Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri

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Time for Between The Lines Book Club! Leave your comments about The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri below. Better yet, join us in Sacramento, CA tomorrow ( 6/2715). We meet at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA.

Note: next Friday I will not be posting as I’ll be enjoying Fourth of July weekend and bracing for San Diego Comic-Con. That cosplay won’t pack itself! We’ll be back here to talk about July’s pick, Orfeo, by Richard Powers, on Friday July 10.

The Lowland was a much-anticipated book and as such there are many interviews available with Lahiri. Here’s a selection:

The New Yorker has a fairly long interview with Lahiri in which she talks about the book. She also talks about a new experiment – writing in Italian., which is a relative new language for her:

But what I think I find really freeing about this strange, experimental, whatever-you-want-to-call-it phase is that I love the freedom of writing in an imperfect way. I feel what I felt as a child, when I was first learning how to write stories, when I was first writing stories, and I was first experiencing that pleasure of putting sentences on paper and the excitement that it would give me. I think as an adult I do still feel that excitement, but it’s different. Writing in another language is humbling. It’s so hard. How I explain it to people is that I feel as though I’ve tied my right hand behind my back on purpose and I’m writing with my left hand, and I recognize how much sloppier it is, how much more awkward it is, how much more out of control it is in a way. But I also love doing without so much. I feel that when I describe something in Italian I just have a very limited amount of resources. My toolbox is small. And I only have a certain amount of vocabulary. I have the grammar and I can make it all work in that way, but it’s much simpler as a result. It’s not the same process of writing in English, where I could choose from one of twenty-five different words to describe how the sky looks to me. I can’t do that in Italian. I might have two or three words. So it feels more direct, in a way, the process, because there’s a strange purity about it, even though it’s so imperfect.

Parul Sehgal did an interview with Lahiri for Elle India in which Lahiri talks about her writing process:

The book begins: “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.” In that one sentence, we get the collision of British, Muslim and Hindu (and with the fork in the road, an echo of Robert Frost, and Lahiri’s New England roots), an intimation of how the brothers will take divergent paths, and inevitably, a little Lahiri family history. The Lowland is set in Tollygunge, her father’s neighborhood in Calcutta, where Naxalism set down strong roots, even attracting members of her family. The book brims with facts and local political lore – unusual for a writer who doesn’t identify herself as especially political. “I’m looking at the world a different way,” she says. “I’m trying to create people of all kinds and put them into situations, and it’s not my objective to have a message. I work from the inside out.”

To depict Naxalism from the inside out, she travelled to Calcutta to meet people who had been active in the movement. It was a turning point for the book, she says. “You realize the difference between someone who may vote a certain way or think that these objectives are right and reasonable, versus a person for whom these beliefs, this sense of justice is as essential as water or air. Even all these years later, they’re still burning with it.”

I thought this was a cute and poignant moment where she talks about understanding her parents better now that she’s moved to Rome:

But what’s also clear is that if Lahiri has moved away from using fiction to fathom her parents, life is teaching her what she wanted to know. Lahiri has been living in Rome for a year now, a city that, she says, shares Calcutta’s relaxed sociability. And she has found that fumbling with a foreign language, struggling with simple things – phone calls, putting her children in school—has helped her see her parents more clearly. Although she admits this confuses her mother a good deal. “She’s like, ‘Why do you have to be so far away from us? If you want to understand us, come over!’” Lahiri says, laughing.

The Lowland was a finalist for the National Book Award, and you can find an interview with her on their website.   In this interview, she reveals that she resisted writing the book for ten years:

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.

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