Jhumpa Lahiri, The Torchbearer of Diasporic Literature

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Jhumpa Lahiri

“When I was growing up…I felt neither Indian nor American. Like many immigrant offspring I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.”  These words mark the lived experiences of most immigrants away from their homeland, including the famous Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri. Born as Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri to Bengali immigrants, she is widely regarded for shining the spotlight on the stories of immigrants and Indian American life. Her stories focus on the conflicts and conundrums faced by the Indian Diaspora through various themes like identity crisis, loneliness, longing and communication barriers. Garnering numerous accolades internationally, Jhumpa Lahiri is celebrated as the torchbearer of diasporic literature. This blog explores the life and journey of Jhumpa Lahiri.

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Childhood and Education

Jhumpa Lahiri
Courtesy: The New Yorker

Jhumpa Lahiri was born on July 7, 1967, in London and her family later moved to Rhode Island, USA when she was just 3 years old. Her father worked as a university librarian and her mother was a school teacher. Growing up, Lahiri frequently travelled to Calcutta to visit her extended family and these visits have been chronicled in many of her fictional works. Lahiri’s parents were committed to the Indian culture and raised her with a very indian upbringing. Admitting to face endless struggles owing to her Indian name Nilanjana, she was encouraged by her school teacher to retain her nickname, Jhumpa, which also became her pen name. 

Jhumpa Lahiri wrote prolifically throughout high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Bernard college. She went on to complete three masters degrees (in Creative Writing, Comparative Literature and Arts) and a PhD in Renaissance studies from Boston University. Jhumpa Lahiri also held a prestigious fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Network. In 2001, she married Alberto Vourvoulias, the editor of Time Magazine, Latin America.

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Penning the Struggles & Turmoils of Immigrants

Jhumpa Lahiri
Courtesy: NPR

“The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s gifted storytelling abilities created a tectonic shift in the foundation of American literature. While most of the American literature centred on white men, Jhumpa Lahiri’s contribution brought a fresh Indian immigrant’s perspective of American life into American literature.

The Interpreter of Maladies

In 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri published her debut short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies which received critical acclaim for its poignant themes of generational gaps in understanding values, alienation and marital troubles. The Washington Post praised her collection as “accomplished, insightful and deeply American”. One of her short stories from The Interpreter of Maladies “The Third and Final Continent” wherein the protagonist was based on Jhumpa’s father- Amar Lahiri, was reprinted by the New Yorker magazine.  The Interpreter of Maladies has since been translated into 29 languages worldwide.

The Namesake

In 2009, Jhumpa Lahiri published her first novel ‘The Namesake‘ which was well-received by the American and Indian audience alike. She was praised for her poignant writing and accurate portrayal of Gogol Ganguly, her protagonist, who is grappling with his parents’ traditional roots and his own American identity. The Namesake explores complex themes such as alienation, displacement, generation gap with great sensitivity and insight. Her novel appeared in the Times best selling authors list for several weeks and was later adapted into a movie by Mira Nair in march 2007.

The Unaccustomed Earth

Another collection of short stories titled, “The Unaccustomed Earth” was published in 2008. In this collection, Lahiri shifted her perspective from 1st generation immigrants to 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants and explored the struggles of assimilating into the immigrant culture. She also published numerous short stories in various magazines.

Jhumpa Lahiri
Courtesy: Princeton University

Lahiri later taught creative writing at Boston University and in 2005, joined Princeton (Lewis Center for the Arts) as the professor for creative writing. Recently she did the unthinkable project of immersing herself in the study of Italian and shifted to Italy for an immersive study of the language. As a part of this geographical experiment, she published a memoir titled ‘In Other Words’, in Italian which was translated by her husband into English.

 Awards and Accolades

Courtesy: Indian-American Community News

Jhumpa Lahiri bagged a string of awards for her writing which was described as “sharp, precise and heartbreaking”.  In 1993, she was awarded the TransAtlantic Award by the Henfield foundation. In 1999, she won the O Henry Award for her Short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies and in 2000, she won the illustrious Pulitzer Prize for fiction for the same. In the same year, The New Yorker named her in the “20 best young fiction writers today” list.  She was also honoured with the prestigious, PEN /Hemingway Award for Best Fiction Debut of the Year for The Interpreter of Maladies and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2008) and the Asian American Literary Award, for Unaccustomed Earth. Recently, Lahiri was presented with the National Humanities Medal by U.S. Pres. Barack Obama in 2015. 

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Having been lauded for being the voice of the Indian diaspora in the USA, Jhumpa Lahiri has transformed the representation of Indian immigrants in American literature. Her contributions as an immigrant paved the way for a more inclusive, empathetic literary world in America. Her breathtaking writing and her vivid storytelling make her one of the distinguished writers of contemporary literature. For more interesting blogs on such famous personalities, check out our blogs at Leverage Edu!

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