A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri

International Herald Tribune, September 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri


The author of the forthcoming novel "The Lowland" says there is no such thing as immigrant fiction.

Jhumpa Lahiri

The author of the forthcoming novel "The Lowland" says there is no such thing as immigrant fiction: "What do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?"

Q. What's the best book you've read so far this year?

A."Lovers," a novel by a French writer named Daniel Arsand. I read it first in the English translation, then in Italian. It's a harrowing love story with rich historical context. But it's free of bulk, of weight, of all the predictable connective narrative tissue. I found it incantatory, transcendent. It inspires me to tell a story in a different way.

Q. If you had to name a favorite novelist, who would it be?

A.Thomas Hardy. Ever since I first read him, in high school, I've felt a kinship with his characters, his sense of place, his pitiless vision of humanity. I continue to reread him as often as I can. The architecture of his novels is magnificent, and the way his characters move through time and space is remarkably controlled. The world he creates is absolutely specific, as is the psychological terrain. In spite of the great scope of his work, its breadth and complexity, the prose is clean, straightforward, economical. No scene, no detail, no sentence is wasted.

Q. What immigrant fiction has been the most important to you, both personally and as an inspiration for your own writing?

A.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. …

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