"Interpreter of Maladies is 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." -- Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri (Bengali: ?????? ???????; born on July 11, 1967) is an Indian American author. Lahiri's debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was adapted into the popular film of the same name. She was born Nilanjana Sudeshna, which are both "good names," but goes by her pet name Jhumpa. Lahiri is a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by President Barack Obama.
"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.""For that story, I took as my subject a young woman whom I got to know over the course of a couple of visits. I never saw her having any health problems - but I knew she wanted to be married.""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.""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. On my way home, after running into him, I just heard this phrase in my head.""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.""I would not send a first story anywhere. I would give myself time to write a number of stories.""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 yet at the same time, building a life here and all that that entailed.""I've never had Internet access. Actually, I have looked at things on other people's computers as a bystander. A few times in my life I've opened email accounts, twice actually, but it's something I don't want in my life right now.""I've seen novels that have grown out of one story in a collection. But it hasn't occurred to me to take any of those stories and build on them. They seem very finished for me, so I don't feel like going back and dredging them up.""It's easy to set a story anywhere if you get a good guidebook and get some basic street names, and some descriptions, but, for me, yes, I am indebted to my travels to India for several of the stories.""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.""Relationships do not preclude issues of morality.""Some Indians will come up and say that a story reminded them of something very specific to their experience. Which may or may not be the case for non-Indians.""The reactions haven't differed; the concerns have been different. When I read for a predominantly Indian audience, there are more questions that are based on issues of identity and representation.""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.""When I sit down to write, I don't think about writing about an idea or a given message. I just try to write a story which is hard enough.""Winning the Pulitzer is 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.""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."
Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Bengali Indian immigrants. Her family moved to the United States when she was three; Lahiri considers herself an American, stating, "I wasn't born here, but I might as well have been." Lahiri grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island, where her father Amar Lahiri works as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island; he is the basis for the protagonist in "The Third and Final Continent," the closing story from Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri's mother wanted her children to grow up knowing their Bengali heritage, and her family often visited relatives in Calcutta (now Kolkata).
When she began kindergarten in Kingston, Rhode Island Lahiri's teacher decided to call her by her pet name, Jhumpa, because it was easier to pronounce than her "proper names". Lahiri recalled, "I always felt so embarrassed by my name.... You feel like you're causing someone pain just by being who you are." Lahiri's ambivalence over her identity was the inspiration for the ambivalence of Gogol, the protagonist of her novel The Namesake, over his unusual name. Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School, and received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College in 1989.
Lahiri then received multiple degrees from Boston University: an M.A. in English, M.F.A. in Creative Writing, M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She took a fellowship at Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center, which lasted for the next two years (1997—1998). Lahiri has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then Deputy Editor of TIME Latin America (and now Executive Editor of El Diario/La Prensa, New York's largest Spanish daily and America's fastest growing newspaper). Lahiri lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their two children, Octavio (b. 2002) and Noor (b. 2005).
Lahiri's early short stories faced rejection from publishers "for years". Her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies was finally released in 1999. The stories address sensitive dilemmas in the lives of Indians or Indian immigrants, with themes such as marital difficulties, miscarriages, and the disconnection between first and second generation United States immigrants. Lahiri later wrote, "When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life." The collection was praised by American critics, but received mixed reviews in India, where reviewers were alternately enthusiastic and upset Lahiri had "not paint[ed] Indians in a more positive light." Interpreter of Maladies sold 600,000 copies and received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (only the seventh time a story collection had won the award).
In 2003, Lahiri published The Namesake, her first novel. The story spans over thirty years in the life of the Ganguli family. The Calcutta-born parents emigrated as young adults to the United States, where their children, Gogol and Sonia, grow up experiencing the constant generational and cultural gap with their parents. A film adaptation of The Namesake was released in March 2007, directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn as Gogol and Bollywood stars Tabu and Irrfan Khan as his parents.
Lahiri's second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, was released on April 1, 2008. Upon its publication, Unaccustomed Earth achieved the rare distinction of debuting at number 1 on The New York Times best seller list. New York Times Book Review editor, Dwight Garner, stated, "It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction ... particularly a book of stories ... that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout."
Lahiri has also had a distinguished relationship with The New Yorker magazine in which she has published a number of her short stories, mostly fiction, and a few non-fiction including The Long Way Home; Cooking Lessons, a story about the importance of food in Lahiri's relationship with her mother.
Since 2005, Lahiri has been a Vice President of the PEN American Center, an organization designed to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers.
In February 2010, she was appointed a member of the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, along with five others.
Lahiri's writing is characterized by her "plain" language and her characters, often Indian immigrants to America who must navigate between the cultural values of their birthplace and their adopted home.Lahiri's fiction is autobiographical and frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her parents, friends, acquaintances, and others in the Bengali communities with which she is familiar. Lahiri examines her characters' struggles, anxieties, and biases to chronicle the nuances and details of immigrant psychology and behavior.
Until Unaccustomed Earth, she focused mostly on first-generation Indian American immigrants and their struggle to raise a family in a country very different from theirs. Her stories describe their efforts to keep their children acquainted with Indian culture and traditions and to keep them close even after they have grown up in order to hang on to the Indian tradition of a joint family, in which the parents, their children and the children's families live under the same roof.
Unaccustomed Earth departs from this earlier original ethos as Lahiri's characters embark on new stages of development. These stories scrutinize the fate of the second and third generations. As succeeding generations become increasingly assimilated into American culture and are comfortable in constructing perspectives outside of their country of origin, Lahiri's fiction shifts to the needs of the individual. She shows how later generations depart from the constraints of their immigrant parents, who are often devoted to their community and their responsibility to other immigrants.