What's In A Namesake | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Jhumpa Lahiri is the writer you wish you were. Her very first short-story collection, 1999's Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize. The book also took home the 2000 PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker's Debut of the Year Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award. Lahiri was just 32 years old.

As an Indian American, Lahiri often writes about what she calls the "hyphenated identity" many children of immigrants share. Raised in Rhode Island, she grew up speaking Bengali at home, and eating curry instead of hamburgers. Yet she found herself sometimes identifying more with her American peers than with her own family.

Many of Lahiri's characters deal with this identity issue, as well as something all readers can relate to: the legacy of genes, thoughts and values left us by our parents and other ancestors. In Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri writes about characters seeking love and identity across national and cultural boundaries. In the title story, an interpreter guides an Indian-American family through their ancestors' home country, and ends up overhearing a surprising confession. In her 2003 debut novel, The Namesake, Lahiri depicts a young Indian-American student at MIT who changes his name in a futile attempt to escape his parents' rigid identity and traditions.

As an undergrad herself, Lahiri studied at Barnard College; at Boston University, she earned graduate degrees including a doctorate in Renaissance studies. Her fiction has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Agni, Epoch, The Louisville Review, Harvard Review and Story Quarterly.

Lahiri isn't among that post-post-modern fiction camp of writers, some of whom spend sizable parts of their books performing literary stunts and maneuvers; she simply tells beautiful stories. Her prose is graceful and crystal-clear, and her plots have been compared to elegantly constructed math proofs. One newer story, "Once in a Lifetime," concerns an Indian-American girl who learns that the mother of a boy she likes is dying of cancer; Lahiri successfully narrates in the tricky second person.

Despite all the praise and awards, Lahiri -- who lives in New York City with her husband and son -- often asserts that she doubts the writing process "all the way through." The Washington Post once asked her what she thinks about her critical acclaim. "I don't think it's wise for a writer to question why a book is praised or dismissed," Lahiri said. "It's just my job to write the books."

The Drue Heinz Lecture Series presents Jhumpa Lahiri 7:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 20. Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $19 ($8 students). 412-622-8866 or www.pittsburghlectures.org

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