Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali émigré parents in 1967. When she was three, her family moved to South Kingstown, Rhode Island, where her father was a librarian and her mother a teacher.
Like her character Gogol, Lahiri experienced some confusion over her name when starting school. Her parents tried to enroll her using her "good" names—Nilanjana and Sudeshna—but the teacher insisted that those were too long, and opted instead for her pet name, Jhumpa. Lahiri notes that, "Even now, people in India ask why I'm publishing under my pet name instead of a real name."
Lahiri began to write at age seven, sometimes creating short fiction pieces with her friends during recess. She later wrote for the school newspaper. She received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College, then moved to Boston to attend Boston University, from which she received three master's degrees—in English, comparative literature, and creative writing—and a PhD in Renaissance studies.
While in Boston, she worked in a bookstore and interned at a magazine; she has noted that, had she stayed in New York, she might have been too intimidated to write: "In New York I was always so scared of saying that I wrote fiction. It just seemed like, 'Who am I to dare to do that thing here? The epicenter of publishing and writers?' I found all that very intimidating and avoided writing as a response."
Lahiri received a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown from 1997 to 1998. In 1998, The New Yorker magazine published "A Temporary Matter," one of the stories that would appear in her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies. In 2000, the collection won the PEN/Hemingway Award for the year's best fiction debut, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She is the first Indian-American woman to receive this award.
In 2003, she published The Namesake, a novel, and followed that in 2008 with a second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Lahiri and her husband Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush live with their two children in Brooklyn, New York.
On February 14, 2013, Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Josephine Reed: How would you describe the plot of The Namesake?
Jhumpa Lahiri: It's about the process of becoming American, understanding the ways in which that's possible. The heart of the book is about a family's relationship to America and to the change that inevitably happens when a person leaves one's place of origin and arrives in a new world, which is very much an American story.
JR: We see an uncertainty about identity filtering down to the next generation in The Namesake, in Gogol.
JL: Gogol is very typical in wanting to be American. I think most young people just want to conform on some level, and then they stop wanting to conform and maybe become more interesting; but there's a stage of simply wanting to be accepted and not questioned. [Gogol's parents] may be lost, and they may be homesick, but they never doubt for a moment where home is—whereas for Gogol that sense of home is not fixed because India is not his home, and America is not yet his home.
JR: Issues of identity play out in his relationship with his parents—he sees them as foreign, and that's troubling to him. Can you talk about some of that tension?
JL: I can speak maybe just from my own experience. I think my impulse as a child was to protect my parents from what I perceived as sort of ignorance. But the other emotion was a frustration with them, because I wasn't there to protect them; I was their child, and I wanted them to protect me. It creates a strange dynamic when you speak the language better than your parents, when you go into stores and you're a child and they ask you what kind of washing machine your parents are interested in because they don't trust your parents to articulate themselves. These kinds of things can be very troubling, they're frustrating, they made me angry, they made me sad, they made me overprotective of my parents, concerned for them and also frustrated that they weren't more seemingly capable.
JR: Names, as the title of your book suggests, are important. Can you explain pet names in the Bengali tradition as opposed to the "good" name?
JL: I think the pet name is very much connected to one's formative years and childhood and affection. And one's mother and father would never, ever, ever, ever use anything but a pet name for one's child. You tend to go to school with your good name and what ends up happening is that you've got two names to represent the sort of home version, the more intimate version, versus the out-in-the-world, being-educated, working-at-a-job version—the formal version, as it were, versus the informal.
JR: When Gogol goes to school, his father tells him the "good" name that he's chosen for him, which is Nikhil.
JL: I think in an American context, it would be doubly disconcerting to suddenly enter school and be told by your parents, "Oh, by the way, not only are you going to spend all day away from us in the company of a teacher you've never met and don't know, but she's going to call you this other name." I imagine that would be very distressing to any child.
JR: Can you touch on the sense of displacement the Ganguli family experiences?
JL: Gogol's parents appear most at home when they go back to Calcutta, where there is a certain sort of blissful abandonment of a...level of anxiety and uncertainty that they carry with them as foreigners. I think it's impossible, virtually impossible, to live as a foreigner in any country. No matter how at ease, affluent, educated, articulate you are. When it's not your place, it's not your place.
"I'm the least experimental writer. The idea of trying things just for the sake of pushing the envelope, that's never really interested me."
—Jhumpa Lahiri, from an interview in New York Magazine (2008)