In a time when it seems that those who are the loudest are the only ones heard, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri showed the audience quite the contrary. The Distinguished Speaker Series' latest installment Wednesday evening showed that quiet elegance and sophistication could speak volumes in a cacophonous world.
Sitting in a lounge chair opposite UB English professor Carine Mardorossian, Lahiri preferred to be interviewed rather than make a traditional speech. Her calm and insightful answers led to very intimate feeling that kept the whole audience captivated for an hour and a half.
Her cultural heritage took center stage immediately. Lahiri's family is from the Bengal region of India, specifically the city of Calcutta. She was born in London but moved to Massachusetts at the age of three. Due to her lineage and knowledge, she is often characterized as a representative of Bengali culture.
"I don't see myself as a representative of a whole section of a population," Lahiri said. "I just don't see it that way."
While it is her connection to India that intrigues many readers, it's her astute view of acclimating to the culture shock of America that keeps readers coming back. Her stories and novels share similar themes: all are often very concerned about the generation gap in immigrants, as well as how the younger generation adapts differently than their parents.
"The three generations, parents, children and grandchildren... all have different priorities. None are less than the other," Lahiri said.
Her books and short stories take mostly the view of the children, as she is the child of immigrants herself. She experienced Bengali culture through her parents, who "kept it alive" for her.
Lahiri admitted, however, that her relationship to India is changing.
"One's identity is a work in progress," she said. "Now, [being a writer] is the ultimate change in my identity. These things are not fixed for many. Maybe all."
Often, her views of American and Bengali culture are juxtaposed through marriage. The arranged marriage is commonplace in India, and American relationships come as a shock to Indians. Preceded by a clip from the film adaptation of her novel The Namesake, Lahiri explained why she writes about marriage so often.
"I write about them because I was exposed to so many, and I am a product of one," Lahiri said.
Her identity as a writer and her craft of writing fiction began to bind the whole talk together. Like many students, she went to college with the intent of being a teacher at a university, as her father had done. Throughout her time in college, however, the writer in Lahiri just "came out."
One of her most critical inspirations was Mavis Gallant, a French-Canadian author who has been writing in France since the 1950s. Her work left an indelible mark on Lahiri, and many of her themes of isolation and immigration are shared by Gallant's work.
"I connected to her work and I just drank it in. I read and reread her books over and over," Lahiri said.
Her drive to write individual stories, however, is not as easy to pinpoint. When asked about what advice she had for student writers, she had a difficult time describing the process by which her stories come into being.
Part of her difficulty came from the fact that not all stories are the same. Some come to her quickly, while others take years. The seed that starts the story is also different each time, as certain stories start with a character, some with a title, and others with something more ethereal.
"Sometimes you just know you have something, like a film in your hand," Lahiri said. "You don't know what it is, but you know something is there."
This ambivalence leads to her different formats of writing as well. Her debut Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Interpreter of Maladies, is a collection of short stories, and her sophomore effort, The Namesake, is a novel. She enjoys writing short stories because, to her, they are "closer to poetry" than novels, and the shorter format forces her to be more creative.
She admits that some ideas are just impossible to fit into a short story and require the length of a novel, like The Namesake and her newest novel that is yet to be released. She sees the entire writing process as "highly imperfect," and said accepting that leads to better writing.
"Each [story] is sort of like a miracle to me," Lahiri said. "It's very mysterious and magical."
Her ability to form this magic into the written word has earned a large and diverse fanbase, as demonstrated by the crowd gathered to witness the interview. Not only was it a reflection on UB's diverse population, but it was also a sign of her skill of joining cultures through literature.
"I'm a Bengali-American as well," said Arjun Ray, a freshman computer engineering major. "It was great to see what she thought."
Wherever her ideas come from, her talent and skill have earned her a place on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Along with screenwriters, musicians, and many other kinds of artists, Lahiri has now dedicated her abilities to promoting the arts on a policy level through the government.
The difficulties immigrants face when moving to a new nation ripple through generations, and even though the problems they face are unique, Lahiri acknowledges that people mainly want the same thing.
"I think we all want a sense of belonging and love," Lahiri said.