She is such an important short story writer, really very dexterous and able with a few strokes to make a story feel perfectly polished and neat. Yet this was one of the first and few stories in first person, told by a narrator looking back in time, that I think I read of hers (it came out in the New Yorker before being included in the book, and I was immediately moved and affected by it). I love the way Jhumpa Lahiri can convey pain and suffering beneath surface elegance – the woman wearing a lilac raincoat (chic, carefully chosen, belted and fitted of course) while standing in her backyard about to immolate herself. The story also offers such an honest and unsparing look at some of the dynamics of pseudo-family, community as family, immigration as a bond. That felt really new at the time though I think a lot of writers since have taken this in different directions.
First published in The New Yorker, May 24, 2004, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2009
Like Keegan’s work, Lahiri’s elegant prose often describes the chasm that exists between parents and children and between men and women. Her stories frequently examine this disconnect as it occurs among Bengali parents and their Bengali-American offspring. The span of her inter-generational stories and the sense they convey of this chasm of understanding is pure heartbreak. I find the attention she brings to bodies in relation to one another and in relation to space very moving and her use of physical detail (the way a spray of perfume temporarily darkens the narrator’s clothing at the beginning of this story, for example) is extremely evocative. There’s a beautiful coda to ‘Once in a Lifetime’ in the final story in this collection.
First published in The New Yorker in April, 2006, and available online here. Collected in Unaccustomed Earth, Bloomsbury, 2008
The story of Mrs. Sen centers around a lonely woman, known to most as the “professor’s wife”. She relies on letters from home and on food preparation to feel at home in a foreign land. Mrs. Sen doesn’t have a child of her own but she looks after someone else’s child and, perhaps because I was pregnant at the time of reading it, I felt the character’s loneliness quite viscerally. It was the summer of 1999, while on a holiday in Kingston, Jamaica that I read this story as well as the others in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies. I was so enthralled by the stories that I began reading them out loud. Food in ‘Mrs Sen’s’ serves as a metaphor for the condition of migration and diaspora and the culinary descriptions were what struck me the most as I rolled the words around on my tongue. Mrs. Sen “… took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds. At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped ingredients.”
First published in Salamander magazine. Collected in Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999/Flamingo, 2000
Lahiri and Zhang write in contrasting styles: Lahiri’s is sparsely elegant and coolly restrained whilst Zhang’s sentences spark and flow with an at times lurid emotionality, a frank and unbridled access to humour and pain. These two stories centre upon difficult brothers and the older sisters who love and come to be hurt and puzzled by them. Both stories arrive at devastation in their own messy, specific ways, but overlap in articulating the genealogy of siblinghood from shared traumas and a mutual understanding of otherness, to the slow-burning heartbreak of estrangement.
‘Only Goodness’ from Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2008. Also available as a digital single from Bloomsbury. ‘Evolution of My Brother’ first published in Rookie Mag, 2011. Collected in Sour Heart, Lenny/Bloomsbury 2017
This is another story about husbands and wives and how they succeed and fail to communicate with each other. I read this at a period in my life when I’d begun to think all relationships between men and women were doomed (this tends to happen when you’re about 25). Like Roberts, Lahiri explores the slowly disintegrating marriage between a South-Indian couple in the USA through the use of ordinary, domestic detail. She shifts subtly between the two perspectives, employing a light-touch on a heavy subject. It’s a beautiful portrait of a couple in crisis that quietly suggests that there are some things that no marriage can overcome.
First published in The New Yorker, April 20, 1998. Collected in The Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin/Flamingo, 1999