Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri born July 11, 1967) is an American author known for her short stories, novels and essays in English, and, more recently, in Italian.
Nilanjana Sudeshna’s debut collection of short-stories Interpreter of Maladies (1999) won the Putlizer Prize for Fiction and the PEN / Hemingway Award, and her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was adapted into the popular film of the same name. Nilanjana Sudeshna’s second story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008) won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, while her second novel, The Lowland (2013), was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. In these works, Lahiri explored the Indian-immigrant experience in America. In 2011, Lahiri moved to Rome, Italy and has since then published two books of essays, and in 2019, published her first novel in Italian called Dove mi trovo and also compiled, edited and translated the Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories which consists of 40 Italian short stories written by 40 different Italian writers. She has also translated some of her own writings and those of other authors from Italian into English.
In 2014, Lahiri was awarded the National Humanities Medal. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
Early and personal life of Nilanjana Sudeshna Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants from the Indian state of West Bengal. Her family moved to the United States when she was three; Lahiri considers herself an American and has said, “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.” Lahiri grew up in Kingston Rhode Island where her father Amar Lahiri worked as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island; the protagonist in “The Third and Final Continent”, the story which concludes Interpreter of Maladies, is modeled after him. Lahiri’s mother wanted her children to grow up knowing their Bengali heritage, and her family often visited relatives in Calcutta.
When she began kindergarten in Kingston Rhode Island, Lahiri’s teacher decided to call her by her pet name, Jhumpa, because it was easier to pronounce than her “proper name”. Lahiri recalled, “I always felt so embarrassed by my name…. You feel like you’re causing someone pain just by being who you are. Lahiri’s ambivalence over her identity was the inspiration for the ambivalence of Gogol, the protagonist of her novel The Namesake, over his unusual name. In an editorial in Newsweek, Lahiri claims that she has “felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.” Much of her experiences growing up as a child were marked by these two sides tugging away at one other. When she became an adult, she found that she was able to be part of these two dimensions without the embarrassment and struggle that she had when she was a child. Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School and received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College of Columbia University in 1989.
Lahiri then received multiple degrees from Boston University: an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. Her dissertation, completed in 1997, was entitled Accursed Palace: The Italian palazzo on the Jacobean stage (1603–1625). Her principal advisers were William Carroll (English) and Hellmut Wohl (Art History). She took a fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, which lasted for the next two years (1997–1998). Lahiri has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then deputy editor of TIME Latin America, and who is now senior editor of TIME Latin America. Lahiri lives in Rome with her husband and their two children, Octavio (b. 2002) and Noor (b. 2005). Lahiri joined the Princeton University faculty on July 1, 2015 as a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts.
Lahiri’s early short stories faced rejection from publishers “for years”. Her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was finally released in 1999. The stories address sensitive dilemmas in the lives of Indians or Indian immigrants, with themes such as marital difficulties, the bereavement over a stillborn child, and the disconnection between first and second generation United States immigrants. Lahiri later wrote, “When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.” The collection was praised by American critics, but received mixed reviews in India, where reviewers were alternately enthusiastic and upset Lahiri had “not paint Indians in a more positive light.” Interpreter of Maladies sold 600,000 copies and received the 2000 Putlizer Prize for Fiction (only the seventh time a story collection had won the award).
In 2003, Lahiri published her first novel, The Namesake. The theme and plot of this story was influenced in part by a family story she heard growing up. Her father’s cousin was involved in a train wreck and was only saved when the workers saw a beam of light reflected off of a watch he was wearing. Similarly, the protagonist’s father in The Namesake was rescued due to his peers recognizing the books that he read by Russian author Nikolai. The father and his wife immigrated to the United States as young adults. After this life-changing experience, he named his son Gogol and his daughter Sonia. Together the two children grow up in a culture with different mannerisms and customs that clash with what their parents have taught them A film adaptation of The Namesake was released in March 2007, directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn as Gogol and Bollywood stars Tabu and as his parents. Lahiri herself made a cameo as “Aunt Jhumpa”.
Lahiri’s second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed, was released on April 1, 2008. Upon its publication, Unaccustomed Earth achieved the rare distinction of debuting at number 1 on New York Times Best Seller List. New York Times Book Review editor, Dwight Garner stated, “It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction—particularly a book of stories—that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout.”
Lahiri has also had a distinguished relationship with The New Yorker magazine in which she has published a number of her short stories, mostly fiction, and a few non-fiction including The Long Way Home; Cooking Lessons, a story about the importance of food in Lahiri’s relationship with her mother.
Since 2005, Lahiri has been a vice president of the PEN American Center, an organization designed to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers. In February 2010, she was appointed a member of the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, along with five others.
In September 2013, her novel The Lowland was placed on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, which ultimately went to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. The following month it was also long-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction and revealed to be a finalist on October 16, 2013. However, on November 20, 2013, it lost out for that award to James McBride and his novel The Good Lord Bird.
In December 2015, Lahiri published a non-fiction essay called “Teach Yourself Italian” in The New Yorker about her experience learning Italian. In the essay she declared that she is now only writing in Italian, and the essay itself was translated from Italian to English.
Lahiri was judged as the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 for her book The Lowland (Vintage Books/ Random House, India) at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival for which she entered Limca Book of Records.
In 2017, Lahiri receives the Pen/Malamud award for excellence in the short story. The award was established by the family of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Bernard Malamud to honor excellence in the art of short fiction.
In 2018, Lahiri published the short story “The Boundary” in The New Yorker. The story explores the life of two families and the contrasting features between them.
Lahiri published her first novel in Italian called Dove mi trovo. In 2019, she compiled, edited and translated the Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories which consists of 40 Italian short stories written by 40 different Italian writers.
Lahiri’s writing is characterized by her “plain” language and her characters, often Indian immigrants to America who must navigate between the cultural values of their homeland and their adopted home. Lahiri’s fiction is autobiographical and frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her parents, friends, acquaintances, and others in the Bengali communities with which she is familiar. Lahiri examines her characters’ struggles, anxieties, and biases to chronicle the nuances and details of immigrant psychology and behavior.
Until Unaccustomed Earth, she focused mostly on first-generation Indian American immigrants and their struggle to raise a family in a country very different from theirs. Her stories describe their efforts to keep their children acquainted with Indian Culture and traditions and to keep them close even after they have grown up in order to hang onto the Indian tradition of a joint family, in which the parents, their children and the children’s families live under the same roof.
Unaccustomed Earth departs from this earlier original ethos, as Lahiri’s characters embark on new stages of development. These stories scrutinize the fate of the second and third generations. As succeeding generations become increasingly assimilated into American culture and are comfortable in constructing perspectives outside of their country of origin, Lahiri’s fiction shifts to the needs of the individual. She shows how later generations depart from the constraints of their immigrant parents, who are often devoted to their community and their responsibility to other immigrants.
Lahiri worked on the third season of the HBO television program In Treatment. That season featured a character named Sunil, a widower who moves to the United States from India and struggles with grief and with culture shock. Although she is credited as a writer on these episodes, her role was more as a consultant on how a Bengali man might perceive Brooklyn.