I first discovered the works of Jhumpa Lahiri while I was completing my graduate degree in English. I was taking a course in Advanced Fiction Writing, and as part of that class, we were asked to read A Temporary Matter – Lahiri’s heartbreaking short story about a couple whose marriage has imploded following the death of their baby. Lahiri had crafted a world that was both completely foreign and yet intimately familiar; this was the sort of story that would climb into my bones and stay with me for the long haul.
Nearly a decade later, that has proven to be true. A Temporary Matter is one of only two stories I remember reading for that graduate class. Since reading it, I’ve devoured many of Lahiri’s other works, and I regularly include them in my literature and creative writing classes. As a teacher, I always encourage my students to study the author’s biography alongside their work, and this is particularly beneficial when studying Lahiri – her writing is heavily influenced by her upbringing.
Lahiri was born in London in 1967, but her family relocated to the United States shortly after her birth, so she spent much of her childhood in Rhode Island. Her parents were immigrants from Bengali, and ensuring that their children had a strong sense of their Indian heritage was of paramount importance to them. As such, Bengali was the primary language in Lahiri’s childhood home, although she never learned to read or write it as well as she would have liked.
Literature had always been and will forever be my only form of self-help.
Lahiri’s parents, who were brought together in an arranged marriage, were both academics. Her mother was a schoolteacher, and her father was a university librarian. As such, it’s no surprise that Lahiri grew up with a tremendous love and respect for both literature and education, and later she would attend Barnard College, where she earned a BA in English Literature. Following the completion of her BA, she transferred to Boston University, where she went on to earn an astonishing four graduate degrees: a masters in English, a masters in Comparative Literature and Arts, and a masters in Creative Writing, along with a doctorate in Renaissance Studies.
All American fiction could be considered immigrant fiction.
Somehow, in the midst of attaining all of that education, Lahiri still found time to submit her creative writing for publication, and while completing her graduate work, she began seeing her short stories published in a number of prestigious magazines. Her literary talent was soon recognised everywhere from The New Yorker to The Harvard Review, and, in time, this success led to the publication of her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, in 1999. The collection was a tremendous success, particularly amongst critics, and the work garnered her a number of accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
I think, like any artist or any writer, I just want to have that pure freedom of expression and of thought – the freedom to explore and move in unexpected ways.
That kind of success – particularly with a debut – could be paralyzing, but Lahiri didn’t let the fear of failure stop her from taking risks and trying new formats. In 2003, she released her next book, a novel called The Namesake, which was ultimately made into a movie in 2006. In 2008, she returned to the short-story format with An Unaccustomed Earth, and in 2013, she released another novel, The Lowlands, which was nominated for the National Book Award. In 2015, she took another path completely, writing a book in Italian about her experience studying the Italian language and culture. That same year, President Barak Obama honored her with the National Humanities Medal. In late 2016, she experimented with form once again, this time releasing a novella-length reflection on the meaning and power of book covers.
Jhumpa currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and children.