University News

Reading, discussion kick off two-day festival

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri kicked off a two-day festival of Indian literature Tuesday afternoon with a reading and discussion of her work in a jam-packed Salomon 001.

The festival, which also features events with authors Rana Dasgupta and Suketu Mehta, is presented by the Literary Arts program and the International Writers Project. It is part of the University’s yearlong “Year of India” initiative. 

Lahiri began by reading a selection from her latest book, “Unaccustomed Earth,” a collection of short stories released last year. The second half of the event consisted of a question-and-answer session, during which audience members asked the author questions about her writing process and the way identity informs her work.

One audience member asked Lahiri about the extent to which her Indian identity plays a role in her stories and whether a non-Indian writer could have written about the same themes.

Lahiri responded by acknowledging that her own experiences and those of her family influence her work. But she hopes someone of another background could also tell her stories, she said.

“This is what writers do: They imagine their way into alternate realities, alternate states of being, and try to bring those to life,” she said. “Writing is a way for human beings to transcend their own realities … and to understand the realities and to embody them.”

“Some might say that’s naive, or perhaps optimistic, but that’s what I want to believe literature is about,” she added.

Lahiri also discussed the value of creative writing classes, which she took during the nine months she spent earning an MFA at Boston University.

“For me, it was really crucial, really critical,” she said, adding that, while she does not think formal training is necessary to become a good writer, her studies forced her to prioritize writing and identify as a fiction writer.

“I was a lost soul before I became a writer,” she said. “I was wandering around the world, and not happily.”

The festival, called “New Indian Writing: The Rising Generation,” focuses on an emerging crop of Indian-American writers, said Meera Viswanathan, a professor of comparative literature and one of the event’s organizers, in introductory remarks.

Lahiri — who was born in London to Bengali parents but raised in Kingston, R.I. — embodies this “rising generation,” Viswanathan said after the event.

Lahiri’s work, which often focuses on first- and second-generation Indian immigrants and addresses themes of immigration and cross-cultural identity, dovetails with the larger goals of the Year of India, Viswanathan added.

“The focus of the Year of India is not the static India of the past, but on that which overlaps and crosses and transgresses with the rest of the world, and those are some of the themes she is interested in,” she said.

Brian Evenson, director of the literary arts program, said Lahiri was asked to the festival because “she’s someone who talks a great deal about people who exist across cultures and between cultures.”