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Success story: Jhumpa Lahiri


Jhumpa Lahiri is an unusual kind of successful writer. Her precisely observed stories of Bengali immigrant life have been well-received ever since the first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. But her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, shot straight to the top of the American bestseller lists, an extraordinary feat for a literary collection of short stories in the tough and very commercial US market.

Lahiri is being hailed as part of the new younger generation of American writers who are finding a big audience for their tales of immigrant life. Time magazine said: ‘Lahiri’s rise is part of a changing of the guard in American fiction. These new writers are ‘transnationals, writers for whom displacement and dual-culture citizenship aren’t a temporary political accident but the status quo.’

Lampiri herself was born in London, then went to Calcutta with her family and grew up in the States, where her father worked as a librarian. She cites Tolstoy and Hardy as influences but also gracefully acknowledges the Irish writer William Trevor: ‘His words are a balm, unadorned, precise, yet infused with melancholy. I struggle to absorb the measured grace of his sentences, the quietly devastating emotional content of his work.’

Although Lahiri was taken to India for long visits, she has written that she grew up feeling ‘intense pressure to be two things: loyal to the old world and fluent in the new’. The eight stories in her new collection all focus on the immigrant experience.

But Lahiri is a rather private person. She doesn’t read reviews and focuses quietly on her writing and her family. She says: ‘I have to will my world, my life, back to that place, because that’s where I find the freedom to write. If I stop to think about fans, or bestselling, or not bestselling, or good reviews, or not-good reviews, it just becomes too much. It’s like staring at the mirror all day.’