Jhumpa Lahiri's Struggle To Feel American Nationality, tradition and belonging: The themes of Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction spring from the complexities of the author's own life. Born to Indian parents in London and raised in Rhode Island, Lahiri says she's struggled for four decades to feel like she belongs in America.
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Jhumpa Lahiri's Struggle To Feel American

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Jhumpa Lahiri's Struggle To Feel American

Jhumpa Lahiri's Struggle To Feel American

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This Thanksgiving week, we're listening to three immigrants talk about becoming American. The first was Junot Diaz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel about Dominican immigrants like himself. Today we talk with Jhumpa Lahiri. Her parents grew up in India. She was born in England. And then her family moved again, this time to the United States.

Ms. JHUMPA LAHIRI (Author): For a long time, I sort of thought, well, I don't need to be from any place. You know, I can be from nowhere, and it's OK, and I'm a writer, and I'm a citizen of the world, and all of this stuff. But it's not true really. I grew up in Rhode Island. I live in New York. I went to school here. I've had my children here. There are many reasons why I am proud to be an American and from America.

INSKEEP: Still, she hasn't always felt a part of the country that has been her home since she was two. Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book is called "Unaccustomed Earth." It tells the stories of families like her own.

Ms. LAHIRI: You know, my parents never thought of themselves as American. There was no question of their feeling or becoming, or wanting to feel or become, American. They didn't think that was an option for them or for us when I was younger.

INSKEEP: They didn't apply for citizenship, for example?

Ms. LAHIRI: They did. They are citizens. And I applied for citizenship as well.

INSKEEP: But they still didn't have that moment when they said, I feel American.

Ms. LAHIRI: No. No, they've never had that moment. I don't think they'll ever have that moment. They've lived here now for more than half of their lives, and they raised a family here and now have grandchildren here. And they have many, many friends. And there are things about this country they truly love, and it has become their home. I don't think they would deny that. But at the same time, for my parents, I don't think either of them will ever consciously think, I'm an American. I don't think that's possible for them. For me, maybe, there might be a sort of halfway feeling, or there is a halfway feeling at this point, but not for them.

INSKEEP: It's taken you decades to get to that halfway feeling.

Ms. LAHIRI: Yes, it's taken me approximately four decades to get to this halfway point.

INSKEEP: Is there a story that stays with you or just a moment that is a moment that illustrates what you're talking about when you talk about the way they conveyed their discomfort to you?

Ms. LAHIRI: There were basic things like language. Now, my parents both speak English, but they are betrayed by their accents. Anytime we were in some sort of situation in a store - buying a washing machine or something like that - if I happened to be there, the salesman would talk to me, assuming that my parents didn't understand English. And so there was - it was coming from other people, the sort of message that we don't believe you are American because we don't believe you speak the language.

INSKEEP: But the accent or the appearance created a suggestion in the minds of some people, clearly.

Ms. LAHIRI: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, the accent, the fact that my mother wore traditional clothing - that marked them immediately as soon as we went out into the public sphere.

INSKEEP: Did you ever go through a sort of - and I don't mean to be flip - but a sort of militant phase where you said, you know, I'm going to dress like my mother dresses. I'm going to be traditional. I'm going to accentuate that part of my identity that's different.

Ms. LAHIRI: No. No, I never did. If anything, it was the opposite. It was wanting to pull away from the things that marked my parents as being different. And this was a source of enormous conflict for me when I was growing up because I felt that I was on the one hand betraying my parents and turning away from them, but on the other hand, there was a sort of survivalist instinct in me. I was teased. I was very aware of being made fun of for various - it didn't matter that I wore clothes from Sears. I was still different. My name was different. I looked different.

You know, when children would see my parents, they knew that that was a big thing about me that was different. You know, my mother wore saris. And they didn't really mix with my friends' parents in that same easy comfortable way. You know, my parents kept a distance. Not that they didn't want to be friends, but there was just a sort of barrier that they couldn't overcome. And again, I think this was a two-way street. It wasn't just that they were afraid or unwilling. I think there was a fear and an unwillingness on both sides.

INSKEEP: You seem to create characters who have very similar personal experiences to what you're talking about, and if we read these stories, we'd learn a little bit about what that experience means. I wonder if you learned something about your own experience by writing about characters who share some of your experiences.

Ms. LAHIRI: Well, I think that what has happened over the years that I've been writing is that I feel that with each new story or book, I do feel that I am able to confront the truth of my life with a little more honesty. I think that a lot of my upbringing, you know, was a lot about denying and hiding and evading and fretting and wanting to make everything fit and make everything easy and wanting to pretend that I wasn't this person or that person, or wishing that I were otherwise, wishing I looked another way, that I had a different name and, you know, wishing my parents weren't torn between two parts of the globe.

And all of that stuff, all of that mess of life, of my life, of my upbringing that I for so long, I wanted to all just put it into a box and make it still and make it not what it was. You know, to deny my life in some fundamental way. To pretend that it was something else. I think that in the years that I've been writing, it has helped me to look the truth in the eye a little bit better each time. And I think that that has helped me as a person, the ability to accept the mess, to accept and to understand that I will never be able to fit it into a box, that it will never sit still, that my parents will always be tied to two different parts of the Earth and that that is a difficult experience. That is a painful experience. It can be a very enriching experience as well. I think it has been liberating and brought me some peace to just confront that truth if not to be able to solve it or answer it.

INSKEEP: Jhumpa Lahiri is the American author of "Unaccustomed Earth." Thanks very much.

Ms. LAHIRI: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can listen to a reading that Jhumpa Lahiri gave of her most recent book, "Unaccustomed Earth," on our Web site, npr.org. And tomorrow we will continue our conversations on becoming American.

Mr. JOSEPH O'NEILL (Author): It used to be the case - I mean, I'm thinking of Ireland where I'm from - for an Irishman to come to the United States involved a perilous journey by ship over the sea. And it involved singing lots of songs before you left, saying goodbye. And once you were in the United States, it involved singing lots of songs about how you were never going to set foot in Ireland again. But nowadays the transfer of people from country to country is not irrevocable in the way that it used to be.

INSKEEP: It's easier to make the leap, but still not easy. And we'll talk to the writer Joseph O'Neill tomorrow.

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