|PULITZER PRIZE WINNER-FICTION|
April 12 , 2000
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The fiction winner this year was Jhumpa Lahiri for her collection of short stories, "Interpreter of Maladies." Using a variety of characters, Lahiri gives life in these stories to the feelings of alienation, loneliness, and hope that so often mark the immigrant experience. She was born in England in 1967 and raised in Rhode Island. Her parents were born and raised in India. "Interpreter of maladies" is her first book, and the title story also won an O. Henry award. Thank you for being with us, and congratulations.
JHUMPA LAHIRI, Pulitzer Prize, Fiction: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the title of the book. It's an unusual title, "Interpreter of Maladies." Where does it come from?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: The title is... Well, it's the title of one of the stories in the book. And the phrase itself was something I thought of before I even wrote that story. I thought of it one day after I ran into someone I knew. I asked him what he was doing with himself, and he told me he was working as an interpreter in a doctor's office in Brookline, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time, and he was translating for a doctor who had a number of Russian patients. And he was fluent in English and Russian. And on my way home, after running into him, I thought of this... I just heard this phrase in my head. And I liked the way it sounded, but I wasn't quite sure what it meant, but I wrote it down. I just wrote down the phrase itself. And for years, I sort of would try to write a story that somehow fit the title. And I don't think it happened for maybe another four years that I actually thought of a story, the plot of a story that corresponded to that phrase.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It occurred to me that you're kind of an interpreter of maladies yourself in these stories.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I guess that's what has... That's the way it's turned out, yeah. But I didn't know... At the time, I wasn't aware of it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There's longing and loss in these stories, the longing and loss that often comes with the life of an immigrant. Is this your longing and loss, do you think, as the child of immigrants, or is this more the longing and loss of your parents' generation coming through?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Both. I think that, in part, it's a reflection of what I observed my parents experiencing and their friends, their circle of fellow Indian immigrant friends. It's also, in part, drawn from my own experiences and a sense of... I always say that I feel that I've inherited a sense of that loss from my parents because it was so palpable all the time while I was growing up, the sense of what my parents had sacrificed in moving to the United States, and in so many ways, and yet at the same time, remaining here and building a life here and all that that entailed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: One of the stories that raises these issues is called "When Mr. Perzada Comes to Dine." If begins like this: "In the autumn of 1971, a man used to come to our house bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family." I love that beginning. Tell us a little bit about the story, and then read from it for us, please.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Sure. This story is based on a gentleman who indeed did... used to come to my parents' house in 1971 from Bangladesh. He was at the University of Rhode Island. And I was four, four years old, at the time, and so I actually don't have any memories of this gentleman. But I've heard... I heard through my parents what his predicament was. And when I learned about his situation, which was that he was in the United States during the Pakistani civil war and his family was back in Taka, I just sort of... I was so overwhelmed by this information that I wrote this story based on that... Based on that experience in my parents' life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read the paragraph, please.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Sure. "At 6:30, which was when the national news began, my father raised the volume and adjusted the antennas. Usually I occupied myself with a book, but that night my father insisted that I pay attention. On the screen I saw tanks rolling through dusty streets, and fallen buildings, and forests of unfamiliar trees into which East Pakistani refugees had fled, seeking safety over the Indian border. I saw boats with fan-shaped sails floating on wide coffee-colored rivers, a barricaded university, newspaper offices burnt to the ground. I turned to look at Mr. Perzada. The images flashed in miniature across his eyes. As he watched, he had an immovable expression on his face, composed but alert, as if someone were giving him directions to an unknown destination."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Reviewers have called your narrative voice "elegant, bittersweet, gentle." How did you get this voice? It seems so deceptively... It's so spare and so simple, but it must have been very hard to arrive at.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you. I don't know. I can't tell you exactly how I found it. It was just a process of writing a lot of stories and reading a lot of stories that I admired and just working and working until the sentences sounded right and I was satisfied with them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you surprised to get the Pulitzer? It doesn't happen very often, does it, that a first book gets a Pulitzer?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Oh, absolutely shocked. I had no idea. I didn't even think it was possible. I'm just in disbelief still.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Will it make a difference in your writing or in your life, do you think?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: It's made a little bit of a difference the past few days.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I bet.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I will try not to think about it, though, when I write. I don't know... I mean, I think I'll... It's wonderful and it's an honor and I feel so humbled and so grateful, but I think that I'll think of it very much as the final sort of... final moment for this book and put it behind me along with the rest of the book, as I write more books.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you feel like you're in a long tradition of American writers who deal with the immigrant experience? I mean, we could sit here and name many of them. Do you feel very much a part of that tradition?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I didn't feel part of it as I was writing the stories, but I think that now that the book has been published and that ere have been... You know, since the reviews have come out and people have reacted to it, I've realized that is in a sense what has happened. But as I was writing them, I didn't feel a part of any tradition. I think that would have been too overwhelming, in a sense.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, are you writing now? And if so, can you tell us what about?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I am working on another book. I'm working on a novel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Also about India and the United States and all of the connections between them?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: More or less, not... I don't think it'll be as vast in scope, but definitely about Indian immigrants in the United States, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Jhumpa Lahiri, thank you very much. And congratulations again.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you so much.