Lahiri and the Immigrant Experience

Here’s an NPR interview with Jhumpa Lahiri concerning the connection between her writing and her family’s experience as immigrants.  I found it interesting how she talks about her parents not wanting to be ‘American’ despite their status as American citizens, which appeared mostly the result of alienating behavior on the behalf of standard ‘Americans.’  She mentions “confronting the truth of her life,” which leads me to question if most of her books are written for a cathartic effect.  All three: Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth concern Indians or Indian immigrants.  Although what I both liked and disliked about Lahiri’s writing, in particular in the stories dealing with immigration, is that the characters’ ethnicity seems at times minor or even irrelevant to the plot and could be easily replaced with another cultural identity.  In fact, her greatest strength as a writer seemed to lie in creating and exposing realistic, complex relationships, except maybe for The Third and Final Continent.  I think her universality can apply to a range of readers but her writing sometimes struck me as impersonal for the same reasons (I know my thoughts are contradictory here).  In the interview, Lahiri speaks on the messiness of her immigrant background and how the fact she didn’t fit neatly in to one box has plagued her throughout her life.  Yet her stories often share the same focus with slight variations and I’m wondering whether or not her, and possibly the other authors we’ve read this semester, have given us an overly generalized sense of the immigrant experience… or otherwise, if all these voices have felt distinct….  We’ve somewhat touched upon the issue of the immigrant experience a few times over the course of this semester.  I have to admit I hate the phrase ‘immigrant experience’ because it’s reductive and vague.  It’s sort of along the same lines as the ‘coming-of-age’ story.  I mean, most stories are about learning and discovering that contribute to a character’s growth or decline in some way.  And just when the hell do we come-of-age anyway?  I might just have to burn the next book that includes ‘coming-of-age’ on its back cover. These phrases express the basic idea of a concept but give you nothing of the compelling, individualistic details

2 Responses to “Lahiri and the Immigrant Experience”

  1. amorin Says:

    You discuss a lot of things in this post, but I’m only going to address a few. First, I agree with you and do think that some of Lahiri’s writing is probably semi-autobiographical. They say that you should write about what you know, and writing about difficult things can be cathartic.

    I also appreciate what you’re saying about the overall vagueness of the term ‘immigrant experience.’ It does feel all-encompassing and generalized, but I think it’s also important to realize that we as human beings sometimes feel the need to categorize things. What would we call the unique experience of people new to this country, if not ‘the immigrant experience’? I don’t know that that term is employed to be deliberately vague, but rather to give a name to something.

  2. kciliber Says:

    You wrote: “Although what I both liked and disliked about Lahiri’s writing, in particular in the stories dealing with immigration, is that the characters’ ethnicity seems at times minor or even irrelevant to the plot and could be easily replaced with another cultural identity.”

    Hm. I have mixed feelings about Lahiri’s writing style. I think she does a good job creating descriptions and stories that many people could relate to, even though some readers may not be Indian-American/Indian. I agree with you that Lahiri’s strength as a writer lies in her ability to create and describe deep relationships, but I also think that her appeal and strength also lies with creating relatable stories. Still, your idea that perhaps they’re too general, that the ethnicity of any group could replace her characters brings me to ask if Lahiri panders to the dominant American culture–does she not comment/critique racist discrimination/hegemony in the US to a satisfactory level in order to not be dismissed by the dominant group? On the other hand, I felt relief when I read Lahiri’s work this semester because I think one of the tired themes in Asian American literature is racial discrimination/clashing. Often, when I read Asian American literature the material contains depressing tales of how some second-generation Asian-American hates her heritage and tries to fit in though the white Americans won’t let her and blablabla (Amy Tan’s work), and there’s also a lot of writing dealing with nature (which I thought was a stereotype about Asians) and tragedy. I was glad to finally, finally read some stories that didn’t deal with the exact same problem (though it is a significant issue worthy of exploration in writing.) I also liked “Third and Final Continent” because of the ending itself–finally, a happy ending for Asians. Though the ending is problematic (Asians go to America and lead a happy life) because it is a cliche as well and feeds into the idea that America is a sanctuary for marginalized people and puts down other countries as unable to provide satisfaction (does this also go with Said’s idea of sexualizing Asia and US?), I feel that yes, sometimes people move, and they find satisfaction. Daring to write that Asians can be happy shouldn’t be dismissed.