Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, published in 2003, is preceded and followed by two highly acclaimed short story collections: Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008).
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award, Interpreter of Maladies was also named The New Yorker's Best Debut of the Year, and is on Oprah Winfrey's Top Ten Book List. Six of the stories are set primarily in America, while three are set in India. The stories based in the U.S. focus on themes familiar to readers of The Namesake: the characters' cultural displacement, their distrust of American society, and the chronic missed connections between first- and second-generation Indian immigrants.
Many of Lahiri's stories include an embedded travel narrative. Whether transported across the country or around the world, Lahiri makes her characters' displacements both universal—most readers grasp how it feels to be in an unfamiliar setting—and specific, as their dislocations affect their closest relationships, and their choices about the future. Lahiri's narrative stance from her characters is often slightly distanced; this allows the reader to move seamlessly from one character to the next as the points of view shift. Having multiple points of view within one story also helps the reader see each character's strengths and flaws.
The title of Unaccustomed Earth is taken from the first section of The Scarlet Letter, in which the narrator notes that his children should establish themselves in new soil, "unaccustomed earth," in order to flourish. The eight stories in this collection, three of which are linked, deal primarily with Indian Americans born in the U.S. who struggle to understand the previous generation's attachments to the past.
Despite Lahiri's thematic focus on the Indian immigration experience in her writing, she does not note any Indian writers, or works about the immigrant experience, directly affecting her. When asked in interviews about her influences from prior generations, Lahiri has mentioned Chekhov and Tolstoy, and in particular, Thomas Hardy, because of the complexity and fullness of the worlds he creates, and the balance between "human drama and the world around it." She also notes that she learns factual things, like historical practices in agriculture, from this generation of writers.
Although the title character in The Namesake is named for a Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, Lahiri does not include him among her most admired writers, noting that his writing is much more antic and stylized than her own. But the statement, "We all come out of Gogol's overcoat," which is spoken by Gogol's father Ashoke in Lahiri's novel, is in a sense a tribute to the original Gogol, who preceded, and influenced, so many more significant Russian writers.
Throughout all her published works, Lahiri writes in a distinct and clear manner. In a 2008 interview in The Atlantic, Lahiri says about her writing style, "I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more… My writing tends not to expand but to contract."
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Lahiri's language is unadorned, even transparent, drawing the reader into the story without calling attention to itself in any way. She consistently eschews big dramatic scenes containing lots of action for smaller, more interior moments. Her characters struggle with their internal conflicts—the things they can't bring themselves to tell their loved ones, or the ways in which they feel trapped in their own lives.
Although quiet in language and scene, Lahiri's prose is still vivid through the specificity of its details. Food, clothing, books on a shelf, or a gesture—Lahiri renders each of these with such clarity and simplicity that the reader easily finds herself inside the world of the story.
"That's the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet."
—from The Namesake
Mavis Gallant's The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, 1996
Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, 1891
Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, 1850
William Trevor's The Collected Stories, 1993
Monica Ali's Brick Lane, 2003
Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, 2006
Randa Jarrar's A Map of Home, 2008
Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, 2009