My Problem with Jhumpa Lahiri

31 May


Photo: I wasnt impressed with the movie version of The Namesake

Photo: I wasn't impressed with the movie version of The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri is the most visible Indian-American writer in the world.  She may even be the most famous person in recent history to write about the immigrant experience in America. I respect her many achievements, including winning a Pulitzer Prize for her first book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies.  I am happy the Indian-American experience has gained so much exposure thanks to her.  But I have a few issues with the way Indian families are often portrayed in her books and I worry that hers is the only audible voice from a diverse, vibrant, growing community.

After reading all three of Lahiri’s books, I notice a common theme in her portrayal of the nuclear Indian immigrant family: the workaholic, emotionally distant father, the homemaker wife with no life of her own, and a confused, sad child navigating two cultures.

Indian women are devoted to taking care of their family, but that isn’t always their whole life.  Most of my mom’s Indian women friends have jobs.  Many of them are doctors, scientists, professors and have gone back to school in America, holding as demanding jobs as their husbands.  They aren’t as listless as the women in Lahiri’s stories: they are active in their community, assimilate to American culture, and don’t depend on their husbands to take care of their every need.

And yes, Indian men are usually very devoted to work: their career, after all, is what allowed them to immigrate to America.  But they aren’t all unfeeling or fail to appreciate their wives.  Though most of the marriages of my parent’s generation were “arranged” to some extent, it doesn’t mean the couples do not share love. 

I understand Lahiri can only speak for her own experience as the child of immigrants.  But my experience was different, and her work motivates me to write my own story and show the public that not all Indian families are unhappy in their own way.

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