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Transplanted Author Finds Roots in Writing

In all her work, acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri has focused on the lives and struggles of Bengali-Americans. Her stories are about strangers in a strange land, trying to fit in.

It's a world she knows well: Lahiri was born in London in 1967, the daughter of immigrants from Calcutta. When she was 7, her family moved to New England, where her father still works as an academic librarian at the University of Rhode Island. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

"I never felt that I had any claim to any place in the world," says Lahiri. But, "in my writing, I've found my home, really, in a very basic sense — in a way that I never had one growing up."

Lahiri's fiction has certainly found a home in the literary world. Her debut book, The Interpreter of Maladies, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and her novel, The Namesake, was adapted into a Hollywood film.

Her new collection of stories is called Unaccustomed Earth. The title comes from a passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne's introduction to The Scarlet Letter:

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children ... shall strike their roots in unaccustomed earth."

"I stopped when I got to those words," Lahiri says. "I just thought about how much they stand for everything that I had been writing about: the experience of being transplanted, and people being transplanted."

Time Magazine book critic Lev Grossman likens the stories in Lahiri's new collection to those of Hemingway or Chekhov. He says that while the literary fashion these days is to entertain and to grab the reader's attention with plot twists, wordplay and humor, Lahiri's style harks back to the 19th Century.

"She builds her stories slowly, out of simple, declarative sentences," says Grossman. "But once she builds them ... that final square in the Rubik's Cube just clicks into place, and suddenly ... you realize that that's life. That's truth."

Mira Nair, who directed the film adaptation of The Namesake, describes moments in Unaccustomed Earth as "gasp-worthy."

"I just gasp, suddenly, in the middle of the story. I have to close the book!" says Nair. "And then I finish it, and then I almost always re-read it because I just want to then savor it."

Lahiri says now she's working on a new idea she thinks is going to be a novel. But for all of her success, the 40-year-old author says writing hasn't gotten any easier.

"I think writing something new each time is a very daunting, scary journey," she says. "And I just want to have the strength, and the clarity of mind, to continue to make those journeys."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale