An Evening with Jhumpa Lahiri

My husband and I were deeply affected by Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. We could see echoes of our own selves in the characters of the book. We understood why Ashok and Ashima acted the way they did. And we understood why Gogol reacted the way he did. It was a book that we had many discussions about and so when we found out that Lahiri was going to kick-start the New York Public Library’s Live sessions for Spring 2016 we had to be there!

Some time ago Lahiri decided that she would only write in Italian. Her new book, In Other Words is also in Italian. The session started with the host asking Lahiri if her decision to write in Italian was some sort of a mid-life crisis to which Lahiri responded with the words that an intimate relationship with a language is the best sort of mid-life crisis to have. It quickly became clear that to Lahiri language is more than just a tool. It is an instrument that she uses to define who she is. Her seven-word biography was apropos of this: “without a mother tongue, rooted by words.”

English for Lahiri seems to be the language of her past. It is the language through which she tried to understand her parents, a motif, which according to her, is what her last four books have been all about. Italian, on the other hand, afforded her a chance to break off with all known reference points—a thing that she found incredibly liberating. In her words, she is trying to graft onto Italian because she is trying to grow in a new direction. I loved her use of “graft” in this context, of mixing things up, of introducing a new element into the base of who she is.

Of all the things that she said I found her declaration that she finally feels that she can write the books that she wants the most interesting. Perhaps she had to write the books she did to reach this point. It did make me wonder though if there are other authors out there who write what they do because they feel that that is what they should write rather than writing what they want to write. I don’t know if one is necessarily better than the other but I’m always a little wary of “should”s.

It got me thinking about genre fiction and literary fiction and wondering if the latter is more populated by the should-s. That is not to say that genre fiction doesn’t have its share of should-s or that literary fiction doesn’t have writers doing what they want to do but I just found it a bit puzzling that it took Lahiri the time it did to get to this point. Then again, I guess it might be difficult for any established author (irrespective of the genre they write in) to switch to something new.

Here’s the link to the NYPL website in case you’re interested in seeing the whole thing.

Quote of the Evening: Every change necessitates a betrayal.

Introduce Yourself! BBAW Day 1

When two of my favorite book bloggers on the internetz co-host an event, I HAVE to be a part of it!

Day-OneIntroduce-yourself

So here’s what you’re supposed to do on Day 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle.

Let’s start with the newest one in this list—The Wee Free Men which I got around to reading after Ana’s heartfelt review of The Shepherd’s Crown, the last one in the Tiffany Aching series (The Wee Free Men is the first).

Why am I choosing this book? Because in Pratchett, and in Pratchett’s portrayal of Tiffany Aching, I have found a kindred spirit. Like I said in my review of The Wee Free Men: The Wee Free Men struck a deep and resonant chord with me. Its nine-year old protagonist reminded me of the girl I used to be though Tiffany Aching is WAAAYYYYYYY MORE smarter, and MUCH more put together than I ever was at her age! Even more, I felt this sense of familiarity that is hard to put words to. It was as if the nebulous mist that I carry around in my head had suddenly coalesced into words, and shapes, and forms! In Pratchett, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit.

the wee free men terry pratchettAlso, BOOKS! AREN’T THEY GIRNORMOUSLY AWESOME?!! I’m not a nine-year-old. Nor do I live on the chalks. Or have an army of tiny, blue tattooed fairies all around me. BUT oh, there is this sense of RECOGNITION, this feeling of the very depths of my soul being reflected in what Terry Pratchett writes that takes my breath away. (Did you notice how I carefully refrained from mentioning how I’m NOT a witch like Tiffany Aching is?)

Second is one of my favorite books of poetry by my favorite translator-poets of all time, Daniel Ladinsky: Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. Ladinsky is famous for his translations, or non-translations according to many, of one of the greatest Sufi poets of all times, Hafiz. I’ve been reading his work for more than ten years now, and if Pratchett’s writings is my soul’s translation in prose, then Hafiz and Ladinsky are probably its poetic version. Here’s my favoritest of all Hafiz-Ladinsky collaborations:

Even
after
all this time
the sun never says to the earth,

“You owe me.”

Look
what happens
with a love like that—

it lights up the whole
world.

The next one has to be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. See, I’m the kind of person who thinks that life lies in the details of our day to day existence. I love celebrating the “big events” that mark our lives and ratcheting up words in their favor but what I love even more is finding the poetry in the everyday stuff of our lives. It just seems a tad stupid to me to leave happy feelings for only the “occasions.” The occasions matter of course but what about the morning sunlight, and the afternoon teas, and the quiet conversations and the deep breaths and that sort of stuff? Emily St. John Mandel agrees (Or so I think anyway!). And that is why I’m choosing Station Eleven as the third book that I think says something about me.

love poems from god daniel ladinskyFourth is The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m choosing this one because the tension that it depicts between Gogol and his parents struck very close to home for me. It’s not that Gogol doesn’t love his parents, nor that his parents don’t love Gogol, just that. . . there’s a weight of expectations, a lot of it stemming from the cultural milieu that is India, that puts them at cross-purposes with one another. Lahiri really captured the experience of generations of Indian parents and children in her book.

Fifth is not a book, but a poet, Mary Oliver. . . What do I say about her that is coherent and weaves together all my love for not only the images she paints but also the words that she paints them with? To say that she writes about nature would be to paint an incomplete picture. She talks about moments in time and often those moments feature oaks, and fishes, and herons, and “wild geese, high in the clean blue air.” But that’s not it. It’s what she does with those snapshots, mixing them up with her own essential self, that makes her poetry what it is. My current favorite from her is not even about nature. It’s just a four-liner that I often chant to myself:

Things take the time they take,
Don’t worry.
How many roads did Saint Augustine follow
Before he became Saint Augustine?

I also want to mention Walt Whitman though it’s only recently that I have started reading Leaves of Grass. I wish I could end every sentence that I write in relation to him with an exclamation point—such is Whitman’s exuberance and vigor. His vision and the all-encompassing largeness of it, and the generosity with which he proclaims from his poetic pulpit amaze and enthrall me each time that I dip in and out of his words.

So yes, that’s it from me. I would love to know what five books you think speak to who you are. And of course if you’re participating in BBAW, do leave a link to your own post!

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Review

I have things I need to say. So, listen up!

The Namesake is probably one of the very few novels in the recent years to have struck home so closely. And not just because of its exploration of the immigrant experience (which is what everybody talks about. also, I’m a recent expatriate).

To me, the central tension in The Namesake arises from Nikhil’s ideas about who he is being at odds with his parents’ conception of who he is or rather who he should be. While the immigrant experience serves to throw this contrast in a sharper relief, the tension that arises from the desire to forge your own identity amid the burden of the expectations of your parents and the very milieu into which you are born, is true for any parent-child relationship, immigrant experience or not. It’s especially true for generations of Indians and perhaps for successive generations of other Eastern cultures as well.

I like the way Miss Lahiri treats the issue of identity. That one cannot gain a modicum of peace by outright rejection of one’s roots seems self-evident. And through the course of the story, in his own slow and roundabout way, this is the realization that Nikhil aka Gogol reaches as well. His journey is bookended by his two acts—the rejection of the name his father endows him with in the beginning of the story; and the slinking to a quiet corner in the middle of a party to read the book by “the man who gave [him] his name,” Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, 20 years after his father gave him the book, towards the end.

I cannot wrap-up this section without a quote by Edwidge Danticat that I came across recently:

[t]he idea of this great anguish of living between two worlds has diminished somewhat for many immigrant people, artists and non-artists alike. Not that there is not some uneasiness, but it is no longer the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life. And honestly, maybe it never was—except, perhaps, in literature.

I don’t think that the last sentence is entirely true but I do think that The Namesake might be a story about a certain generations’s immigrant experience. Globalization’s incessant march forward has meant, if not a narrowing, then certainly a bridging between any two worlds.

Now, on to the writing, that is completely un-showy and yet also exquisite. Here’s the thing that to me is exquisite: each word in the story has something to say; each word in the story builds on the one that precedes it till one is left with the impression that each word can stake a claim to its place in the sentence; nay, not just the sentence but also to the story that it is helping to reveal word by word. For example, here’s how Lahiri describes the act of adding on one’s fingers:

The tip of her thumb strikes each rung of the brown ladders etched onto the back of her fingers, then stops at the middle of the third.

There’s a sparse beauty to the detailed description of counting on one’s finger, isn’t there? The prose is just bursting with such details. Details that my description-leery husband didn’t actually skip through (he read the book too):

She stood behind her father as he’d drawn it, watching as he crouched over his easel, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his shoulders wrapped in a black Kashmiri shawl.

I just LOVE the way she uses all these details to give a sense of the character to the reader! (I’m sure other novelists do it too but for some reason I never noticed it till Lahiri).

The Namesake has no specific plot per se. Some folks might also call it a bit sad (the story does tug at one’s heartstrings and also made me cry at two places but the overall tone is one of hope and optimism). It sags a teensy-weensy bit in the center. BUT I loved it. And if any thing that I’ve written snags your interest, I would urge you to check it out.

The Namesake has also whetted my appetite to try out Lahiri’s most recent novel, The Lowlands. Hopefully, there will be more to it than just another version of the immigrant experience!