Jhumpa Lahiri is sitting primly in the living room of her rambling Brooklyn brownstone, reflecting on the ambivalent fortune of good fortune. Eight years ago, she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her first book, the short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents who moved to Rhode Island when she was young, and both Interpreter and its follow-up, the novel The Namesake, explored the emotional and cultural dislocations of Indian immigrants straddling lives in their homeland and in America.
And now here she is with Unaccustomed Earth, her third book, a knockout collection of eight short stories in which her focus has shifted down one generation, to the children of Indian immigrants in the United States, even as it remains trained on the minutiae of identity and daily life.
So on this day a few weeks ago, even though advance reviews are glowing, Lahiri is thinking about the critics who wished she would find another subject. "I think there's an impatience," she says. "It goes something like this: 'Why do you keep writing about the same thing? Why do you keep writing about immigrants? Why are they all so depressed?' "
She chuckles, then notes that, when Interpreter came out, some said she wasn't entitled to write about India because she hadn't been born there, or grown up there. "And now with this book, it's, 'You don't write about India any more. What happened? Don't you love India any more?' " She shakes her head.
In photographs and public appearances, Lahiri is often draped in silk with sunbursts of colour, making her seem exotic, remote, severe and almost consciously iconic (The Bengali-American Writer!). Today, though, the icon she evokes is Connecticut Housewife: dressed in a sensible robin's-egg-blue cardigan, the hue of which matches the strap of her watch, a blue-and-beige skirt, and brown stockings. Her feet rest in a worn pair of brown house slippers. Her hair is down, shoulder-length.
"Someone just asked me last week, 'Well, you won the Pulitzer Prize and you could do anything' - as if the Pulitzer is like some gold American Express card - 'You can go buy a Jaguar, why are you driving a Honda?' - and she said, 'You could write about anything, why do you keep writing about the same thing?' And I thought: Because I want to. I mean, isn't that the point of writing? That it's the one job, if you're lucky, if you're a fiction writer, you can think about and write about what interests you, what inspires you."
The inspirations for Unaccustomed Earth are here in this room, both present and palpably absent. Behind Lahiri, to her left, is a camping tent in which her two children were playing earlier this morning: 3½-year-old Noor, and Octavio, who will turn 6 next month. (At this moment, he is at school, in kindergarten; she is at a tot's music class with her nanny.) Behind and to Lahiri's right is a children's easel, which doubles as a spot to hang a pair of Noor's tiny purses. There are a few contemporary sculptures here too, works that once belonged to Lahiri's mother-in-law, a Guatemalan artist who passed away in 2000. Her father-in-law died in 2004.
"The book is clearly a result of a certain phase of life," she acknowledges. "It is the first book I've written as a mother, as a parent, and also as someone who's watched parents die. So I think that's why there are both so many children in the book and ... parents dying also."
The book's title comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Custom House: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."
But Lahiri, who herself struck out in a new direction away from her parents when she married her husband, Hispanic journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, recognizes that there are unseen costs.
The title story of Unaccustomed Earth, which begins the book, finds a young mother at loose ends, having moved from the East Coast to Seattle with her husband and young son. Less than a year after her own mother has died, Ruma is pregnant with her second child, contemplating whether she should fulfill her filial duty and invite her father, who is visiting for the first time, to move in with her family.
"The father thinks, 'My daughter wouldn't take me in, anyway, because she wasn't created that way,' " Lahiri says. "There's a letting go: She's leading her own life. That idea, that attitude, it's interesting to me, because I think my parents and their generation, they accept these new ways, but - not that it's not a full acceptance - it remains a foreign way of approaching life. Because there is that whole sense of filial obedience, loyalty, really doing what your parents expect you to do. But at the same time what always interests me is that those parents themselves have in some sense betrayed their own parents' expectations.
"I see that in my own parents in many ways. So I think it's not just about, 'Oh, we're raising you in a foreign land and we wanted you to be A, B and C and you really turned out to be X, Y and Z.' But it's that the parents themselves carry a certain burden: 'Did we expect to really live our entire adult lives in the United States and not be there for our own parents?' and all of those other things."
While each of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth has its own power, the book's major achievement is its second part, a 110-page narrative arc that unfolds over the course of three connected stories. It begins in 1974, when six-year-old Hema meets nine-year-old Kaushik and follows the intermittent development of their relationship over the next 30 years. "I was inspired by linked stories, a grouping, the way Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant do. They're two of my most favourite writers."
She never saw the story as a novel. Besides, she recognizes that, especially over the past few years, she has not had the focus that writing another one would require. "My sense is that, if I'd started a novel in 2003, that I'd still be writing it," she laughs.
It has been an intense time. In the summer of 2005, Lahiri and her husband sold their two-bedroom apartment in Park Slope and overextended themselves to buy this brownstone. She was just thinking about that a few hours ago, in fact, as she watched the morning's happy chaos unfold. She had recalled the couple from whom they had bought the house, who had lived here for more than 30 years, had raised their two children here and welcomed grandchildren into the house: a journey on which Lahiri and her husband were just embarking.
When they bought the place, "I remember just going very far in my head: Am I going to grow old in this house? Am I going to die in this house? Am I going to become a widow in this house? And I'd just never thought of those things, in a tangible sense, until I bought the house. I mean, everyone thinks about those things: Am I gonna die? When am I gonna die? Who's gonna die first? What's gonna happen? But I remember thinking about them and suddenly there was a setting, and it made everything so much more real."
Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Ondaatje will read this evening at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto (416-973-4000).