The Spectrum had an opportunity to interview Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pulitizer Prize in 2000 for Interpreter of Maladies. She will be speaking as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series in the Center for the Arts on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
Lahiri has received many additional honors for her writing, including the PEN/Hemingway Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was also recently appointed to President Barack Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
The Spectrum: The University at Buffalo has a very diverse mix of students from all over the world. What can you tell them from your own experiences as an immigrant to the United States?
Jhumpa Lahiri: I'm technically an immigrant; I came here when I was two. I was born in London, so I'm technically an immigrant on paper. I think, in practical terms, I'm more identified as a child of immigrants. My understanding of the immigrant experience is more-or-less based on the life with my parents – watching them and seeing how they negotiated life in a new land and, I suppose, inheriting some of their distance from the United States as a result. I've been surrounded by immigrants all my life because of my parents and the friends they had, and now in my adult life as well, for other reasons.
TS: You've received a plethora of awards throughout your lifetime; which are you the most proud of?
JL: I don't really think of them in that way. I'm grateful for them. I've been surprised by most of them. They're not something I look for or expect, in terms of my writing. The recognition has brought me many things and taken me many places and allowed me to have a lot of opportunities that I might not have, and, in that sense, I am particularly grateful for the doors that have opened up. I think positively in those terms, but there's no way I could rank them in order of preference. I suppose the most significant was the first time I was awarded. It was some recognition of my work as an adult, and it was just a very small award called the Henfield Prize, and I was a finalist for that. I remember that it was significant because I was still really searching for my identity as a writer, so that came at a time when it was particularly meaningful, something that told me to keep going.
TS: It's been stated that many of your early works were rejected. What gave you the strength to continue to write?
JL: It's a strange situation as an emerging writer. I think at a certain point, you want to be accepted – i.e. published – and at the same time, at least for me, that wasn't what was driving the writing. It's nice when they converge, but one does not necessarily drive the other, and I think that some rejection is good because it strengthens your resolve – or, at least, it strengthened my resolve – to just keep at it and keep trying and trying to write better. Which remains the goal, after all.
TS: You've had a lot of success as a novelist, but for Unaccustomed Earth, you switched to the short story format. Why the switch?
JL: I just had some ideas for stories and I wrote them. I just write what comes; sometimes it's a novel, and sometimes it's a story. I don't really decide consciously to write one or the other. I just start writing and I use what's in my mind to work with. I don't go searching for a form, and I think some ideas are meant to be stories and some ideas are meant to be novels. I try to think about that before I start something. I don't believe in writing a novel just for the sake of writing a novel, and I don't think a story should be forced to be a novel. I think that I tend to write it as a story if I can, and if I can't, then I turn it into a novel, or try to.
TS: There has been a lot of criticism, in terms of financial gain and avenues to pursue, for students graduating with English degrees today. What would you say to these critics, and what would you say to the students?
JL: Well, it's never going to be otherwise. It is a crapshoot; it's never been guaranteed. Everyone knows that – it's irrelevant. If someone wants to write stories, or paint, or any art – if they have that need and that drive, they will do what they love and figure out a way to live. That's been the history of artists throughout time, and I doubt that it will ever change. I don't think it should change. I believe there should always be that hard, cold reality in the mind of an aspiring artist. There's really no way around it.