By Parul Sehgal, photograph: Liana Miuccio, ELLE India, September 2013
I meet Jhumpa Lahiri in Brooklyn on a hot, blue morning in August. Such is her reputation for reserve that I’m expecting a Bengali Garbo—or at least the woman from her author photo, with hair pulled back severely; wary, light eyes; arms shielding her body. Standing at the doorstep of her brownstone, I feel briefly ashamed in my mission, like I’ve been deployed to divest a turtle of its shell.
But she greets me in a sundress and sandals, her hair loose on her shoulders. At 46, she has a tense, tawny beauty, with a formality that falls away almost immediately.
Her home is warm and bright, and we chat in a busy room full of books about Italian architecture and children’s toys that look vaguely medieval in function. Her 11-year-old son, Octavio, finishes breakfast at the table and her daughter, nine-year-old Noor, lolls on the sofa next to me, playing a game on her iPad. We’ve barely been talking for 20 minutes when the doorbell rings. Her publisher has sent over a package (addressed to “JHUNPA LAHIN”) containing the first proof copies of The Lowland. The jacket is white, the title a chocolate slant, almost the color of dried blood.
“What do you think?” she asks her daughter. Turning the book over in her hands, Lahiri catches sight of the praise, the blurbs, the bio on the back. “Let’s not look at that,” she says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or to herself. She puts the book down on the coffee table, face up, and doesn’t touch it again.
In that same modest, measured way, she discusses the attention her work has received. Since she made her debut in 1999 with Interpreter of Maladies, she’s produced a book every five years or so, each one a critical and popular success. Her first book won the Pulitzer Prize; her second, The Namesake (2003), was made into film directed by Mira Nair. Her third, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list and was awarded the Frank O’Connor Prize. And The Lowland, out this month, has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
She was happy to hear about the nomination, she says, for the freedom that recognition affords her. “My writing has always come from a place where I feel—and need to feel—completely alone and anonymous,” she tells me. “I’m very grateful for the attention because it allows me to keep working, which is what I love. But I have to seal myself off from it, absolutely negate it, because the writing won’t come otherwise. It’s such an intimate thing; I can’t do it in front of other people. It’s a rich dimension in one’s head – to access it, the noise has to be shut off. And there is a lot of noise in the world.”
That noise has been, on occasion, critical. There is a dissenting minority when it comes to Lahiri’s work—critics who have dismissed her (along with Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith) as just “part of the late ’90s fad for beautiful young women novelists with Commonwealth roots,” those who have called her representation of the immigrant experience inauthentic or her depictions of India naive. For all her plain prose, Lahiri is divisive—unsurprising, perhaps, when you consider how eccentric a writer she really is, and how compulsively she has been drawn to variations on a single theme: The confusion, alienation and trauma of her parents’ migration to America. But that chatter feels very far away from the bright room we’re sitting in. Here, the talk is of work, of the stealth and patience that writing requires. “It’s all in the dark, all feeling around,” she says. “For me, it’s not a rational process at all. It’s living and breathing with the characters. Working with them. And slowly, they come to life, the story comes to life. That’s how it’s always been.”