An open letter to Jhumpa Lahiri from a young writer
I heard about your gig as the keynote speaker at the national conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs down in D.C. next month and I wanted to drop you a line to let you know how much I miss the way you used to write, and why it matters to a young writer like me.
When I first came across The Interpreter of Maladies in 2004, I fell in love with it immediately. I'd never read a collection of short stories in which maach bhaja—fish fry—and failed marriages shared billing as major plot points. And when I moved to Gowanus three years ago, I thought it was felicitous to live so near you—it'd been unintentional. You lived in one of the posh brownstones in Park Slope proper, I think. That's a 15-minute hike from my delightful shit-hole above the Mexican Tire Shop on Third Avenue, but still, you'd proven to me—and more importantly, my parents—that Indians could build a full life on the metrics of success we are so frequently taught to suppress: Creativity, passion, non-financial fulfillment. There was something reassuring about your defiant narrative. You proved that Indians—specifically Bengalis—could make it as writers in New York, legitimate popular authors, even if we specialized in a particular subset of Indian culture. For a lot of people, your writing smacked them upside the head and awoke them to the fact that the Indian subcontinent isn’t just a large singular mass; it’s a perfect storm of eclectic languages, rituals and people. Your writing also alerted them to the fact that India is kind of a wonderful mess.
But more importantly, you proved that a writer could hone in on one very specific experience, lived by real characters, while writing about a niche population. You took risks by directly refuting the model-minority myth Indians are subject to. Your characters cheated on each other; they sucked at life; they were sometimes terrible at communication; they were awful to each other.
While The Interpreter of Maladies wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, it was brave enough to flout the bullshit brand of talking-to-spices, perfect-family-raising caricatures that other books before yours made Indians out to be.
I think immediately about “A Temporary Matter”—if only because it’s a story where a married couple is falling out of love without fanfare or scandal. That story—and much of Maladies—actually made me nervous. You were telling the type of family stories that Indian families rarely talk about casually or admit the possibility of among themselves. Even in the most banal of divorces, there’s some scandal, something to make it seems exceptional and unordinary, and “A Temporary Matter” exposed the possibility that a divorce could be this: Devastating, but commonplace.
On the whole, Maladies was built around a cast that was so real that I could, in idle moments, superimpose those short stories on relatives and family friends around me and momentarily shiver. You got me, Jhumpa.
But then somewhere, we disconnected. The Namesake came around, with its well-rendered, if almost monotonous, portrait of immigrant ennui. The adolescent angst that should have been here about balancing two cultures could not have been more awkward. Or rather, suspiciously un-awkward. Drugs and sex in The Namesake were handled as though they were alien encounters to the characters. And the knowing contrivance of the plotlines underscores that. The crumbling marriage in The Namesake read as filler, which is more problematic because Gogol Ganguly’s failures are supposed to make me shake; he’s the character you engineered so Indian-American Millennials would have an entry-point into the novel. Instead he wobbled around like a clumsy caricature. He reminded me a lot of how out-of-touch Bollywood producers who’ve never set foot in the U.S. might try to animate an Indian-American character by sewing together a handful of lazy stereotypes and slang expressions.
But most difficult for me? How Unaccustomed Earth turned out. It was as wonderful as an Alice Munro book: A collection of well-constructed sentences, embedded with a modicum of anguish, and the vague sense that important things were happening, but without any real urgency. The characters evaporated just as they came into view, the stories faded before they were fully realized. These characters bore no resemblance to their ancestors in Maladies—they had privileged lives of easy conflicts and quick resolutions. I yawned a whole lot and, for the first time with one of your books, I decided to try finishing Earth while keeping Ellen on the TV as background noise; it’s no surprise that the absent shuffling of pages quickly ceded the foreground back to Ellen DeGeneres.
SOMETIME IN 2008, KRISTEN O'TOOLE CALLED you boring and overrated in Esquire and my first impulse was to jump to your defense. I couldn't bring myself to believe that what I'd read as restraint was just laziness. But O’Toole had a point. She put it well so I'll just use her words: "It mines the same territories of Bengali-American experience she has explored in her previous books, and is so traditional in style and form that it feels stale."
What was revolutionary in Maladies had become customary in Unaccustomed Earth. And while I’m grateful that my family has a book they can use as a backdoor into the dialogue of popular American culture (sidebar: It's unfortunate that even in 2010, an entire culture’s identity in America potentially rests on the work of only one writer—but that's why I'm writing this letter), your second collection should’ve started where your first left off—and tackled even more unnerving tangents. Instead you flat-lined.
But maybe it's just a mid-career issue. You’ve perfected to a science exactly which tropes and plot structures will sate the New York literati—to whom you owe much of your popular acclaim—and so you try to keep this reputedly fickle but really quite predictable crowd coming back for more. They come for the tired immigrant clichés laced with recognizable upper-middle-class-ennui, so why change the recipe?
But of course one of the reasons your flawed characters were so important was because they broke new ground. In Maladies, you relay the stories of Indian men and women without needing to leverage their ethnicity as a plot device. This was ground-breaking. In “A Temporary Matter” or stories like “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” from Maladies—which was even set in Kolkata—Indian identity politics took a backseat to characterizations and plot progression. This was great! This was wonderful! Other Indian authors failed by padding at least half their novels out with half-assed vernacular spiked with names of spices and other exotic short-hands meant to lazily exude “atmosphere.”
But with each subsequent book came an opposite trend: Suddenly the people populating your stories suffered from inconsequential non-problems. So little was at stake. Also, almost everyone populating your stories either became a professor or ended up working at a university. Jhumpa, did you start reading the reviews of your books? By Earth, it seemed like you were writing to the wrong people; I thought, you had dug yourself such a comfortable, critically-lauded hole in your niche that you were afraid to climb out, writing the same character over and over again, digging yourself deeper.
Is the weight of the Pulitzer Prize backbreaking? Is the pressure of outperforming your last book suffocating? Is the burden of always breaking a new path for the popular understanding of Indians too much?
I know you’re aware that ours is a joyfully fucked up culture, with its matrimonial websites, worship of multi-limbed deities, the belief in multiple lives, antiquated class systems re-imagined as contemporary hierarchies, dynastic power struggles within families, a convoluted relationship between society and sexuality, and other idiosyncrasies. A trove of narrative gold, really. But is it worth it to write stories if all you’re doing is manufacturing people with easily solvable dilemmas existing in settings that increasingly look like runny watercolors?
To turn yourself into a permanent store of two-dimensional immigrant experience parables, when you’ve already demonstrated signs of something more, seems a high price to pay for critical and popular success.
And if that's what is happening, even subconsciously, then I wish you courage. The words are in you and your readers—whether they realize it or not—are waiting to read them.
All the best,