Sunday, September 8, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri: If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest?

Photo Credit:"Rock in the Wind," 2012 by Raymond Elman
Oil & digital collage on canvas, 60 x 40 inches
Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Every time I ask for a book recommendation, people inevitably suggest Jhumpa Lahiri's work. I still haven't gotten around to reading Interpreter of Maladies nor The Namesake, books that have made her incredibly popular throughout the world (according to The New Yorker, apparently, she's got a cult-following in Bulgaria, too.) Lahiri has a new book coming out and I was thinking, ok, this is the one that I am going to start with and, if I like it, I'm going to work my way backwards.

Then I read this interview with Lahiri in the Sunday Book Review, in which an unsuspecting interviewer inquires about the immigrant fiction that has been most important to her personally and as an inspiration for her writing:

I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

Is it is just me or is this response the literary equivalent of a bitch-slap? I love the woman already even if I do believe that there is such thing as 'immigrant fiction'. Edit (9/8): A friend of mine on Facebook asked me to explain why I disagree with Lahiri on the issue of 'immigrant fiction' and it occurred to me that I should have probably made that a part of this post to begin with. Paraphrasing a bit from my FB comment, I agree with Lahiri that we are all in movement, through time and space, I think that's precisely why (non-immigrant) people relate to immigrant narratives... but there are books that explore the experience of immigrants qua immigrants. For example, Junot Diaz, Aleksandar Hemon, Sandra Cisneros, Josip Novakovich and many other writers featured in this blog explicitly examine men and women who are confronting a particular way of being an "other" that is very much based in citizenship.  It sounds to me that Lahiri is being a little bit defensive, she doesn't want to be marginalized as a "simply" immigrant writer. She probably just wants to be a "writer". What do you guys think?


I hope you had a great summer and I look forward to sharing more about the stories that makes me want to read from one sentence to the next.


  1. You pick the best photos for your posts!

    I haven't read anything by Lahiri, but I'll definitely put her books on my reading list.

    And ... I loved the "literary equivalent of a bitch-slap" phrase :)

    1. If the New Yorker is to be trusted (and, of course, why wouldn't be), she's been translated into Bulgarian!