by Aditya Desai
This past weekend I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, DC, and Thursday night’s keynote address was given by no other than internationally acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri. The success of Indian American literature blossomed after Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake (2003), also inspired the 2006 film of the same name.
She spoke before a crowd of over 3,000, answering the perennial question, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” Lahiri touched widely upon the nature of growing up as a second generation immigrant in the United States: she struggled with her inability to read her mother’s choice Bengali poetry, and of course, she endured the cultural clash of choosing a writer’s life over more financially “safe” professions.
Indian American literature has become a burgeoning genre in the past decade, with a new generation of Salman Rushdies and Bharati Mukherjees emerging from the woodwork. As an aspiring young Indian American writer myself, knowing that so many Indian American authors have achieved such high levels of success is an affirmation of my own dreams and passions. I look forward to many days as a composer of lyrical narrative.
In talking with family, friends, and the Desi grapevine, I know Lahiri has quite a few detractors who criticize her for writing narrowly about upper-crust New England immigrants (she was raised in Rhode Island and got her graduate degree at Boston University), or for simply having too many downbeat endings which make the Indian American experience seem like a closet full of skeletons. However, Lahiri’s success is a critical step in bringing more South Asian names to bookshelves across the country.
Perhaps reconsidering Lahiri’s work, it’s not so much that the New England façade betrays the Indian sensibility, but rather that the Indian has now become part of the New England lifestyle. In the same way, the rise of this literary genre can add more to the Indian American story.
While at the AWP Conference, I also attended several panels that focused on issues in Asian (including South, East, and Middle Eastern) immigrant literature, from ethnic differences and multi-syllabic names, to post-9/11 tensions and convergence of cultural histories.
It is a great reminder of how art—whether it be the written word, painting, film, music, or so on—can be a great form of expression for those of us living a hybrid East West life. Organizations and communities that cater to our multi-lingual, multicultural voices exist all over the country to help further color and weave the fabric of not only Indian Americans, but America as a whole.
Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.