Prohibition and Hope: The Politics of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Writings
By Rani NeutillOctober 17, 2023
AS AN UNDERGRADUATE, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, and it was a revelation.
My mother was a widowed Bengali immigrant. I grew up going to Kolkata twice a year and eventually I would live there and attend high school, where the books we read were British “canonical” texts by authors like Shakespeare, George Orwell, and Jane Austen. Until I was in college, I had not encountered an Indian author.
During the late 1990s, South Asian authors suddenly appeared on my syllabi, and Lahiri was one of the few who was considered “American.” The rest were labeled as Anglophone, diasporic, or postcolonial. The writers who were diasporic—Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie—were considered politically urgent writers who examined the complexity of nationalism, religion, caste, class, and migration. My professors never taught Lahiri in the context of the postcolonial because she was an American, seemingly only preoccupied with American matters.
In a recent essay in The New York Times, Vauhini Vara illustrates how Lahiri’s work centers on a particular American story of assimilation and how many critics have noted the ways that she upholds the problematic and dangerous narrative of the “model minority.” Vara shows how Lahiri’s writing has always been reduced to her ethnic identity, and mentions authors who have moved beyond this constraint such as Sanjena Sathian and Sarah Thankam Mathews, writers who have departed from what Sathian has described as the “aesthetics of respectability” that is found in much of Lahiri’s work.
But as an easily distracted undergraduate, I did not think that Lahiri was problematic. I just found her captivating. Her writing moved me. She is a master of the short story. Her prose is an alchemy of stoicism and melancholy, exploring tragedies both small and large. She writes with a Chekhovian coldness, and her endings are always devastating. If I had magical powers, I would infuse my fingertips with the power of her prose.
But Lahiri’s aesthetic wasn’t the only reason she enchanted me. I did not notice the ethnic clichés. I was just amazed that Bengali families were represented on the page. Although her stories did not mirror my own, reading her work was reassuring to me. Her pages were littered with characters who looked like my family, who had immigrated across oceans and continents from the same city as my mother, and she used words I grew up with that weren’t spoken outside my home in the United States. I finally felt like I was an insider to a literary world.
Lahiri became a central point of my intellectual life as a PhD student in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in the 2000s. I wrote my dissertation, in part, on the ways in which her work is haunted by the Partition of India. I pushed back on the scholarship that simply read her as an Asian American, as I demonstrated that her work was diasporic in its orientations and concerns. I was interested in how she narrated the hatred between Muslims and Hindus, a preoccupation not seen in much American literature. Unlike so many postcolonial nations, India’s historical relationship with the United States is not defined by a history of American warfare and imperialism. The Partition was one of the greatest displacements of people in world history (an estimated 14–18 million people, maybe more), but it does not occupy much of a space in the American literary imagination. Lahiri’s work incorporated the legacy of Partition into stories about the Indian immigrant in the United States, diversifying common tropes in Asian American literature, such as the conflict between tradition and modernity (as in The Joy Luck Club and The Woman Warrior).
I am protective of Lahiri because, while an aura of respectability does surround her work, so many writers ignore the historically grounded aspects of her writing. Much like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, who broke barriers as Asian American women authors, Lahiri has become a punching bag for writers who see her as pandering to the white gaze. Some even revile her. While I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, I met a professor of creative writing, a white man, who claimed that Lahiri was only famous because she was beautiful. At a party, a very famous man of color, a Pulitzer winner like Lahiri, admonished her for not writing about race and said she was an assimilationist. I tried to point out how Lahiri grapples with important political questions, just not the kinds of questions that are obvious to the American mainstream. I outlined how some of her stories speak directly to a history of Hindu/Muslim violence, but the writer didn’t seem to care. To him, Lahiri wrote for the white gaze. If she didn’t address race in the United States, then she was a sellout. The American literary imaginary can sometimes be eerily nationalistic in its concerns, even though recently the effects of Partition blatantly arrived on US soil when an anti-Muslim symbol, imported from India, was paraded on the streets of New Jersey by Indian American Hindus. Readings of Lahiri’s work seem to consistently elide the history of South Asia, despite its insistent and haunting presence in her fiction.
For instance, in her 2020 manifesto Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong writes of Lahiri:
For the last twenty years, until recently, Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories were the template of ethnic fiction that supports the fantasy of Asian American immigrants as compliant strivers. The fault lies not in Lahiri herself, who I think is an absorbing storyteller, but in the publishing industry that used to position her books as the “single story” on immigrant life. Using just enough comforting ethnic props to satisfy the white reader’s taste for cultural difference.
Like so many others, Hong sees Lahiri as an Indian American writer who only tells stories about Asian immigrants who long to assimilate. Hong focuses only on Lahiri’s representation of the American dream and not the possible psychic conflicts of that fantasy. While reading Hong, I thought of Lahiri’s story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” and its protagonist Lilia’s quest to find the difference between Mr. Pirzada, a Muslim, and her Hindu parents. Unlike Sathian, who reads the story as part of the aesthetics of respectability, a kind of instructional guide to India, I see it as illustrating the specter of Partition in South Asian American literature. In the short story, Lilia examines Mr. Pirzada each night as he and her family watch the news about East Pakistan’s fight for independence from West Pakistan in 1971. Lilia wonders what makes him different from her parents; after all, they speak the same language and eat the same food. The difference is indecipherable to her as a young South Asian American girl, perplexed by a history her own family had left behind. When Lilia’s father finds out that his daughter does not know about the Partition or East Pakistan’s fight for sovereignty, he asks, “What exactly do they teach you at school? Do you study history? Geography?” Her mother, an absolute symbol of assimilation, responds, “Lilia has plenty to learn at school. […] We live here now, she was born here.”
Lilia’s father questions the American educational system, and his critique is astute. The psychological impact of omitting these histories is palpable. In my reading of the story, the mother’s response is an implicit criticism of the assimilationist pressure of living in the United States, and the father’s question is a melancholic response to the mandatory assimilation many immigrants feel subjected to when they move to the US. The father pines for an educational system in which geography and history do not always center the United States, thereby continually cementing its imperialist power. If there is a critique of assimilation in this story, how could Lahiri simply be an assimilationist? How could she only be reifying the model-minority stereotype? Or is Lahiri showing the psychic impact of striving for the American dream? Is she exploring what makes subservient survival necessary and what the psychological consequences of that struggle might be?
As a child, I was, like Lilia, perplexed by the history of the Partition of India. My dida—my mother’s mother—told me how she and my aunt hid on the roof of her building and watched the violence of the Great Calcutta Riots in 1946 unfold beneath them. They watched mobs of Muslims kill Hindus and Hindus kill Muslims. They quaked with fear. At such a young age, I could not imagine the violence of it all or, even more so, the reasons for it—an entangled history of colonialism, trauma, religious difference, and hate. But my dida’s story sparked in me a curiosity about the history of Partition that followed me throughout my career as a graduate student.
Just like me as as a child, Lilia is curious and intent on learning about the history between India and Pakistan. Against her mother’s wishes, she seeks knowledge about her history outside the school’s curriculum. While doing research for a book report on the American Revolution, she visits her school’s library and seeks out texts that will educate her about the conflict that Mr. Pirzada and her parents watch on the nightly news. She finds a book titled Pakistan: A Land and Its People. When her teacher finds her, she asks if the publication is for Lilia’s book report and, when Lilia says no, responds that she sees no reason for Lilia to consult the text, replacing it “in the slim gap on the shelf.”
This is not the only story of Lahiri’s that engages moments in Indian history. In “A Real Durwan,” she narrates the life of a poor refugee displaced by the Partition. In her 2013 novel The Lowland, she explores the Communist Party’s influence in Kolkata during the Naxalite–Maoist Insurgency, an uprising started by poor sharecroppers in West Bengal in 1967. I wonder if these stories are examples of the “ethnic props” that Hong speaks of? Do they serve to make Lahiri a sellout? Do they tell a single story?
While I do not agree with many of the reductive claims about Lahiri, I do have concerns, much like Hong’s and Sathian’s, about the author’s presence in the literary marketplace. Often, it feels as if the publishing industry doesn’t leave room for any other South Asian American writer but her. Her books sell. Her name circulates. Her work is heavily marketed.
When I was looking for an agent a few years ago, I met with one who had read some of my work. She told me that, although my writing was moving, “Indian things don’t sell” and that “we had our moment in the ’90s.” Of course, she was referring to the period of Lahiri’s initial success. The agent’s comment suggested to me that Lahiri’s work is seen as the single story for Bengali Americans—not by Lahiri’s own design but by that of the marketplace.
I have been writing a memoir about the effects of colonialism and immigration on my family and, in particular, my relationship with my mentally ill mother. My family couldn’t be more different from Lahiri’s. They are not the cultured upper-middle-class Bengalis who traveled to the United States for an education or to be part of the American workforce. Instead of the polite, genteel immigrants in Lahiri’s stories, my family was mostly uneducated, loud, and angry—unconsciously angry at gendered constraints and a history of colonization.
Many of Lahiri’s characters are immigrants who were able to travel to the United States only after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act encouraged “skilled” labor to migrate, finally lifting a 90-year ban on immigration from Asia. The exclusionary policies started in 1875 with the Page Act, which prevented Chinese women from coming to the United States, and culminated with the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred most Asian immigration to the United States (except from the Philippines, an American colony until the Tydings–McDuffie Act of 1934).
Unlike the post-1965 immigrant couples in some of Lahiri’s stories, my parents met through the mail. My mother was working for the Indian Consulate in Germany and was visiting Delhi for Independence Day. There, she met an American man, my white father’s colleague. They took a photograph together and kept in touch. When my father saw the picture, he was entranced. He asked for my mother’s address and wrote to her on a baby-blue aerogram with navy and red stripes along the edges. It traveled all the way from Pasadena, California. In it, he told her he wanted to visit India and asked her to teach him about all the inscrutable customs that made her nation mesmerizing. My mother wrote back. They exchanged pictures, smiling at the camera and inviting each other into their lives. They sent cassette tapes so they could hear each other’s voices. My mother was 29. My father was over 50. He flew her to Pasadena to be with him. I was born not long after. I am sure that part of my mother’s allure involved clichés about India—its exoticism and spirituality, reducing my mother to not just a model minority but also a subservient Indian wife.
When I was two years old, my mother became a widow, and our life in the United States was just the two of us. We spent insomniac nights worrying about robbers and serial killers. So young, I didn’t know that something quaked in my mother’s mind, a rumbling that would later lead to her demise, a mental illness I trace back to the impact of immigration, nationalism, and colonialism on her body and mind.
My story is overtly political. I write to understand how history has shaped my family, my story, and my mother’s story. Much like Lahiri, I am concerned with the ways in which India’s violent history has produced the Bengali immigrant. But Lahiri’s political investment is not as obvious as mine, and that is okay. Sometimes, as writers, we can let the political live in the blank space between sentences where the ghosts of the past live. History is the paper; words are the present. I see the urgency of history in Lahiri, and I see the psychic repercussions of history in my story as well.
The problem isn’t the lack of political concerns in Lahiri’s fiction; it’s the fact that the publishing world has made her the most representative voice for South Asian Americans. If there is only room for Lahiri, how can we expect her to represent all of us? It’s the publishing industry that sells her as a singular story, even if her work pushes back against that story in subtle and transnational ways. Lahiri’s more recent works, In Other Words (2015) and Whereabouts (2018), were written in Italian and are thus less nationally and ethnically grounded. Like Vauhini Vara, I wonder if Lahiri read the critics and heard the hate. Perhaps she recognized how the publishing industry has fetishized her ethnicity and made her the face of the Indian American experience. Now she is pushing back.
When criticism of Lahiri’s work arises, the biases surrounding which histories actually matter reveal themselves. Perhaps some of Lahiri’s stories are assimilationist. Perhaps some of them use “ethnic props.” But if this is the only reading permitted of Lahiri’s work, what do we make of her stories that tell us about the history of India and how it has impacted the immigrant narrative?
Reading Lahiri as an undergraduate gave me hope. Lahiri, a Bengali American just like me, living in libraries, her words embossed on bound paper, was a beacon. But I didn’t know back then that her presence was also a prohibition. Still, as an adult reader, I find her work moving. I read her, and I uncover the politics that haunt the Indian American immigrant. And even if she’s the reason that there is no room for my work in that slim gap on the bookshelf, I will continue to love her.
Rani Neutill is an adjunct professor of Asian American literature and creative writing at Emerson College, Tufts University, and MIT. She is working on a transnational memoir about fractured identity and her relationship with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother.
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