Sunday, July 12, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri- Unaccostumed Earth (book review)

A few months ago I got into a conversation with a work acquaintance about Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. The friend’s reaction was “I read it and that was me, that was exactly my family.”

It happens that the friend is Bengali, grew up on the East Coast, and is very well educated. Jhumpa Lahiri has been extraordinarily successful critically and commercially. How many other writers get short story collections on the best seller list? With that success has come a certain amount of blowback. The complaint being that Lahiri doesn’t much venture out of her comfort zone. It goes something like this. “She’s really good at writing about upwardly mobile Bengalis in America, but there are Bengalis who don’t go to Yale or Bryn Mawr and shouldn’t a great writer deal with a broader range of experience?

I counter with the fact that I’m Chinese, male, and live on the west coast, but my first reaction to Lahiri was “That’s my story too.”

Lahiri’s Bengalis aren’t exactly universal, but they’re certainly not the only group where one generation has committed to living in exile from its own children. The formula for most Lahiri stories is pretty basic. A Bengali goes to American schools, gets a professional job, then struggles in unexpected ways to reconcile those changes with his/her own sense of cultural tradition. In this sense, the cultural value of “career ambition” becomes a kind of paradox. The good Bengali pleases his/her parents by succeeding in school, but that’s exactly what creates a sometimes unbridgeable gap with the very parents and elders he or she is working so hard to please.

Non-writers often get into this mode of why can’t Lahiri (or name some author) write about revolutions in Africa, gay men in Italy, or mall rats in the San Fernando Valley the way she writes about Bengalis in the northeast? I suspect they don’t understand that most fiction writers draw on a set of core materials or experiences. Most of us need to understand a world at a very deep level to be able to identify the rich way the different currents in those waters affect what the rest of us see on the surface. It’s not so much that a great fiction writer needs to write about multiple and wildly different worlds, it’s really more a matter of showing that you can find the depth and range of human experience within your chosen material/culture.

One of the reactions to Lahiri’s third book and second collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth is that it’s just more of the same. I disagree. Where, Lahiri often explored the price of “success” for Bengalis living in America, Unaccostumed Earth looks at the “failures” in greater depth. More often than not, it’s the men who have fallen short in some way. In Only Goodness, there’s an alcoholic brother as seen through the eyes of a sister who may have inadvertently started him down that path. In a Choice of Accomadations, it’s a thirtyish prep school graduate who gave up Med School and who should probably have been a journalist. In the title story, a female attorney stays home to be a mother while she wrestles with her decision to ask her recently widowered father to move in with them. In the meantime, her father encourages her to stay in the loop with her career. The collection ends with a trilogy of stories devoted to Kaushik, a man who never emotionally turns the corner after the death of his mother.

In reality, Lahiri is extending her territory to another generation and set of problems. In many cases, the children from Unaccostumed Earth essentially grow up, marry out (virtually all of the characters wind up with white mates), and face problems of their own. Rather than attempting to cling to traditions, they’ve frequently turned their back on the protections of Bengali customs and find themselves unable to navigate. The sister with the alcoholic brother is uncertain how to cope with the resulting “hole” in the family. A young woman (Nobody's Business) who eschews both graduate school at Harvard and various offers of arranged marriage finds herself adrift in a relationship with a philandering Egyptian scholar and confused about the ambiguity of her friendship with a male housemate. Kaushik gives up the interconnectedness of Bengali life and finds himself grasping for Hema, the one person he knew before his life changed. Inevitably, the stories in this collection are bittersweet or deeply sad and lonely.

In the Namesake, after all of his emotional wanderings Gogol comes home to the realization that his father’s values were less Indian than he imagined. In Unaccostumed Earth, characters of the same generation frequently lack that comfort and become more fully-exiled from their ancestral culture. They occupy an emotionally more dangerous world than say the young academic in Interpreter of Maladies who takes a room in the home of a hundred year old woman or the Bengali family that befriends a Bangladeshi man just before war breaks out over independence. While there are divorces and various breakdowns in Lahiri’s earlier collection, the characters stay connected to their identity as Bengalis. This greater sense of emotional risk in Unaccostumed Earth also seems to result in a pulling in of plot and the situations themselves. In Interpreter, at least two of the stories are set in India, with one not being about the diaspora at all. In one story, the theme isn’t Indian at all except for the fact that the wife and husband begin cooking dinner together during a regular power outage. In Unaccostumed Earth, the settings and family situations are arguably more familiar and more self-consciously Bengali to heighten the sense of loss and inevitability.

The writing remains beautiful. Lahiri has a remarkably sharp eye for household objects, clothing, and food. Two weeks after reading the book, I found myself jumping up one day and proclaiming to my wife that I wanted to make Bengali fried eggplant (I very rarely cook). I realized later it was just the way Lahiri’s descriptions often linger. You don’t just smell and taste the food, she describes so lovingly. You have to taste it for real. While there are some differences between the Cantonese diaspora and the Indian, both cultures have had their greatest success in maintaining a sense of identity through the persistence of food. You live apart from your extended family, you marry people outside your ethnicity, you stop going back to the native country (or never do), but you still define yourself through food.

More significant, Lahiri’s characters maintain their own way of speaking and establish distinct identities quickly. Still, I’m not sure that Unaccostumed is quite as successful artistically as Interpreter, though I think both work better than the Namesake (the movie was actually better than the book in some ways). For one, the trilogy of stories at the end felt vaguely unsatisfying at least partly because Hema never became a full partner in the unfolding of the story and thus lacked the subtle and beautiful plotting of the best of Interpreter of Maladies. In the brother/sister story, I found myself wondering if she’d chosen the less interesting point of view of the two and the references, as beautifully done as they are, to a Van Eyck painting felt forced. My take though may be affected by two things. First, my favorite story was Unaccostumed Earth itself, about the globetrotting father and the homebound daughter, which builds beautifully around the symbol of a misplaced postcard. In any case, as fine as the stories that followed were, I felt inevitably let down. Second, Lahiri this time wasn’t new to me. It’s hard to match the joy of “discovering” a writer about whom you can say “that’s me” “that’s my life”.

But none of that has anything do to do with Lahiri failing to venture outwards. In fact, I see this as a very gentle spreading of the wings of her fictional world. She remains very much a writer I love and one whose next flight I’ll track closely.



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