I find myself drawn to writers who write about the immigrant, or second generation immigrant experience, who have to negotiate the boundary between the new culture they desperately want to fit into, and the parent culture that they can’t, or their parents won’t let them, let go of. I’m thinking of people like Philip Roth a generation ago, and Edwidge Danticat today. Recently I’ve read two books by Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowlands, which I wrote about in a separate post, and now Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories – that fit into this genre (if it can be called a genre). It’s interesting to track the similarities and differences between these writers, though this is well beyond my capacity. If I can note one observation, it is the way in which Roth and other Jewish writers of his generation (e.g. Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud) focus on the opposition to their past, to their heritage, as their way to buy into the American dream. Danticat and Lahiri, on the other hand, if they are representative at all, have a much more nuanced and respectful path, even if ultimately they move away from their parent’s norms. I’m not sure if this is because of the cultures they come from, or the nature of America at the time that each grew up in, a generation or more after Roth et al. Regardless of the similarities and differences, I find something powerful in these moments of cultural transition, told through the stories of these exceptional writers.
Lahiri’s book, Unaccustomed Earth, is a collection of short stories, the last three of which are interlocking. They all share the above theme – stories of the children of Bengali immigrants (sometimes the children themselves moved at a very young age). Sometimes the ‘fact’ of immigrantion is very much in the background, and sometimes it occupies the foreground and impacts the story more directly. No matter which, Lahiri’s approach as a writer, at least in this collection, is a series of close up portraits of the lives and relationships of the characters being written about. What makes Lahiri’s writing powerful, I think (besides her being an excellent and clear writer) is the way she is able to attend to the subtleties and nuances of how relationships operate. She is masterful at bringing out how difficult it can be to communicate with the people closest to us, even though there’s so much we want to say, and needs to be said.
Some of the stories have a more conventional, if sometimes rushed, conclusion. Others operate more as portraits in time, as if we have a glimpse into the characters lives, though not any neat ending to the lives we’ve been introduced to.
I’ve really enjoyed my foray into Lahiri’s writing and hope to read more of her in the near future.
Just Because I Liked It:
- I have no real thoughts about the Monarchy in England pro or con, and while this article may be a bit harsh, I do have a soft spot for the author, Caitlin Flanagan.
- I first heard Coleman Hughes on Sam Harris’ podcast, and was blown away by his intelligence and independent thinking. He’s since started his own podcast, and the quality is much the same. I found this episode about the American justice system enlightening, and open to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions – with the use of data.