Jhumpa Lahiri as Subtle as Her Writing

April 16, 2008

As it turns out, readings are far less adrenaline-charged events than I previously imagined. Filled with twitters and murmurs, the standing-room-only crowd was definitely abuzz, though far more dignified than I was in its excitement. Neon posters or not, we were all psyched to see her. When Lahiri took to the podium, we applauded vigorously. When Lahiri read from one of her short stories, we chuckled at her subtle humor and appreciatively "hmm"ed at her lyricism. But when Lahiri began answering questions at the Q&A, we sort of thought she fell flat. Interestingly, it seemed we were all expecting her to be something she wasn't.

"When Deborah's white father makes a joke about Thanksgiving and Indians, were you trying to critique the cultural ignorance of some people?" someone asked from the front row. Lahiri frowned and replied no, she was just reflecting reality in her writing "like a photograph."

"What do you want to see more of from second- and third-generation Indian American writers?" a 20-something Indian American asked a little later.

"I don't really think of it in those terms," Lahiri replied. "I just like good writing. I like writing that's honest, writing that's true, writing that's fresh." Jhumpa Lahiri, the literary pacifist. Non-confrontational, objective, without opinion, just observation -- much like her writing.

Talking to some of the other audience members afterward, it was fascinating to see how many of them (Asian American or not) wanted something more from her. The very traits we loved her for -- her tranquil observation, subtleties, ability to not opine on every little thing, like so many other contemporary writers -- were what made her seem so "bland and boring" in real life, as one person put it.

We wanted her to be all sorts of things she wasn't: a leader, a voice, an activist. Or at very least, an entertainer. But watching her fidget so uncomfortably under the spotlight that night, I couldn't help but wonder: What onus is upon an Asian American writer (or any minority public figure) to speak for the community? Once any of us manages to snag our 15 minutes, are we called upon to spend that time stumping for our people?

I'd love to hear what people think.




Why burden her indeed? Gifted writers are hard to find. Writing is a thing for all time (even a far-off, future time when APIA have achieved all their political goals), possesses the sacredness of art. As always, your own writing cuts to the core of the problem. Good post!
I love Lahiri's writing, and it helps that she writes a bit about Cambridge, Mass and London, two cities that I love, but in many ways her writing to me is about the oddness of labels such as "Asian-American", and it's interesting to see it's reflected in her personality.
My favorite story of hers is "Sexy" from IoM.