Pulitzer Prize-winning Novelist: Jhumpa Lahiri

Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Jhumpa Lahiri ‘89. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

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Jhumpa Lahiri is widely renown for her collections of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and novel, The Namesake (2003). Interpreter of Maladies earned the Pulitzer Prize, PEN/Hemingway Award and The New York Debut of the Year. The Namesake was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications.

Lahiri’s most recent publications include her newest novel, The Lowland (2013),  a finalist for both the Man Booker prize and the National Book Award in fiction, and new memoir, In Other Words (2015), originally written in Italian while in Rome and titled, In Altre Parole. 

Early Life

Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri was born in London, England to Bengali Indian immigrants, Amar and Tapati. Around the age of three, Lahiri moved to Kingston, Rhode Island where she spends most of her life growing up. Amar was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island but frequently took Tapati and Lahiri to visit relatives in Calcutta (Kolkata).

As a young girl, Lahiri was surrounded by shelves towering with Bengali poetry and literature books which her mother read religiously, and books about China and Russia her father read for his graduate studies in political science, and Time magazines which he read to relax. However, Lahiri still somehow felt void of books in her life. She always pictured “the perfect” house to be overflowing with books on shelves and scattered across tables; they would be everywhere and lining the entire house. She was permitted to own a book when she was between the ages of five and six, and she describes the first book her mother bought for her as “diminutive, about four inches square, and was called “You’ll Never Have to Look for Friends.”” Her first encounter with oral stories was listening to her maternal grandfather as he crafted stories for her long after everyone had gone to sleep.

For Jhumpa Lahiri, reading and writing fed her soul. She made discoveries that nourished her mind and soothed her desires, but often defied her parents for the culture and knowledge her books entailed.

Lost in Transition

Lahiri’s journey into and through adolescence was immersed in self-doubt and denial. She convinced herself that “creative writers were other people, not me,” allowing what she loved at seven to become what intimidated her most at seventeen. She, instead, dove into “practicing music and performing in plays, learning the notes of a composition or memorizing the lines of a script.” She wrote essays and articles with the drive to become a journalist and entered Barnard majoring in English literature with the hopes of becoming an English professor. She was, in a sense, afraid of herself in writing. In an article she wrote for The New Yorker, she describes:

For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis. I was always falling short of people’s expectations: my immigrant parents’, my Indian relatives’, my American peers’, above all my own. The writer in me wanted to edit myself. If only there was a little more this, a little less that, depending on the circumstances: then the asterisk that accompanied me would be removed. My upbringing, an amalgam of two hemispheres, was heterodox and complicated; I wanted it to be conventional and contained. I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?

Lahiri later graduated from Barnard in 1989.

Post-Barnard

After graduating from Barnard, Lahiri moves on to obtain three masters degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative studies in literature and the arts, and a Ph D. in Renaissance studies. She also became a professor of the creative writing program at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

Among winning the Pulitszer Prize, PEN/Hemingway Award and The New York Debut of the Year, the Man Booker prize and the National Book Award in fiction, Lahiri also won numerous other awards including the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Vallombrosa Von Rezzori Prize, the Asian American Literary Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. In 2014, she was also awarded a National Humanities Medal.

In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias, a Guatemalan-American and embraced writing and publishing in Italian. She published a number of other stories, along with In Other Words, and “The Boundary” (2018), including The Clothing of Books (2016), Ties (2017), which was named a New York Times Notable Book and Best Foreign Novel by the Times of London, Trick (2018) and Dove mi trovo (2018). She continues to write in Italian and translate her stories to English.   

The Penguin Classics Book of Italian Short Stories, edited and introduced by Lahiri, with selected translations, is forthcoming in Spring 2019.

Resources

Learn more about Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri in the Barnard alum magazines at the Barnard Library Academic and Information Services (BLAIS), listen to her interviews with NPR, or read her own published article in The New Yorker, “Trading Stories: Notes from an apprenticeship,” a self reflection of her life from childhood into adulthood.

Or, do all three!

Aziza Rahman ’20

Sources

Chotiner, Isaac. “Jhumpa Lahiri.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, April 2008, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/04/jhumpa-lahiri/306725/.

Deutsch, Robert. “Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.” USA TODAY, USA TODAY, August 19, 2003, accessed May 30, 2018, https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2003-08-19-lahiri-books_x.htm.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Trading Stories: Notes from an Apprenticeship.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, June 13, 20, 2011, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/trading-stories.

Leyshon, Cressida. “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, January 22, 2018, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/fiction-this-week-jhumpa-lahiri-2018-01-29.

Minzesheimer, Bob. “For Pulitzer winner Lahiri, a novel approach.” USA TODAY, USA TODAY, August 19, 2003, accessed May 30, 2018, https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2003-08-19-lahiri-books_x.htm.

NPR. “Strained Connections in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’.” Interview by Neda Ulaby. Book Tour, May 6, 2008. Audio and summary article, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97418330.

NPR. “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Struggle To Feel American.” Interview by Steve Inskeep. Morning Edition, November 25, 2008. Audio and summary article, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97418330.

 

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