Jhumpa Lahiri has moved on. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who stunned the literary establishment by winning the coveted award for fiction in 2000 with her first book -a collection of short stories titled "Interpreter of Maladies" - has , at least temporarily, abandoned the form that pushed her into the limelight.
"The Namesake," Lahiri's second book and first novel, hits the bookstores, Tuesday, September 16, and from all indications, the move to a longer form hasn't hurt the author a bit. Advance reviews, including one that appeared in "The New York Times" on Sept. 2, have been strikingly positive.
"I was poised to move onto a larger canvas," said Lahiri. "The stories were getting longer and more difficult to contain."
On Thursday, September 18, two days after the official release of "The Namesake," Lahiri will be reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia, at 6:45 p.m. It is only one stop in a grueling reading tour that will take the 36-year-old from coast to coast through the end of October, reading excerpts of "The Namesake" to audiences at theaters, bookstores, and libraries.
"The Namesake" follows the life of the Ganguli family, through the eyes of eldest son, Gogol. The Gangulis, like Lahiri's parents who moved to the U.S. from London in 1969, are Bengali immigrants dealing with the differences between life in Calcutta and life in the northeastern U.S. Lahiri's characters are usually middle and upper-middle-class professionals who emigrate from India following their careers. Which can, according to Lahiri, create "greater sense of isolation for women, because in traditional families the man comes over for a job and the wife comes for no other reason than for the husband."
Though her work is informed by her own life experiences, and what she's observed in members of her parents' generation, Lahiri stresses that her writing is not autobiographical.
"It is fiction, not memoir," she said. Still, she recognizes that her themes resonate personally for many readers.
"The human experience of leaving home and making a new home is universal," said Lahiri. "It takes an infinite amount of effort to find who you are and how you end up...it's a struggle to make a home life for oneself."
Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, graduated from Barnard, and earned M.A.s and a Ph.D. from Boston University. Although her doctorate is in Renaissance Studies, Lahiri spent much of her time in graduate school writing short stories. After graduate school, Lahiri was awarded a fellowhip to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she completed some of the stories included in "Interpreter of Maladies."
When the collection of short stories was complete, Lahiri started shopping around for a publisher. The literary agent that represented Lahiri at the time wasn't hopeful. According to Lahiri, "Don't get your hopes up," was the agent's refrain. "Interpreter of Maladies" went on to win a PEN/Hemingway Award, the "New Yorker" Debut of the Year, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize.
But Lahiri is not in it for the money, or the accolades. "Nothing about writing is easy," said Lahiri. "All of it is hard. I can't keep track of how many times I revise." But, she added that the chance to make a living from writing makes her very happy. "Writing is the focus of my life."
Like her stories, Lahiri's life has gotten more difficult to contain since she won the Pulitzer. In the past three years, Lahiri has gotten married, had a son, and managed to find the time to finish a novel. When Lahiri was asked about the great expectations that she had garnered by winning the Pulitzer, she said that she has "worked very hard to keep it in perspective."
"When I'm finished with something it sort of dies... and it's on to the next thing," Lahiri explained. "A writer's work is solitary, and you write for yourself. I can't control the way readers and critics will judge my work ... my goal is to create a body of work, and to learn and grow from each work to the next."