Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth and An Unaccustomed Reader

By John Cheeran
Jhumpa Lahiri is in the news again after the publication of her Unaccustomed Earth, a new collection of stories. I read the other day the review of the book, or, more a review on author, in Time magazine while browsing at an airport bookstore.
The buzz is that she has been hailed as an American author with a distinct voice, though her style is less baroque, and almost plain.
Left to myself, I’m not greatly enthused by what Lahiri tells through her stories or by her writing itself. I haven’t read the Unaccustomed Earth, but I have read an earlier collection of stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, and the novel, The Namesake.
Both those efforts left me untouched. The point is that for an average North American critic and reader, the Bengali and Indian social preoccupations may hold novel value but for a wearied Indian such as me such stuff brings only waves of yawn.
Many count Lahiri’s limitations as her advantage such as the shut doors and world she describes, and her plain style.
I have wondered how on earth anyone could write such contrived drivel as the Namesake and still get published by any self-respecting imprint.
And what does the Namesake really speaks about?
The immigrant experience?
Had Lahiri wanted to tackle immigrant experience in the West or in the North America, she should have moved away from the elitist Indian experience and ventured to see searing, more vivid immigrant tales rather than the set up dates and the art of frying samosas. I looked for the spirit that leavens any life, leave alone the immigrant life, in the Namesake, but couldn’t find it.
What Lahiri has to say and write is nothing but comparing and exchanging family notes. And surprise is that there is a huge market for such stuff. Apparently Jhumpa has done some research.
And before I began to write this post, I had come across an interview with her in the Atlantic Magazine. There I found Jhumpa Lahiri rationalizing her plain style. Allow me to quote her from that interview
“I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more. There's form and there's function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn't comfortable. I don't want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can. “

Well, it seems I will remain an Unaccustomed Reader for some time to come.

1 comment:

ZenDenizen said...

Perhaps you'll like my take on Jhumpa's work:


John Cheeran at Blogged