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Author Thu Oct 10 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri Discusses New Novel The Lowland @ Printers Row

An audience of around 500 people gathered last Tuesday to hear Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri discuss her new novel, The Lowland. Lahiri, whose works include The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies, and Unaccustomed Earth, spoke at the Palmer House Hilton as part of Printers Row, a year-long series of literary programming offered by the Chicago Tribune. Lahiri was interviewed by her fellow Pulitzer winner, Tribune columnist Mary Schmich.

Cultural duality is a common theme in Lahiri's work, and The Lowland is no exception. The Lowland follows the divergent paths of two brothers who were once inseparable, one an earnest college student who ends up in the U.S. and the other a revolutionary with the Naxalites, a far-left radical communist movement originating in West Bengal. Lahiri's inspiration for the novel came from a story she heard as a teen from her father about a pair of brothers who were killed due to their Naxalite affiliation. The movement was particularly active -- and violent -- in Kolkata, where Lahiri often visited relatives and would overhear gossip about the Naxalites.

Lahiri's work also channels her personal feelings of being an outsider, and the intertwining themes of separation and the power of the written word. Raised in a Bengali-speaking household in Rhode Island, she acknowledged her "split linguistic life" and described the English language and the beloved books of her childhood as "a world of my own apart from my parents." While her parents provided for her physical needs, books were "rearing me in another way." Lahiri also alluded to how her immigrant parents endured physical separation from family in India, relying on letters for news from home and comparing them with friends for information on the Naxalites, among other things.

Asked whether she stills feel doubt after four books and a career full of accolades, Lahiri mused that doubt is essential for writers, who are tasked with taking "the idea of something seemingly impossible and making it possible." Lahiri often consults her editor, as well as other writers she trusts, to guide her in the right direction. She likened the process of writing a novel to swimming across an ocean, saying, "[P]sychologically it feels like that because you lose shore and you want to get somewhere and it's just the unknown... I think you need someone every so often to say, 'These are your coordinates' and 'No sharks!' to keep going..."

What's next for Lahiri? A long time student of the Italian language, she currently resides in Rome with her husband and two children, a stay she has already extended beyond her initial plan of one year. "As far as I can see into that future, and again, this is all intuition talking, but I did feel as I was finishing this book that I was at the end of a certain trajectory..." Lahiri cited her Italian immersion as "a new beginning" and revealed that she has been reading exclusively in Italian for the past two years and has even begun to write in it. "I can't imagine that that will not create a new way for me to approach my work because [the lingustic element is] sort of at the root of it..."

Photo by Megan Bearder courtesy of Chicago Tribune

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