There are not, I suspect, many authors who prefer never to read reviews and profiles of themselves. "It's just too much, like looking into a mirror all the time," says Jhumpa Lahiri. This is a pity, as she's missing considerable acclaim. Lahiri is now almost a decade into a stupendously successful career spent writing about the American-Bengali immigrant experience.
Her third book, Unaccustomed Earth, recently topped the American hardback bestseller lists, quite a feat for a collection of short stories. Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection, won a Pulitzer in 2000, and her novel, The Namesake (2003), has been filmed by Mira Nair, the director of Monsoon Wedding.
Along with Afghan- American Khaled Hosseini, the Haiti-born Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic, Lahiri swells a tide of new fictional voices: immigrants, who write about displacement and deracination. Three-quarters of the surnames listed in the recent Granta Best of New American Novelists indicate that the family washed up in the United States from other shores. "Almost any American can connect on some level to a family background of having come across some ocean," says Lahiri.
The characters in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake flit from Calcutta to the US, their subject usually the big move and its immediate aftermath — the experiences of Lahiri's parents' generation.
In the eight stories that make up Unaccustomed Earth, she focuses on the lives of the children, who've grown up in the American education system, have sometimes married non-Indians, yet cannot escape the burden of parental traditions.
Lahiri was born in London, where her father studied, then, after a brief spell in Calcutta, the family moved to the United States, where he took up a job as a librarian in a university town in Rhode Island.
About Unaccustomed Earth she says, "I write about people whose very existence has been shaped by unsettlement. My and my sister's upbringing was almost hydroponic because our roots had nowhere to cling." For this reason she doesn't consider her childhood happy. Her experiences differed from her parents' because they "had originally come from a land somewhere, firm ground The fact that they lived away from it was a source of pain and unhappiness and frustration, but there was a land they thought of as home. Until recently I thought that there was no place, no land that I could go there and say I'm home." What's changed? "Having my own children and just having lived in America for 38 years."
Lahiri, now 40, has settled in Brooklyn with her husband, a Greek-Guatamalan-American journalist, and their two small children. "When I go back to New England now I do feel a sense of return. It was where I was raised."
How much of her work is autobiographical?
"The basic nuts and bolts of life but not specific facts." She mentions part two of her book, entitled "Hema and Kaushik". It comprises three linked stories that begin when one Bengali family arrives in America to stay with another while the newcomers look for the perfect house. "It never happened to me but it did to others.
All her stories, Lahiri says, "start in different ways. Sometimes it's just tiny notions that I don't understand. At other times I'll have a sense of a situation, character, place, mood, encounter." She doesn't follow any theory of form. Each one is different. "What was new for me in this book was writing a story with a shared point of view."
Lahiri's immediate success as a published writer came as a shock. It's very rare for a first book of short stories to be awarded a Pulitzer. "My writing life has always felt such a vulnerable thing. I felt like an impostor. And then I did start writing and I met with this unexpected level of attention. It makes me feel vulnerable in a different way, so self-conscious."
Americans might love reading about the immigrant experience, but it's always interesting what the folks back home in India or Afghanistan or the Caribbean think of the culture of diaspora. Here in Britain, Monica Ali, the author of Brick Lane, has suffered a severe backlash from parts of the unassimilated East End Bangladeshi community, which challenged her right as a middle-class, anglicised immigrant to portray them. Back in West Bengal, the reaction to Lahiri's fiction has been equally extreme. "With my first book some of the Indian reviews were cruellest. 'What do you know about India? You're an American creature." Then there were those who said I gave Indians a bad name because I wrote them as depressed and unhappy."
No wonder she keeps herself aloof from reading what is written about her. But there's another reason why she won't be reading this interview, and that's family life. "I need to cook dinner and the children need a bath and the plants need watering. I have a hard enough time dealing with all of that and preserving space to daydream, to enter the invented world. The stuff to get the books into the hands of readers, I do my bit to aid that, but in my life I barely have time to read a magazine."
By arrangement with The Independent