Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction

Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland

Alfred A. Knopf/Random House
Photo credit: Marco Delogu

Interview by Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki: Firstly, congratulations on being a Finalist for the National Book Award! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. What was the first thing you did after hearing the news of your nomination?

Jhumpa Lahiri: I was in London, at a dinner, and I happened to be standing next to my agent, Eric Simonoff, and my British editor, Alexandra Pringle. I embraced them.

EL: Do you recall a moment in writing this book when the process seemed just too difficult to go on? How about a moment when you really enjoyed yourself? Please explain.

JL: It seemed beyond me from the very beginning. I resisted working on it for ten years. I had written a brief scene and continued to think about the book, but I didn’t know how to approach it and was terrified. After such a long hiatus, it was satisfying to confront the idea again, and to feel connected to it, and for the story to begin, slowly, to open up. The part I enjoy best is when all the pieces are there but it’s still messy.

EL: How does The Lowland differ, in your mind, from your previous work? In other words, how is the book a continuation of aesthetic preoccupations, and how is it a divergence?

JL: I conceived of The Lowland before any of my other books were published. And so in a sense it’s the book I’ve been trying to write from the beginning. I think it’s a continuation, and perhaps a conclusion, of certain thematic preoccupations. I am also hopeful that it will lead to an aesthetic departure.

EL: The Lowland, which touches upon four generations of one family, and moves between India and Rhode Island, shifting perspectives among its main characters, sounds epic and sweeping. At the same time, most reviews focus on the inner lives of the book’s main characters. Can you talk a bit about balancing both the grand and the intimate in this novel?

JL: To me it was always the story of a family, and how that family is affected and altered by the loss of one of its members. The story grew out of the characters, but was inspired by a violent event that is at once political and personal. I wanted to understand how history shapes and determines certain individuals.

EL: In the novel, Subhash’s brother Udayan is drawn into Naxalism, a 1960s radical leftist movement outside Calcutta. After Udayan is killed by police, Subhash marries his brother’s pregnant widow and brings her back to America to live. What kind of research on the Naxalite movement did you do for this novel? Do you consider this a political novel, why or why not?

JL: I knew about the Naxalite movement from an early age. I was aware of its consequences when I visited Calcutta as a child, and I was aware that some of my family members had been involved in the movement. When the idea for the book first came to me I began to read more about it, and to learn about what had inspired it. I also spoke to various people who had lived through that time in Calcutta, or knew about the movement. The novel has a political context. But I don’t think that it’s at heart a political novel.

EL: When I think of your work, I think of your precise, measured and graceful prose, as well as your attention to the everyday and inner lives of your characters. You’re basically the Queen of Realism. (You can’t deny it—there’s a crown on your head!) Do you think of yourself as working in a realist tradition? If so, can you discuss? If not, what tradition—if any—do you see yourself participating in?

JL: Everyday life and ordinary characters interest me. I believe that the mystery of life lies there. Many of the writers who have guided me over the years—Joyce, Chekhov, Cather, Hardy—depict the world in a way that feels transcendent. On the other hand, writers like Kafka or Borges render surreal situations in ways that are intensely realistic. The thing to remember is that, as three-dimensional as characters may seem, they are made of words, not flesh and blood. In the end all fiction is a dream.

EL: If your book could go on a cross country road trip with another book, what book would that be, and why?

JL: After thinking about and working on this book for sixteen years, I want my book to stay put on a sturdy shelf.

Edan Lepucki is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me and a staff writer for The Millions. Her first novel, California, is forthcoming in 2014 from Little, Brown. She's the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles.