Jhumpa Lahiri and the Rite of Diasporic Fiction

In her latest novel, "Whereabouts," Lahiri writes her first fiction in Italian — about themes beyond the Indian immigrant experience.

Meera Navlakha

April 2, 2021

Jhumpa Lahiri and the Rite of Diasporic Fiction
Jhumpa Lahiri in Venice, Italy, 2014 (Photo by Venturelli/GC Images)

“I wasn’t born here,” writer Jhumpa Lahiri once said of the United States, “but I may as well have been.” Born Nilanjana “Jhumpa” Lahiri to Bengali parents in London, who then moved to America, the writer and her work, widely and highly acclaimed, occupy a distinct spot in the bookshelf of diasporic fiction. She understands firsthand what it means to grow up with a dual identity: her characters want to change their names, feel quiet shame at the smell of their mother’s cooking, feel the weight of their parents’ expectations. More specifically, Lahiri often focuses on Bengali immigrants like her, many of whom immigrated from Calcutta to the U.S., bringing to life a community that was rarely seen in the West, particularly in popular culture. Though her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, was published over 20 years ago, Lahiri is arguably still the most synonymous name with Indian American immigrant fiction, a genre she helped define and elevate. 

But her latest novel — like her prior projects over the past several years — has no mention of India, the diasporic longing for it, or the desire to escape it. Whereabouts, Lahiri’s first fiction after nearly a decade, out on April 27, takes place in Italy, with a nameless narrator seeking to identify her place in the world. The novel lacks a decisive plot. Instead, Lahiri slowly takes readers along a journey through an Italian city with a narrator who ruminates on her solitude — “solitude: it’s become my trade,” she says — and her past. The book’s themes may be in line with Lahiri’s usual ones, but she has reshaped their thrust. 

Lahiri’s precedent as the genre-maker of Indian diaspora literature seemed to suggest that this was the rite of passage that other writers must follow: that their early work must, by definition, address identity explicitly. Only after mastering that craft could they then have the space and stature to address themes unrelated to the self. With the publication of Whereabouts, Lahiri marks her refusal to write just about the diaspora and its experiences; she seeks to defy expectations of representation. She asks for her art — and literary fingerprint — to stand on its own. Whereabouts is not as much a graduation for the diaspora writer, per se, but rather a progression of Lahiri’s specific journey.

Those familiar with writer Lahiri’s earlier works will know that she often engages with notions of nationhood, rootlessness, and immigration. The overwhelming majority of her characters are Indian immigrants, navigating identities that sit between the U.S. and their homeland. In her debut, Interpreter of Maladies, which would win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000, she portrays Indian Americans in an array of short stories. The book relayed the anxieties of immigration, the quiet forms of resistance female characters exerted, and the shadows left by parents in the lives of their children. Her characters also grapple for more, questioning whether personal happiness can come from belonging, or from living by prescription. In one story, the protagonist Sanjeev looks at his wife, with whom he had an arranged marriage, and thinks: “Now he had a [wife], a pretty one, one from a suitably high caste, who would soon have a master’s degree. What was there not to love?” 

What resonated for many of Lahiri’s diasporic readers was that she served as a link to their parents’ country. Lahiri’s depictions of “family friend” gatherings, for example, where friends and their children would arrive for a meal and conversation, about university or marriage, were relatable. Consuming her novels felt like a rite of passage. 

In The Namesake, a Bengali family struggles with assimilation and belonging in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The son struggles with his name, Gogol, after a Russian writer, seeking a life outside what his parents carved out for him. In Unaccustomed Earth, another series of short stories, the characters range from a sister who watches her Ivy League-educated brother descend into alcoholism to a daughter who dedicates her life to professional and academic pursuits which are “at once impressive and irrelevant” to her parents. In Lahiri’s stories, daughters of the diaspora consistently resist the template of life that their parents attempted to carve out for them; as girls, they pursue romances and, as women, they enter illicit relationships. Some stories cover themes regarded as taboo in Indian culture, such adultery (in “Going Ashore,” “Sexy,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” to name a few) or the frowned-upon status of being single (“Nobody’s Business”).

Lahiri’s body of work reflected and almost validated diasporic ambitions. Here was a writer who won fame and recognition (she was presented the National Humanities Medal by then-president Obama in 2014) for defining the lives of a specific group. She could create literature that appealed to a broader South Asian diaspora, while resting squarely on specific Bengali references and experiences. The Namesake opens with the pregnant protagonist, a recent immigrant, fashioning jhalmuri out of Rice Krispie cereal to satisfy a craving for the street snacks of home. It’s a scene that encapsulates what Lahiri appears to view as the immigrant experience: you may not ever truly recreate home abroad, but with some modifications and creative thinking, you might at least get close enough.