Jhumpa Lahiri

By Olivia Kim

Well-known as a novelist and short story writer, Jhumpa Lahiri has become a staple in many English classes across the United States. However, what stands out in her writing, besides the detailed storytelling and perfected techniques, are the core messages of her books. She explores what it is like to be an East Indian immigrant and is not afraid to go in-depth about identity and belonging.

Lahiri was born on July 11, 1967 in London, England. Her parents were both Bengali immigrants from Calcutta. Her father worked as a university librarian, and her mother worked as a teacher. Eventually, Lahiri moved to the United States to South Kingstown, Rhode Island, attending both primary and secondary school there. During these early years, her parents and grade school teachers encouraged her to stay in touch with her cultural identities. To add on, she also began to find a passion in writing during her pre college years. In 1989, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Barnard College. She then went on to receive a doctorate in Renaissance studies and a master’s in creative writing, comparative literature and arts, and English from Boston University in the 1990s. In addition, she has received honorary doctoral degrees from The University of Pennsylvania, Williams College, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Siena per Stranieri, and the University of Bologna, which highlighted and focused on her impacts to the humanities and the arts.

While she was in school, Jhumpa began publishing and writing short stories. Many of these short stories, published in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Story Quarterly, would eventually become part of her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. The short stories in this collection became an immediate success when it was published in 1999 because it related to many other Bengali immigrants in the U.S., especially those who felt lost about their identity and experiences. Lahiri wrote about feeling alienated and lost, and how her Indian culture interacted with her American one. During this time period, Asian voices, specifically female Asian voices, were not common in the publishing industry. Accordingly, Lahiri’s short stories explored a significantly underrepresented culture in the industry, which is part of why her stories gained such a large appeal. Eventually, Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2000 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction for her short story collection.

After the massive success of Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri focused on writing novels and short story collections. The Namesake, written in 2003 and adapted to the screen in 2006, continued Lahiri’s themes of the Bengali American identity. With a novel, Lahiri could focus on one continuous story; because of that, The Namesake was able to give its perspective and uniqueness to the Bengali American experience. The novel focuses on a main character, Gogol, and the challenges he faces throughout his life. He struggles with accepting his name, the romantic relationships that he has with mostly white American women, growing up and growing away from his parents, and his place in the world. These ideas, like her other works, gained a significant appeal for uniquely showing a realistic and relatable experience.

Lahiri continued to be successful with her short stories in Unaccustomed Earth in 2008 and her novel The Lowland in 2013. The latter won Lahiri nominations for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. In fact, Lahiri won the 2015 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature with the novel, cementing her position in the industry. In 2015, she was presented the 2014 National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Barack Obama. This was a massive step for Lahiri, giving her presidential attention for her inspiring work.

Along with being so well-known as an author, Lahiri expanded her writings outside of the English language. For instance, she wrote fiction and nonfiction books in Italian, with some of her most famous books being In altre parole (2015) and Dove mi trovo (2018). She has also had experience translating her Italian works to English, compiling her experiences into her essay collection Translating Myself and Others in 2022. Currently, Lahiri continues to immerse herself in Italian by translating novels by Italian writers such as Domenico Starnone, and serves as the editor of The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories.

As a professor, Lahiri explores literary translation, Italian short stories, exophonic writers, classical reception and adaptation, as well as many other forms of literature. At Princeton University, she taught “Approaches to Western Culture: from Antiquity to the Middle Ages” in the humanities department and founded the university’s first interdisciplinary course on Surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington. Furthermore, Lahiri was the Director of Princeton’s Creative Writing Program for three years and helped the university found Princeton’s Translator-in-Residence program position. Hence, it is evident that her passion for writing includes the process of learning and experiencing it herself, as well as sharing those experiences with others.

Some of her other accomplishments include being a Board member of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a permanent juror for the Strega Prize in Italy, part of the editorial committee for the Italian literary journal Nuovi Argomenti, inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012, part of the Venice Film Festival in 2014, and literary critic for The New Yorker magazine for over twenty-five years. She has also won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

On a more personal level, her writing had always been an escape and newfound connection for her as a young child and as an adult. Lahiri depended on writing just as much as any other necessity in her life. As a citizen of two nations, speaking both Bengali and English created a feeling of not belonging. Not only did she not feel connected to her relatives in Calcutta, but she also did not feel like she was fully American or could speak perfect English. As she grew older, she discovered Italian to move forward and find herself.

Jhumpa currently lives in Rome with her husband, whom she married in 2001, and her two children, whom she had in 2002 and 2005. Her trilingualism and passion for writing continues to shine through in both her personal and professional life. Her short stories have undoubtedly touched the hearts of people who identify as East Indian immigrants and those who are just as passionate about the world and their identities as she is. Most importantly, though, Lahiri’s work has inspired and paved the way for another generation of Asian and female writers in an industry that is more open to their ideas and works.

Why Did I Choose to Research Jhumpa Lahiri?

I chose to research Jhumpa Lahiri because I have read two of her novels/short story collections before, and they resonated deeply with me. Ideas about identity and belonging, as well as being Asian, are not explored often in the publishing industry. So, having a woman of color recognized and sharing her experiences was very special to me. As someone who also wants to represent the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community through her fiction and nonfiction writing, Lahiri inspires me to continue writing about AAPI experiences. Moreover, I find her learning a third language and moving to Rome really brave and something I would like to do with German, the language I am currently learning. I also find it inspirational how she balances nonfiction and fiction writing in her works, which is definitely something I would like to explore. Overall, she is someone I look up to and see a lot of my values in.

Works Cited

Beard, A. (2022, April 12). Life’s work: An interview with Jhumpa Lahiri. Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2022/05/lifes-work-an-interview-with-jhumpa-lahiri

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2024, March 7). Jhumpa Lahiri. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jhumpa-Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri. Jhumpa Lahiri | Barnard College. (n.d.). https://barnard.edu/profiles/jhumpa-lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri. The National Endowment for the Humanities. (n.d.). https://www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals/jhumpa-lahiri

This article was published on 4/30/24