN: Often it’s a kind of big raucous epic. You write about smaller moments.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I think maybe it’s the way I approach life, and thinking about life. I think it’s the small things, the smaller episodes and details that I linger on and try to draw meaning from, just personally. And so I think that’s why that’s what I highlight in my writing maybe.
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a passage early on, maybe to give an example. It’s where the young woman who’s just recently come to the United States is pregnant, describing how she feels. Maybe you could read that for us.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Sure, I’d be glad to. “But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past 18 months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all. It’s not so much the pain, which she knows somehow she will survive; it’s the consequence, motherhood in a foreign land. For it was one thing to be pregnant, to suffer the queasy mornings in bed, the sleepness nights, the dull throbbing in her back, the countless visits to the bathroom.
Throughout the experience, in spite of her growing discomfort, she had been astonished by her body’s ability to make life exactly as her mother and her grandmother and all her great- grandmothers had done. That it was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved, had made it more miraculous still. But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare.”
JEFFREY BROWN: So identity is a big theme, in terms of being between two cultures, but also literally the idea of our names, the name of the book, “The Namesake.”
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me what’s going on with that.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Oh, so many things. The whole book sort of grew out of a name, grew out of a particular name, Gogol, the last name of the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. And this name belonged to a young friend of one of my cousins in Calcutta.
I had always been aware of having an unusual name and the difficulties one faces living with a name in a place where it doesn’t make sense or where it’s, you know, unknown. But I started to think about why names meant what they did, depending on where we were, just sort of the relationship between identity and geography. And the book just kind of grew out of meditating on those ideas.
JEFFREY BROWN: Your character, in fact, has two names.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: He does.
JEFFREY BROWN: And he doesn’t seem comfortable with either one.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: That’s right. Well, that’s… there’s a tradition in Bengali families, which is the part of India where my parents are from, that typically one has two names simultaneously– what is called a pet name that’s used at home by the family, and then a good name or a proper name, which is used in the world at large. And I was always very struck by this because, you know, it seemed, on the one hand, very normal because my mother and father have two names, you know. Almost everyone I knew in India and here had these two names. And they really were two different people depending on the names that were being used. But I think that for the child of an immigrant, the existence of two names kind of speaks so strongly for the very predicament of many children of immigrants.
JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of names, when your name was announced several years ago as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, I imagine a lot of people said, “who? Who is that?” Were you then under great pressure as you set about writing your first novel?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I gathered that there was some pressure out there. But, you know, I had already started working on this book when the Pulitzer was announced for “Interpreter of Maladies.” And I already felt immersed in this work, and kind of removed from that one. And so I felt that this, you know… the new work is always what one focuses on. I appreciate everything that’s happened. It opens up life in a way. And I think the more life is opened up to you, I hope the richer… for me, the richer my writing will be, you know.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. The new novel’s called “The Namesake.” Jhumpa Lahiri, thank you for joining us.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.