I recently went on a trip to India, and I remember packing the night before, sort of in a daze, not quite registering that I would soon be roaming around in a country that I had never been to before. A few months prior, when I first booked the ticket, I had grand visions of "preparing" for this trip. Maybe I should finally watch Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, like I'd been meaning to. I had a copy of Shashi Tharoor's Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: The Emerging 21st-Century Power, so I should read that. My co-editor was going to screen Kal Ho Naa Ho for his New Asian Cinemas class, so I definitely had to watch that before I went.
Come the night before, I had done none of these things, and needing something to read on the plane, I scanned through my bookshelf and thought: let's go with Jhumpa Lahiri. Her new collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, had just come out.
It didn't take long -- literally the second paragraph on Page 1 -- for me to realize that I had stupidly overlooked a rather large detail. With the exception of some early stories set in Calcutta, Lahiri's stories usually take place in the US. So instead of reading about India, I was reading about Seattle. And Boston. And New York. Sure, I was learning about Bengali and Bengali American culture, but it would have been superficial to assume that this -- or Monsoon Wedding and Shah Rukh Khan, for that matter -- would give me insight on a Gujarati wedding in Ahmedabad (a friend's that I was attending) or a life in Mumbai (the other city I would be visiting).
So, after I let go of my own silly notions, I just allowed myself to be absorbed by the book, and I read. And read and read and read.
The title story of Unaccustomed Earth is about the adult Ruma and her retired father, who are both trying to find their rhythm after the death of her mother. "Hell-Heaven" is told from daughter Usha's first-person perspective as she comes to see her mother in a different light. "A Choice of Accommodations" is about a man Amit, hanging onto memories of his past, irritated at the rut of his present. "Only Goodness" is about a sister's guilt over a deteriorating relationship with her younger brother. "Nobody's Business" unravels the dramatic, self-centered life of Sang, a girl who her roommate Paul has put on a pedestal. And last is a three-parter that traces Hema and Kaushik's lives over a span of thirty years -- when they first meet as children in 1974 to when they discover each other again in 2004.
After I finished the book, I started scrolling through book reviews, and while the reaction was overwhelming positive (as was mine), some of them were confusing to me -- and truthfully, sort of annoying. It seemed that I wasn't the only one who had silly preconceptions about Unaccustomed Earth or perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri as a writer. Except many of the reviewers never discarded those preconceptions even after completing the book.
Los Angeles Times' lead for their review was: "First-generation Indian Americans cope with life in the U.S. and differences with their immigrant parents." NPR describes the characters as: "strangers in a strange land, trying to fit in." The Atlantic writes about Lahiri's "focus on the lives of second-generation immigrants who must navigate both the traditional values of their immigrant parents and the mainstream American values of their peers."
It's no wonder that New York Magazine asks her about "calls of deja vu," insinuating that all of Lahiri's work seems to be about the same type of Bengali American experience. The suggestion is that from 1999's Interpreter of Maladies to The Namesake, her work has had some echo of characters "navigating between the Indian traditions they've inherited and the baffling new world."
But these simplistic, repetitive descriptions, albeit all from reviews that raved about her writing talent, strike me as unfair and unintentionally condescending.
In the NPR story, the reporter cuts to an excerpt of the book, with which he's particularly impressed. That excerpt stands out to him only because in it, Lahiri "goes beyond the immigrant experience to capture the universal tenderness for a mother and her unborn child."
Entertainment Weekly notices that Hema and Kaushik's relationship closely resembles Gogol's marriage to Moushumi in The Namesake. [Because they're both Bengali American...?] Also, the reviewer couldn't help but wonder: "Would Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction still work if the Rahuls and Chitras were Roberts and Charlottes?" -- as if Lahiri's book would be better and more universal if Hema could easily be Heather.
This is not to say that mainstream (i.e. non-minority) reviewers just don't get it, which is a generalization that is just as problematic to make these days. Plus, the Village Voice, Time Magazine, and New Republic all have more nuanced takes on Unaccustomed Earth, as do many others.
But it makes me think about the separation between artist's intent, which is sometimes unknown, and the interpretation of the art, which is inevitably filtered through the particular lenses of individual readers. And it makes me think about how a lot of these assumptions that stories about the Bengali American experience must all blend into each other at some point, would never come up for a non-minority writer, for non-minority stories.
I don't think that the stories in Unaccustomed Earth are about immigrant anxiety, strangeness of foreign lands, the second-generation cultural dilemma, and child-parent generational differences -- themes the reviewers seem to be obsessed with finding. Sure, the idea of uprooting one's home often plays as a backdrop -- heavy in some stories, almost nonexistent in others -- but I think that continuing to characterize Lahiri's work based on stagnant expectations that one might have for so-called "immigrant writers" is limiting and overall, kind of lazy journalism.
What meant more to me, as a reader, was when reviewers dared to distinguish just what it was that made Lahiri's writing distinct. What makes her so skilled at creating worlds where you really care about the characters -- even if in the end, they leave you completely stressed out.
In the Random House "Review Quotes" section, Amy Tan calls Lahiri: "the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say, 'Read this!'"
I would generally be skeptical of these author-to-author praises, and this one seems pretty generic. But in this case, I know exactly what she's talking about. I still remember the exact time and place I read "A Temporary Matter" from Interpreter of Maladies. I was in Taiwan, and I finished it right before my uncle took my two young cousins and me to see Taipei 101 for the first time. So there I was, on the tallest building in the world, icon of Taiwan, the home of my ancestors, and all I really wanted to do was to sit my cousins down and tell them to read this story, because it was going to blow their minds.
I didn't, because they were like twelve, and ultimately, I decided it might be kind of strange for me to force them to read a deeply-unnerving story about a disintegrating marriage, but I was debating it for a good half an hour. And as soon as we got back to my grandfather's house, I opened it back up and read it again.
Unaccustomed Earth is kind of like that. I still have a personal fondness for "A Temporary Matter" so it's hard to say it's better, but as a whole, I found Unaccustomed Earth to be a more accomplished, thorough collection than her first.
From my particular lens, the book reflects the pliability of this multicultural, global identity that we're allowed to have as modern Americans. A person can grow up in a world that's foreign to their parents but still fall into the same cycles. A person can marry someone outside their ethnicity, but it doesn't speak directly to whether they've assimilated and will forever reject their culture. A lot more goes into feeling "at home" than where one was born, but these characters (in all three generations) get to choose. They have more options, but they don't necessarily make better decisions. And although technically the generations that she writes about are a half-step in between me and my parents, and a half-step in between my parents and my grandparents, it's easy to share her curiosities about parents, children, siblings, or significant others. Stories about families and relationships, when written compellingly, can be explored in endless ways. Presuming that they will be redundant assumes that things never change.
The best part of Lahiri's writing is her way with details. With a lesser writer, I'd be anxious about missteps and oversights. Her rapidfire flow of knowledge is extensive and consequential, but Lahiri's language always glides through effortlessly. Her paragraphs are dense, but never effusive, and her ability to create these profound emotional connections is still a mystery to me. But I think it's in the details. You flip to any random page (as I'm about to do now), and everything is laid out for you. What is the woman watching on television when she gets a call from the police station? Which of her possessions does the six-year-old girl hide, when she's told that a visitor will be staying in her room? What does the drunk man remember about boarding school, when he hears frogs around a lake by his old dormitory? How did the professor of Classical Studies first become obsessed with Latin?
Because of these details, you know so much about these characters, and it's clear that their concerns overlap any ethnic, cultural, and generational barriers. But could the characters in Unaccustomed Earth just as easily be about Jack and Jill Smith -- if instead of eating Wonder Bread sandwiches tinted green with curry, they just stuck with all-American peanut-butter-and-jelly? Um, no. They're Bengali American. But boiling it all down to assimilation and this place we call America is akin to looking at a complicated situation, only seeing the sociopolitical issues and not noticing the people.
Sometimes it's better to just go in with a blank slate and get lost in the words. Just read it.