/ NEWS / 2023 / 09 / 18 / JHUMPA LAHIRI AND ME

Jhumpa Lahiri and Me

09:15 18.09.2023 - The New York Times

I graduated from high school in 2000, the year Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, "Interpreter of Maladies," a collection of stories about well-off Indian immigrants and their children. I loved it. It was the first time I'd read fiction that bore some resemblance to my own privileged, suburban, Indian American life.

It couldn't have been a coincidence that, for a college creative-writing class a couple of years later, the first piece of fiction I turned in was about an Indian American girl visiting Hyderabad for her cousin's wedding. In the span of seven single-spaced pages, the story mentioned arranged marriage, saris, rickshaws and chai. Surely, I thought, this was what I, as an Indian American writer, was supposed to be writing about - Lahiri was the only model I had.

Then I started to read more widely: George Saunders, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson. These authors wrote weird, darkly funny stories that resonated with me. Lahiri, with her restrained chronicles of the Bengali Brahmin bourgeoisie, started to seem limited by contrast. While some of her depiction of Indian American life reflected my experience, I was becoming more aware of what didn't.

That wasn't my only reservation. I noticed that critics and friends seemed to judge Saunders, Williams, Moore and Johnson for their prose alone, while knowing little, if anything, about their backgrounds. With Lahiri, her ethnicity seemed always at the forefront. On NPR, an interviewer described a sad Indian woman in one of her stories, then asked Lahiri, "Is that your mom?" Everything I read about her seemed to be about her background - the Indianness of it all - rather than her writing.

I stopped imitating Lahiri and started imitating others. In graduate school, I brought to one of my first creative-writing classes a story about a pair of teenage best friends that ended with the girls running down the street shouting "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" The professor found this ending extraordinary, until other students pointed out - with incredible gentleness, under the circumstances - that they'd read almost those exact lines in a well-known story by Moore.

There was another thing I ripped off from Moore and other writers I admired: their whiteness. In one of my stories, a pair of sisters (white) visit their aging grandmother (white) at her house on a lake, after the death of their mother (white). In another, a C.E.O. (white) goes missing, and a bunch of his employees (white, mostly) go searching for him.

My limited reading experience had given me the impression that stories about people of color had to be about being a person of color. I still wasn't well-read, and in the work I knew by writers of color, questions of identity were central. This was true not just of Lahiri's stories, but also of the most popular ones by other writers of color: Sandra Cisneros, Junot D?az, ZZ Packer, Amy Tan.

One day, my friend Jenny Zhang, who would later publish the acclaimed story collection "Sour Heart," asked me why I didn't write more about characters who were Indian American, like me. I explained that it was because I didn't want to have to populate my fiction with arranged marriages, saris, rickshaws and chai. But, Jenny asked reasonably, what made me believe that I would have to do that?

I'm not the only writer of my generation who has bristled at Lahiri's version of Indian American experience. In 2021, the novelist Sanjena Sathian, writing in The Drift, criticized what she called Lahiri's " aesthetics of respectability," in which Indian American characters behave as model minorities, while offering "PBS-quality cultural instruction" to white people - as when, in one story, a (white) woman mistakes Bengali for a religion and is gently corrected by her forgiving (Indian) boyfriend.

Yet lately it has occurred to me that Lahiri came of age in circumstances very different from mine or Sathian's. Lahiri's family moved to Rhode Island in 1970, when there were 51,000 Indian immigrants in the United States - and far fewer than that in Rhode Island. In an essay Lahiri later wrote about the state, she said that her family "didn't fundamentally belong" there, recounting that her mother once received nine pieces of racist hate mail while working at the elementary school Lahiri had attended. Responding with forbearance to American ignorance about Indians - as Lahiri's characters tend to - might have been a matter of social survival for the Indian Americans in her life.

I was born in 1982, in a small city in Saskatchewan, Canada, but by the time I started high school, my family had moved to the Seattle suburbs. We arrived in 1995, before Seattle's tech boom had gotten underway - Jeff Bezos had just founded Amazon out of his home garage near the Bellevue Square Mall where my sister and I shopped. But the presence of Microsoft nearby meant that there was already a fast-growing Indian community. One uncle had been the first Indian employee at Microsoft; another would play a major role in building Amazon's Kindle; an acquaintance of friends of my parents, Satya Nadella, would become Microsoft's C.E.O.

Being Indian American was neither the most important fact of my life nor a particular source of tension. My parents switched back and forth between Telugu and English and didn't mind that my sister and I answered in English. Some of my closest friends had Chinese, Taiwanese and Panamanian roots. At their houses, hearing languages other than English wasn't unusual.

By the 2000 census - the year Lahiri won her Pulitzer - the number of Indian immigrants in the United States had increased 20-fold since 1970. That those around me didn't define me solely on the basis of my ethnicity doubtless made it easier for me to define myself on my own terms. Lahiri was describing the world in which she'd grown up, not the one in which I had.

In my mid-20s, after that conversation with Jenny, I decided to write about Indian Americans again. I began a novel, " The Immortal King Rao," whose titular character, a future tech C.E.O., is an immigrant to the United States from the region of India where my family comes from - not Lahiri's upper-crust northern milieu but the agricultural south, where my mother was raised by a veterinarian father and my father in a family of coconut farmers. I also started writing the stories that appear in my new collection, "This Is Salvaged," featuring Indian Americans in multicultural communities. One character is an alcoholic, another an aspiring phone-sex operator; none are model minorities.

It took me more than a decade to finish both books. In the meantime, people from the Indian diaspora were becoming much more visible in American culture: the actors Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, the musicians Charli XCX and Norah Jones, and the politicians Nikki Haley and Pramila Jayapal. At the same time, books were proliferating in which life in the Indian diaspora was part of the landscape without being the principal subject, including Abraham Verghese's " Cutting for Stone" (2009), Tania James's Aerogrammes (2012) and Akhil Sharma's Family Life (2014).

By the time Sathian wrote about Lahirism, Indian American literature was already moving beyond it. Sathian herself published a novel that year called Gold Diggers - a literary sendup of the model minority myth involving a potion made of stolen gold - which was optioned by Kaling for TV.

Even Lahiri seemed to have tired of Lahirism. In 2012, she moved to Rome and began writing in Italian, including "In Other Words" (2016), an essay collection in which she noted that she'd started creating characters "without a particular cultural identity." Her most recent novel, Whereabouts (2021), also written in Italian, is a loose, meandering first-person narrative with a protagonist whose identity is so abstract that she isn't even given a name.

Since then, the diversity of Indian American fiction has only continued to grow. In Sarah Thankam Mathews's "All This Could Be Different" (2022), about a woman's post-college life in Milwaukee, her narrator's Indian American identity figures prominently, but so does her identity as someone who dates women, who lives in the Midwest and who is generally baffled by adulthood. Here's a line from a sex scene in the novel: "I did not stop rubbing her clit, which had swollen like a raisin in payasam." What is payasam, and how might a raisin swell in it? If you know, you know; if you don't, there's Google.

The other night, I opened my copy of The New Yorker and found a story by Lahiri from her new collection, "Roman Stories," which comes out in October. The narrator is an unnamed Italian man considering an affair with a foreign, also unnamed, stranger. I admired a lot about it. It was also nothing like my writing, or Sathian's or Mathews's. I slept well that night and, in the morning, went back to my desk to write.

Vauhini Vara's novel "The Immortal King Rao" was a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her new book, "This Is Salvaged," a collection of stories, is out this month.

/ Monday, September 18, 2023, 9:15 AM /

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