At Home Abroad Jhumpa Lahiri turns her gaze to history

A hush fell over the large dining room at the stately Guildhall in London when Robert Macfarlane, the British travel writer who chaired the jury for the Man Booker Prize this year, walked to the podium with the name of the winner known only to him and four other judges. This was the last year Britain’s most prestigious literary prize would go to a writer exclusively from the Commonwealth.

From next year, the doors would open to the United States—the only large English-speaking country whose authors don’t qualify for the prize. Writers from the Commonwealth would still be eligible, but opening the prize to Americans raises two risks—one, that American authors might win the prize easily; the other, that fiction from Commonwealth countries, which has to struggle hard to get noticed, and which has had a good run at the Booker, will now suffer. American prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, are open only to Americans. Man Booker runs the risk of becoming the Commonwealth version of that very British institution, Wimbledon, where outsiders dominate.

To some critics, the barbarians were already at the gate. Three of the short-listed novelists this year have lived a large part of their lives in America, and their connection with the Commonwealth is not strong: NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe (no longer a Commonwealth member), lives in the United States, and Ruth Ozeki was born in Connecticut to Japanese and American parents, and has taken Canadian nationality. And then there is Jhumpa Lahiri, born to Indian parents in Britain, who moved to the United States at the age of two, and has recently moved to Italy.

Many critics have strong views about the Man Booker Prize opening its doors to American authors. “Well that’s the end of the Booker Prize, then,” wrote the novelist Philip Hensher in The Guardian, quoting a London literary agent. Hensher was a judge in 2001, long-listed the following year (for The Mulberry Empire) and short-listed in 2008 (for The Northern Clemency). He lamented: “It is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes…” He added, with writers like Lahiri in his mind: “Curiously, all these novels, effectively written by American-based authors about exotic places, were unable to do so without placing the exotic places in the reassuring context of an American suburb. The novel written by an Indian, living in India, about India, without reference to his later life in Cincinnati was dead this year.” 

In 2013 at least, the prize followed the expected script, and the winner was 28-year-old Eleanor Catton, the youngest writer to win the prize, for her 832-page novel about New Zealand’s gold rush, The Luminaries. As Catton made her way to the stage, I wondered what Lahiri might have felt. Writers of Indian origin have had a good run with the prize—winners include VS Naipaul (1971), Salman Rushdie (1981), Arundhati Roy (1997), Kiran Desai (2006), and Aravind Adiga (2008). Naipaul (1979), Anita Desai (1980, 1984 and 1999), Rushdie (1983, 1988 and 1995), Rohinton Mistry (1991, 1996 and 2002), Indra Sinha (2007), Amitav Ghosh (2008), and Jeet Thayil (2012) have been short-listed.
I asked a friend who was at the dinner to keep an eye on Lahiri. “Her face was impassive; she was inscrutable,” she reported. In London, at least, few had expected her to win. According to punters, a mere £24 had been placed on her novel, The Lowland, with odds of 9/1the lowest stakes ever placed on a contender.

Two weeks earlier, I had seen her twice in London, speaking to full-house audiences at promotional events at The Guardian newspaper and the South Bank Centre. There, she fielded questions politely, but revealed little of her personality. She looked as though she would rather be elsewhere. When the critic John Mullan, who chaired the discussion at The Guardian, asked her an intricate question about a particular story from her 2008 collection, Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri needed time to think of the answer; once, she stumbled remembering a character’s name. When a woman from the audience pointed out that women formed the majority of her audience that evening, and asked if that meant she wrote for a specific audience (such as women or immigrants), Lahiri looked pained. She smiled briefly, her lips arcing momentarily before returning to their horizontal repose, and said: “I don’t think of an audience. It is known that more women read in general. When I write I am alone at work and I’m not thinking of resurfacing; I do not know who is going to read what I write. Writing remains a private matter, like meditation.” She replied to questions she was not interested in with politeness and without enthusiasm. (Lahiri did not respond to several interview requests for this essay.)

Some critics, while they find her short fiction to be polished and accomplished, have uncharitably said she is the poster child of American creative writing classes—where students learn the craft of honing and sharpening the stories that will appeal to editors at magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, all publications with decided and distinct tastes, and among the few major English language outlets in the world which regularly publish short stories in defiance of conventional commercial wisdom. Lahiri, who graduated from Boston University with a PhD in Renaissance Studies, also holds degrees in comparative literature and creative writing.



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