Unknown Territory: An Interview With Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, “The Lowland,” was chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. The book  is about two brothers in post-Independence India, Subhash and Udayan, who are inseparable as children but whose lives take markedly different paths as they reach their twenties. Udayan, the younger and more adventurous of the brothers, becomes a committed follower of the revolutionary Naxalite movement in Calcutta, while the cautious and diligent Subhash leaves India to pursue graduate studies in Rhode Island. Udayan’s involvement with the Naxalite uprising leads to his death, shattering his family and isolating his young wife, Gauri, who is pregnant with his child. The novel explores the ways in which Udayan’s death transforms the lives of those he left behind—Udayan, Gauri, and Bela, the daughter he never knew. I recently talked to Jhumpa about the novel, and the reading and writing she’s been doing since she finished the book—particularly her experiments with Italian. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
The novel moves between Calcutta and New England—Rhode Island, specifically, where you grew up. Calcutta has been a backdrop for much of your fiction in the past, as has New England. What’s it like to describe your childhood home?
When I think of the case of Rhode Island, it’s interesting, this time around, because I feel as though I’ve written about Rhode Island in a kind of disguised way previously. I’ve overtly set some of my books and stories in Massachusetts, which is a place I also know and I’ve lived in, but I never really referred to Rhode Island specifically, I believe, until this book. And I don’t know why. Maybe I felt awkward about naming the place where I grew up—feeling, I don’t know, strange about it in some way. Massachusetts provided a convenient shield for a while. I set “The Namesake” outside Boston, for example, and even some of the stories in the first book, “Interpreter of Maladies,” while I picture them in my head in Rhode Island, I don’t say that they are, so the setting could be Connecticut, it could be Massachusetts, it could be Rhode Island. But this is the first novel where I really felt that I wanted to write about Rhode Island. I wrote a piece some years ago for an anthology called “State by State” that was edited by Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland. I think it was at a point where I was just beginning to get into the writing of “The Lowland.” Having written that essay, having confronted for the first time this fact of my life—that I had been raised in Rhode Island, a place I never really knew, an experience I never fully came to terms with in some ways—helped me, and I thought, O.K., I would like to set this book in Rhode Island, consciously, and name it as such. So I did, and I think that it liberated me in some way to really think about it and write about it and remember it in a fuller way.
The physical landscape—the coastline of the state, in particular—is important for Subhash. Did you start looking at Rhode Island and thinking about it with Subhash’s perspective in mind?
I did, in fact. I started driving to the campus where he would have studied, where he had studied. I would drive out there, I would pretend I was him. I would walk along the little beach. I would look at what he would see. Part of getting to know his character was, on my visits to Rhode Island, thinking about what his day-to-day life would have been like. The church, for example, near the beach, really struck me, and I thought, Well, this is something he would see.
Udayan is deeply involved with the Naxalite movement in Calcutta in the nineteen-sixties. How much time did it take you to draw your own picture of that period, either by reading about it or by talking to people who’d lived through it? Did you start writing those sections of the novel early on, and then fill in details, or did you feel that you had to understand that history completely before you started to write?
No. I wanted to understand that history completely and digest it before I started to write. And I felt that I couldn’t, and it was frustrating for a long time. I borrowed these two books from the library, from my father, and I think I had them out for seven years. Periodically I would read them, and I would take notes, and I would put them away. And then I would reread them, and I would take the notes, and I would put them away. And I felt that I had to keep doing this over a period of many years, and I always did feel insecure. I thought, Am I really understanding this? Am I really getting this? Is this really how it might have been?
And I think for me the key part of the process was, at a certain point, pretty much three-quarters of the way into the writing, I went to Calcutta. I’d been speaking to people all the way along, “Oh, tell me what it was like, what were those years like, what was happening?” I was asking friends of my parents here, who hadn’t yet moved to the United States at the time, who remembered those years, but when I went back to Calcutta and I talked to people more specifically, wanting to know more about the movement—why it had happened, how it had happened—that seemed to unlock something. Suddenly I felt that all of the notes I had taken made sense.
The final key moment was when, suddenly, I was able to write the novel without feeling as though I needed the crutch of all the research and all of the books, and I felt that the characters were strong enough and their motivations had become more or less solid for me and satisfying for me to just go deeper with them, knowing that this was part of who they were and part of their world. And that was the final phase. The initial phase was a lot of research, but it remained opaque, and then slowly the research, the history, became more clear to me, and the clearer it became, the less I felt that I needed it.
In “The Lowland” there are times when your writing is quite different than it’s been in the past. The sentences are sometimes shorter and more clipped—you use more sentence fragments, for example, than you’ve done previously—and there’s a greater sense of urgency in the voice. Was this something that you were aware of as you were writing?
I think a little bit. I had been wanting to write in a slightly different way with this book. I didn’t want the book to feel heavy, because I felt that the book was heavy—I mean that the story was heavy, the material was heavy, the situation, the circumstances, all of this was very weighty. And I didn’t want the writing to feel heavy. I just wanted to say what I needed to say in the sparest way that I could. I wanted to have some sort of lightness. So I was trying to pare back even more than I normally try. The earlier drafts did feel heavier and clunkier and not satisfying, because I just felt there was so much information, there was so much history, the emotions of the book—everything that was going on. It just felt very burdened and I wanted to free the book up in some way.
One of the subclassifications that the Library of Congress uses for “The Lowland,” along with “Brothers” and “Naxalite Movement,” is “Triangles (interpersonal relations).” In the novel, the main triangle, of course, is the one that forms between Subhash; his brother, Udayan—or the memory of Udayan; and his widow, Gauri. But there are various other such relationships in the book (between Subhash, Gauri, and her daughter, Bela, say). What does this process of triangulation give you as a novelist?
Well, I was told many years ago, when I was studying writing at B.U., that triangles are very helpful in building a story, because the triangle is a stable thing, but it’s not a square. There’s something about it that creates drama. But I was definitely aware of a series of triangles, absolutely, and they do play out throughout the book. I think they’re wonderful in terms of creating tension. I think so much of literature, so many novels and stories, have that tension, of two people wanting something, and what is the thing they want, or who is the person they want? It can go in so many different directions. I often think the novel is, among other things, very much about what a family is, and what a family means. Though a family can be any number of people, it has to consist of three people if you think of a family having at least two generations. So that’s another essential element I’m exploring.
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