Among the things you will not find in Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction are: humor, suspense, cleverness, profound observations about life, vocabulary above the 10th-grade level, footnotes and typographical experiments. It is debatable whether her keyboard even has an exclamation point on it.
In person, Lahiri is almost as reserved as she is on the page. She is tall and slender and stands very straight, with a silk scarf tied around her neck, much too elegant for the chain coffee shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she is being interviewed. Lahiri speaks quietly and deliberately, vouchsafing only the occasional smile. She orders nothing.
At 40, Lahiri is the most critically praised member of America's rising literary generation. Born in London to Bengali parents, she grew up in Rhode Island, where her father was (and is) a librarian. She went to Barnard, then moved to Boston to work in a bookstore and collect master's degrees and generally figure herself out. "I sometimes wonder, If I'd not gone up to Boston for those years, would I have written fiction?" she says. "In New York I was always so scared of saying that I wrote fiction. It just seemed like, Who am I to dare to do that thing here? The epicenter of publishing and writers? I found all that very intimidating and avoided writing as a response."
Now she's the one people are scared of. ("As long as my kids are afraid of me, that's all I really care about," she says. She has two with her husband, a journalist.) Her first book, the story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. It was followed in 2003 by a novel, The Namesake, which was made into a movie by Mira Nair, and this year by another collection, Unaccustomed Earth, which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, an astounding feat for a book of quiet, formal short stories about the lives of Bengali immigrants and their children.
The success of Unaccustomed Earth is an anomalous data point, but it should tell us things about ourselves. Such as: we're way more interested in Bengali immigrants than we thought we were. Lahiri is a miniaturist, a microcosmologist, and she helps us understand what those lives mean without resorting to we-are-the-world multiculturalism. Everyone in Lahiri's fiction is pulled in at least six directions at once. Parents pull characters backward in time; children pull them forward. America pulls them west; India pulls them east. The need to marry pulls them outward; the need for solitude pulls them inward. Lahiri's stories are static, but what looks like stasis is really the stillness of enormous forces pushing in opposite directions, barely keeping one another in check. "Just being brought up by people who didn't and still don't feel fully here, fully present--that's very intense," she says. "It's not just all about the house we live in and the friends we have right here. There was always a whole other alternative universe to our lives."
Lahiri's rise is part of a changing of the guard in American fiction, from a generation in which white American-born men still play a primary role (Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon) to one in which the principal voices weren't born here, like Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat (born in Haiti), Gary Shteyngart (Russia) and Junot Díaz (the Dominican Republic). They're transnationals, writers for whom displacement and dual cultural citizenship aren't a temporary political accident but the status quo.
They are almost as different from one another as they are from their predecessors. Díaz, Lahiri's fellow Pulitzer winner, writes wild, slangy, funny prose laced with Dominican Spanish and Star Trek references. His determination to entertain is almost vaudevillian. Lahiri's stories are grave and quiet and slow, in the 19th century manner. They don't bribe you with humor or plot twists or flashy language; they extract a steep up-front investment of time from the reader before they return their hard, dense nuggets of truth. It's difficult to quote from her stories: they refuse to sum themselves up with a neat final epiphany, and Lahiri doesn't write one-liners. "I approach writing stories as a recorder," she says. "I think of my role as some kind of reporting device--recording and projecting." She steps back from the action, gets out of the way, so the people and things in her stories can exist the way real things do: richly, ambiguously, without explanation.
Her art and her life are marked by the same discipline. She doesn't read reviews. Her Pulitzer is still in its bubble wrap. When she writes, she likes to pretend that she never won the prize at all, that life is as simple as it was when she was writing Interpreter back in Boston. "I have to will my world, my life, back to that place, because that's where I find the freedom to write," she says. "If I stop to think about fans, or best-selling, or not best-selling, or good reviews, or not-good reviews, it just becomes too much. It's like staring at the mirror all day." It's as if to describe the world, she has to remove herself from it, keep her art and her life separate. Comfortable as she is crossing borders, she keeps that one tightly closed.