Transplanted Author Finds Roots in Writing Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, focuses on a subject the author knows intimately: Bengali-Americans struggling to make sense of their adopted homeland.

Transplanted Author Finds Roots in Writing

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, we're going to meet writer Jhumpa Lahiri. Eight years ago, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her story collection "The Interpreter of Maladies." Next came a novel, "The Namesake." It became a best seller, and it was made into a movie. Now Lahiri has published a new collection of stories called "Unaccustomed Earth." The stories, like all her fiction, focus on the lives of Bengali immigrants in America.

Tom Vitale visited the author at her home in Brooklyn.

TOM VITALE: Outside Jhumpa Lahiri's home on a sunny Thursday afternoon, her Fort Green neighborhood is pulsing with life. City buses, kids out of school, car radios, the seat train rumbling under sidewalk grates. But inside the 140-year-old brownstone on the tree-lined street, where Lahiri lives with her husband and two children, there's an atmosphere of serenity.

Ms. JHUMPA LAHIRI (Author, "The Interpreter of Maladies"): In my writing, I have found my home really in a very basic sense, in a way that I never had one growing up. I never felt that I had any claim to any place in the world. And really, have only dimly become to feel that a little bit in the past few years in my day-to-day life living in New York.

VITALE: Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London in 1967, the daughter of immigrants from Calcutta. When she was 7, her family moved to New England, where her father still works as an academic librarian at the University of Rhode Island.

All of Lahiri's fiction is about characters like herself and her family, strangers in a strange land trying to fit in.

Ms. LAHIRI: Being raised as I was, a child of immigrants, has inspired my writing from the beginning, trying to understand what that means, both for the people of my parents' generation who are doing the immigrating themselves and for their children.

VITALE: The title of Lahiri's new book comes from a passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne's introduction to "The Scarlet Letter." Human nature will not flourish any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted for too long a series of generations in the same worn-out soil. My children shall strike their roots in unaccustomed earth.

Ms. LAHIRI: I stopped when I got to those words. You know, just thought of that, how much they stand for everything I'd been writing about and the experience of being transplanted, and people being transplanted.

VITALE: The title story, "Unaccustomed Earth," is about a child of Bengali immigrants, Ruma, who has recently moved to Seattle with her American husband, who manages a hedge fund, and their young son. Ruma's father is visiting from the East Coast for the first time since the death of her mother.

Ms. LAHIRI (Reading): And her father mentioned their old house, tears sprang to her eyes. In a way, it was helpful to be in a place her mother had never seen. It was one of the last conversation she had had with her mother, telling her about Adam's new job, which back then was only a remote possibility as they rode together to the hospital. Don't go, her mother had said from the front seat.

It's too far away, I'll never see you again. Six hours after saying this, her mother was dead.

MR. LEV GROSSMAN (Book Critic, Time Magazine): She is such an old school practitioner of the short story that they'd almost feel is avant-garde.

VITALE: Time Magazine book critic Lev Grossman wrote his review of "Unaccustomed Earth." This is the short story as Hemmingway practiced it or Chekhov, for that matter. Grossman says the literary fashion these days is to entertain, to grab the readers attention with plot twists, word play and humor. But Lahiri's style harks back to the 19th century.

MR. GROSSMAN: She builds her stories slowly, out of simple, declarative sentences. There is almost no humor and very little narrative suspense in her work. But once she builds them slowly over 50 or 60 pages and then that final square in a Rubik's cube just clicks into place, and suddenly, you know, my god, you'll realize that that's life, that's truth. And it took you so long to get there but by the end, you're glad you took the trip.

Unidentified Man #1: Every year I would take the plane to visit my grandfather in Damshitpu(ph). I carried one book with me to read on the journey.

VITALE: Last year, the screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel "The Namesake" was released. It's a story about a college professor, Ashoke, who marries in Calcutta then takes his young bride, Ashima, to Brooklyn, where they make a new life. They nametheir son Gogol, for the author of the book Ashoke was reading when he survived a near-fatal train crash.

(Soundbite of movie "The Namesake")

Mr. SOHAM CHATTERJEE (Actor): (As Gogol) Baba is that what you think of when you think of me? Do I remind you of that night?

Mr. IRFAN KHAN (Actor): (As Ashoke Ganguli) Not at all. You remind me of everything that followed. Every day since then has been a gift, Gogol.

VITALE: Film director Mira Nair says she felt compelled to drop everything and make "The Namesake" after she read Lahiri's novel.

Ms. MIRA NAIR (Director, "The Namesake"): I tell you, underneath that stunning exterior and the detail we'd achieved, gets you in the web of the Bengali-American life. Underneath that formality, suddenly, she is this throbbing kind of beating heart.

VITALE: Mira Nair says the stories in Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection have moments that are in her words, gasp-worthy.

Ms. NAIR: You know, like I just gasped suddenly in the middle of the story. I have to close the book because I'm reading. I just - and then I finish it and then I almost always re-read it because I just want to then savor it beyond, you know, the first time it just becomes this sort of unexpected roller coaster, emotionally.

VITALE: In one gasp-iinspiring moment in the title of story "Unaccustomed Earth," Jhumpa Lahiri goes beyond the immigrant experience to capture the universal tenderness of a mother for her newborn child.

Ms. LAHIRI: With the birth of Akash and his sudden perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times, simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born, only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning. He's made from your meat and bone.

VITALE: Jhumpa Lahiri has a doctorate in renaissance studies and says before she became a writer, she always thought she'd be a professor. She says the authors she turns to for inspiration are Hawthorne, Hardy, Wolfe, Tolstoy and Chekhov. Lahiri says a good story is one that causes a reaction.

Ms. LAHIRI: There's something beautiful about it. There's something troubling about it. There's something unique about it. There's something true about it. There's something that I'm seeing that I haven't ever seen before. If all of that is working together, I think my story is great.

VITALE: Lahiri says now she's working on a new idea she thinks is going to be a novel. But for all of her success, the 40-year-old author says writing hasn't gotten any easier.

Ms. LAHIRI: Writing is very hard, and writing is very humbling. And I think writing something new each time is a very daunting, scary journey. And I just want to have the strength and the clarity of mine to continue to make those journeys.

(Soundbite of movie "The Namsake")

Mr. KHAN: (As Ashoke Ganguli) Gogol, see the world. You will never regret it, Gogol.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: And you can read an excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri's new story collection, "Unaccustomed Earth," at our Web site,

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