Tag Archives: Jhumpa Lahiri

Five Novels I’ve Read About Immigrants

Cover imageI’ve travelled a reasonable amount but I’ve never lived anywhere except my own country. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fascinated by the immigrant experience. There’s been a wave of fiction exploring the plight of refugees recently but all except one of the five novels below are about choosing to move to country rather than fleeing one. I’ve written about several of them before but have only reviewed one on this blog for which there’s a link.

Abudulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea seems to capture beautifully how it feels to be exiled from your own country. Told not to reveal his ability to speak English by the man who sold him his ticket, an elderly asylum seeker finds himself blurting out a sentence to his kindly social worker when she tells him she has found an interpreter. When he learns the interpreter’s identity, Saleh realises that they are already bound together by an intricate series of events which brought about the downfall of Latif’s family and his own imprisonment. Written in delicately evocative prose, By the Sea unravels the complexities of Saleh and Latif’s past offering hope of redemption.

Also set in the UK, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is about a group of young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield. Sahota vividly depicts the precarious lives of these economic migrants, worked like dogs on a building site by day and returning to sleep in squalid conditions at night. Sahota unfolds each of their histories at the beginning of his novel so that we come to understand the events that have brought them to the UK. Woven through the narrative is the Cover imagestory of a British Sikh woman who decides to defy both the law and her family in the face of what she sees as injustice. It’s a remarkable novel, although sadly not one that those who believe immigrants to be scroungers and layabouts are likely to read.

Skipping across the Atlantic to the USA, Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores the lives of a disparate set of immigrants scattered across the country, all with a connection to Tara Kumar visiting from Madras. Lavi is her fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in his boss’ criminal web while Madhulika is the friend whose arranged marriage is floundering. The novel is set in 2005, sufficiently distant from 9/11 for its full effects to be felt on anyone with a brown skin, many of whom find themselves regarded with even more suspicion than they did before. There’s the odd jarring note but Viraraghavan manages to keep control of her many stories weaving them into a rich tapestry of immigrant life.

The son of working-class Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos explores both first and second generations’ experience through Lydia, a New York cleaning lady, in The Empress of the Splendid Season. Anyone who passes her on the street might think of her, if they notice her at all, as just another dowdy drudge but Lydia has a very different view of herself. After a quarrel with her father when she was sixteen, she left the trappings of a well-to-do family in Cuba but has never relinquished her sense of superiority. From her ambitions for her children and her cherished memories of her youthful beauty to her tentative feelings of friendship for one of her kindly employers and the uncovering of the secrets of others, Lydia’s story is told through a series of closely linked vignettes in this tender portrait of a woman who refuses to accept her second-class status.

 Cover imageJhumpa Lahiri turns the first generation/second generation perspective on its head in The Namesake through the lens of Gogol Ganguli whose parents arrive in Massachusetts from Calcutta in the early days of their arranged marriage. Out in the world, pursuing his career as an engineer, his father happily adjusts to life in America but his mother does not, staying at home, missing her family and bring her son up as an Indian rather than an American. Lumbered with the name of his father’s favourite writer, Gogol finds himself torn between the expectations of his parents and becoming a part of the American world in this empathetic, funny novel about conflicting loyalties and identity.

Any books about immigrants you’d like to recommend?

Ties by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage

Cover imageI seem to have reviewed several books about marriage in the first few months of this year – from the comparatively happy Wait for Me, Jack, to the decidedly bleak First Love, to the seemingly inextricable entanglement of A Separation – each one very different from the other, as are relationships of course. Domenico Starnone’s Ties is about another marriage, first broken then apparently reconciled. I’d have been attracted by it anyway but when I found out that it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation I had to read it having been intrigued by In Other Words, her memoir about her love affair with the Italian language.

Vanda and Aldo have been married for well over four decades. They live in a comfortable apartment in Rome with a view of the Tiber. They married in their early twenties and have two children, Sandro and Anna. Twelve years into the marriage, when Sandro was nine and Anna five, Aldo confessed his infidelity with Lidia, a passing fancy or so he thought. Furious, Vanda threw him out, lambasting him for his betrayal and eventually winning full custody of their children. Four years later, Aldo began to feel that he’d let his children down, resuming some sort of relationship with them and eventually proposing a rapprochement with Vanda. Reconciliation came at a high price: Vanda commandeered the moral high ground while Aldo lay low, accepting whatever punishment was doled out to him, quietly continuing along his path of infidelity. Their children grew into unhappy adults: Anna, filled with bitter resentment and determined not to have children; Sandro charming all and sundry, leaving a trail of ex-partners and children in his wake. Things come to a head when Vanda and Aldo return from their summer break to find their apartment ransacked and their cat missing.

Vanda and Aldo’s marriage feels very much of its time: Vanda finds herself financially dependent on Aldo, keeping house and looking after the children while Aldo is surprised at her angry reaction to his infidelity, assuming that she will tolerate his self-expression in the new era of sexual liberation. Starnone cleverly structures his novel to reflect the repercussions of their actions. First there are the angry letters from Vanda to Aldo during their separation, so filled with fury that they feel like a smack round the head. This short, very sharp, section is followed by Aldo’s version of events as he searches for photographs of Lidia tucked away for years but now missing in the disorder of the wrecked apartment. The third brief section offers Anna’s point of view, filled with bitterness at the behaviour of her parents and its apparent acceptance by her brother. Each of these narratives is in the first person making them all the more powerful. Starnone deftly switches perspectives, reflecting his characters’ point of view through language, from Vanda’s viscerally furious letters to the slightly puzzled, faintly martyred tone of Aldo’s musings. What’s missing is Sandro’s version which left me feeling that the novella was incomplete. That said it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, elegantly slim but delivering a sucker punch.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated by Anne Goldstein): A passion for language

Cover imageI was more than a little surprised to be sent a new Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m pretty up and together on my ‘Books to Look Out For’ previews and I’d seen nothing in the fiction schedules. Then I spotted that it had been translated which discombobulated me further. Reading the press release I found that In Other Words is the product of Lahiri’s passion for the Italian language, a passion so great that she uprooted her family from the States to live in Rome for a year to immerse herself in it. Her book is a set of essays – intimate reflections on learning the language – presented as a parallel text: one page in Italian written by Lahiri; the facing page in English translated by Anne Goldstein. There are also two short stories.

Lahiri begins with her struggles to learn Italian in the States after her first trip to Florence with her sister back in 1994. It’s a frustrating experience, and even more so when she finds that when she returns to Italy years later as a successful writer she can understand all that’s said to her but is unable to be understood herself. Eventually, the teacher with whom she’s had most success tells her the only way to achieve what she wants is to live in Italy. Six months before leaving she decides to read nothing but Italian finding it a liberation: ‘Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility’. Writing, however is a different matter: ‘When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveller… …When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter’. Throughout this set of essays, Lahiri reflects on her relationship with language and the way in which each of her three languages affects her identity. Born in America, her ‘mother tongue’ is Bengali, the first language she spoke and continued to speak until starting school; her ‘stepmother tongue’ is English and the one she feels most comfortable in. As she says in her Afterword, this is her first work of non-fiction but the themes remain the same as in her fiction: it’s about ‘identity, alienation, belonging’.

Lahiri fans may be wondering if this is a book for them and I think that depends on your own relationship with language. I’ve been interested in words since learning Latin at school and discovering its relationship with English hence my enjoyment of the book, although I did find some of the essays covered the same ground. Lahiri’s writing is often intimate, introspective and always eloquent, a vivid description of the process of learning a language and our relationship with our different ways of communication. At one point she finds she has an extensive vocabulary, much of it outdated as if she’s ‘dressed in an outlandish manner, wearing a long, elegant skirt of another era, a T-shirt, a straw hat and slippers’ – beautifully translated by Goldstein, of course,  At times I was reminded of Eva Hoffman’s brilliant autobiography Lost in Translation in which she writes about the loss of her native language after emigrating to Canada at the age of thirteen and the long slow process of trying to find her way back to the nuance and intimacy with which she expressed herself in Polish. In her Afterword, Lahiri describes herself as being at a crossroads, facing her departure from Rome and unable to decide if she will continue to read and write only in Italian. That seems to me to be quite a challenge outside of Italy but it will be interesting to see which road she takes.

Books to Look Out For in September 2015: Part 2

Cover imageMy second selection for September seems to be made up almost entirely of books by American novelists. No particular reason, it just turned out that way. No starry names either but a couple of the authors already have several excellent novels to their credit so I hope they’ve come up with the goods this time, too.

Anyone who enjoyed Patrick Dewitt’s brilliant Western The Sisters Brothers may well execute a little jig at the prospect of a new novel from him,  even if the title is a little perplexing. Undermajordomo Minor is about Lucien Minor, assistant to the eponymous majordomo of Baron Von Aux’s castle where he meets the beautiful Klara, sadly already spoken for. It’s ‘a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe’, ‘an adventure story, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour with a brandy tart, but above all it is a love story’ which sounds absolutely marvelous.

I thoroughly enjoyed both The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia so I’m looking forward to Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies very much. It tells the story of a marriage and creative partnership over a period of twenty-four years. Lotto and Mathilde are a glittering, enviable couple, apparently as happy ten years since their wedding as they were on the day itself but things may not be quite what they seem – we’re promised ‘stunning revelations and multiple threads, in prose that is vibrantly alive and original.’ Fingers crossed.

Already longlisted for the Man Booker, American literary agent Bill Clegg’s first novel, Did You Cover imageEver Have a Family, is published in the UK in September and it looks very enticing. June Reid is the only survivor of a house explosion that takes place the morning of her daughter’s wedding. She takes off from her small Connecticut town in the hope of escaping her neighbours and her grief, holing up in a motel on the other side of the country. ‘The novel is a gathering of voices, and each testimony has a new revelation about what led to the catastrophe… everyone touched by the tragedy finds themselves caught in the undertow, as their secret histories finally come to light.’ says the publisher, all of which sounds just the ticket for an absorbing read, if a little wordy.

Appropriately enough, my final September choice is Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans, a set of linked short stories, a form to which I’ve become rather partial. This collection looks at the immigrant experience in America through the eyes of Tara, a single Indian woman in her mid-thirties who travels to the States to look after her teenage niece. It tells the stories of eleven people and spans the entire country with Tara as the common thread. Inevitably, the publishers compare it to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, setting the bar high, but they’re also Lahiri’s publishers so perhaps the comparison is accurate, for once.

Cover imageAnd one last title – this time by an Italian – just to alert the many fans out there, as if they don’t already know – Elena Ferrante’s long awaited The Story of the Lost Child is published in September. I’ve never quite got into the Ferrante fever which seized Twitter and hasn’t yet let go but I’m delighted that the small but perfectly formed Europa publishers have met with such success.

That’s it for September – as ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to check out my first batch of September titles here they are, and if you want to catch up with August the hardbacks are here and the paperbacks are here.

My Man Booker Favourite: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Cover imageThose of us who read a lot of fiction have reason to feel a bit smug after The Guardian‘s piece based on research suggesting that reading novels develops empathy. Easy to feel pleased with yourself for doing something which for many of us is an enormous pleasure but I do read fiction to find out about other ways of life, other cultures, other ways of thinking and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake did just that: gave me an insight into both how it feels to leave your country in search of a better life then watch your child embracing a culture which still feels alien to you, and how it feels to be that child. I was delighted, then, to see her new novel shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker.

The Lowland is a much more of political novel then The Namesake. It begins in the years after the 1947 Partition. Two brothers, only fifteen months apart in age, grow up in suburban Calcutta. The eldest, Subhash, is quietly cautious, always keeping a protective eye out for the daring Udayan who looks outwards into the world, yet it is Subhash who leaves to pursue his studies in America in the ’70s while Udayan stays at home becoming increasingly politicised by the corruption, poverty and injustice he sees around him. Letters are intermittent, but Udayan writes with news that he has married Guari only telling his parents after the event. When Udayan is shot for his part in a Naxalite plot, Subhash comes home to find the pregnant Guari living with his parents who barely acknowledge her. Desperate to do the right thing, he marries her taking her back to the States where Bela is born partly filling the chasm left by Udayan’s death but only for Subhash. Theirs is a marriage doomed to failure but Gauri’s abrupt departure, leaving Bela behind, still shocks casting a long shadow over both Bela and Subhash’s future. A sense of loss, of loneliness and isolation, of things left unsaid and undone pervades The Lowland. Lahiri unfolds the story of a family marked by tragedy and its aftermath, quietly revealing the motives and events that lie behind each of their actions in beautiful understated prose so that the unfathomable becomes clear, the abhorrent understandable. It’s a superb novel, remarkable for its compassion – the bond between Bela and Subhash is particularly moving. I can’t imagine a book more deserving of the Man Booker. Fingers firmly crossed.