Interpreter of Maladies

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Make the Western Canon Great Again!

Let me ask you a question, my friends. When was the last time an American won the Nobel Prize? Do you know the answer? It was 1993, and it was an African-American woman! Nothing against African-American women, okay? African-American women, some of them, they’re gorgeous. Perfect 10s. But still, you gotta wonder: 23 years ago, and it was a black lady. Before that, you have to go back to 1976 – and it was a Jewish guy! Now, I love the Jewish people, and we all know the African Americans love me, but seriously, it tells you something when you have to go back to 1962 to find a real American Nobel Prize winner in Literature.

Our literature is slipping, folks. We’re losing our edge. It’s sad. It’s just so damn sad. You know why we’re slipping? Because our colleges are run by politically correct guilty white liberals who hate America. Oh my God, America’s college professors are so dumb. I could have been a professor, okay? Believe me, I’m a terrific teacher. People love it when I explain stuff to them. It’s a gift I have. But why would want to be a professor? Sure, I could sleep with some cute coeds. But think about it: Do you see many college professors married to supermodels? Do you see college professors with personal brands worth $5 billion. No, you don’t. And you know why? Because they’re so dumb.

You know how you can tell they’re dumb? From the books they teach. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The Interpreter of Maladies. The House on Mango Street. Anybody here read The House on Mango Street? I haven’t, either. I’m a businessman worth $10 billion. I don’t read books unless I wrote them, and even then I’m selective. But they’re teaching The House on Mango Street like crazy in English Departments across America – or at least they were in the 1990s, which just goes to show you how current my information is. The author of that book is Sandra Cisneros, who is, I believe, a Mexican. She was born in the United States, okay, but her parents are Mexican. So she’s Mexican. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, not if you’re black or brown. President Obama was born in Hawaii and his mother was a white woman, and yet the man’s Kenyan. It’s so obvious, if you think about it.

Anyway, there she is, this Sandra Cisneros, on college reading lists along with Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz  and all these other foreigners, and THEY’RE TAKING JOBS FROM AMERICAN AUTHORS. Good, hard-working American authors like Jonathan Franzen and John Irving and Richard Ford. Time magazine, which is, to be honest with you, this close to losing its press credentials with me, but anyway, Time called Jonathan Franzen “The Great American Novelist.” “The Great American Novelist,” my friends, and he can’t get onto a university syllabus to save his life. He’s too “commercial,” they say. He doesn’t play nice with Oprah. And, oh yeah, they never say it because they’re too politically correct, but he’s too white. That’s the real problem with Jonathan Franzen. He’s too white, too male, and too straight. Sorry, Jonathan. Three strikes and you’re out.

We’re going to take back the Western canon, folks. We are going to build a big beautiful wall around books written by white people and we’re going to make the immigrants and the African-American writers pay for it. Foreign writers are eating our lunch right now. We used to dominate the world of letters. The Russians, the Chinese, even the French – they all read our books. We used to be feared and loved around the world. And now look at us. Look who’s winning Nobel prizes these days. Svetlana Alexievich? Patrick Modiano? Mo Yan? I mean, what the hell kind of name is Mo Yan? Is that a guy? A girl? Which bathroom does Mo Yan use in North Carolina? Hah! Ha! Ha! Ha! Damn, I’m funny. I’ve gotta tweet that. But this is serious stuff, folks. These foreign writers are winning the Nobel Prize year after year, and we’re letting it happen. They’re shlonging us and we’re so stupid and lazy and politically correct that we like getting shlonged!

Well, no more.

When I’m President, I’ll ban all books by immigrant writers until we can figure out what the hell is going on with the Western Canon. I’ll ban translations by foreign authors, too. We’ll ban so many books it’ll make your head spin, folks. We’ll empty out the university book stores! We’ll clear whole shelves from the library! We’ll fire all the politically correct professors who hate America! We’ll build piles of books as high as one of my big, beautiful, classy hotels, and we’ll burn them all to ashes!

And when we’re done, my fellow Americans, we will make the Western Canon great again.

(Hat tip to frequent Millions commenter Moe Murph, who supplied the headline for this piece.)

Another Mask: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

I started Jhumpa Lahiri’s new memoir, In Other Words, expecting to find a story about the joys and struggles of learning Italian as an adult, and as a writer. I thought there might also be elements of travelogue, because I knew Lahiri had moved to Rome to master the language. But Lahiri did not write the book I was expecting — and which I think many other readers might be primed for. Instead, she has written an elegant, if somewhat oblique, memoir about creative crisis.

Let me be clear: Lahiri never uses the word “crisis” in her memoir, and I don’t mean to invoke it in an overly dramatic way, or to imply that Lahiri is in the midst of any kind of personal turmoil. I mean crisis in the sense of a turning point, and this book seems most animated by questions of change — specifically, Lahiri’s desire to “take another direction” in her fiction. Immersing herself in Italian for three years was her way of forcing herself to change her relationship to language and storytelling. And it was a dramatic immersion: while living in Rome, she did not speak, write, or read in English. Additionally, she stopped reading in English for six months before her departure. It’s this last deprivation that struck me as most radical. To live in an English-speaking country and not partake of its literary offerings seems difficult for anyone, let alone a writer. Lahiri uses religious language to describe this choice:

From now on, I pledge only to read in Italian. It seems right, to detach myself from my principal language. I consider it an official renunciation. I’m about to become a linguistic pilgrim to Rome. I believe I have to leave behind something familiar, essential. Suddenly none of my books are useful anymore. They seem like ordinary objects. The anchor of my creative life disappears, the stars that guided me recede.

The above excerpt is translated from Italian, the language that Lahiri has been writing in for the past three years. Her memoir was first published in Italy, last year, and is now being released in the U.S. in a dual-language format, with the English translation by Ann Goldstein (best known for her translation of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels). Initially, Lahiri thought that she might translate her own work, but after translating one of her lectures from Italian, she found that her English was too strong, and that it was too tempting to rewrite everything. In her author’s note, Lahiri explains that she wanted the translation to “render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralizing its oddness, without manipulating its character.”

The problem with Lahiri’s Italian is not that it is odd; instead it is sometimes smooth to the point of vagueness. In English, she is a wonderfully precise writer, but in Italian that precision is gone and her sentences can feel watered down. When she’s getting into complicated issues of identity and exile, I often wished she could switch to English. At the same time, her Italian has a simplicity that is very appealing — and revealing. With so many linguistic limitations, Lahiri has nowhere to hide. When she first moves to Rome, she was compelled to write a diary in Italian, even though her written Italian was still rudimentary:

I write in terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate…I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, vulnerable part of me.

Throughout In Other Words, Lahiri works toward this “genuine, vulnerable” state. One reason she’s attracted to Italian, and to the project of learning a new language, is that it makes her feel childlike, and it makes writing feel “secret” and special. Another reason she’s attracted to Italian is that it’s a language that she chose for herself. Lahiri grew up learning two languages, Bengali and English. At home, she spoke Bengali to please her parents, who also spoke English but wished to preserve their native tongue. At school, she excelled in English to please her teachers. The two languages rarely overlapped, and when they did, they clashed. Although her parents spoke English well, their accents were strong, and Lahiri found herself speaking for them in public; at school, her ability to speak Bengali went unnoticed and unquestioned — until her parents called at a friend’s house, and her private life was revealed. When she finally encountered Italian, the language represented a freedom from duty:

I had to joust between those two languages until, at around the age of twenty-five, I discovered Italian. There was no need to learn the language. No family, cultural, social pressure. No necessity.

Learning Italian also represents a kind of freedom for Lahiri in terms of her writing career. She became famous when her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize. The award changed her life, but it also changed her relationship to her creative process:

Since then I’ve been considered a successful author, so I’ve stopped feeling like an unknown, almost anonymous apprentice. All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible. But a year after my first book was published, I lost my anonymity.

Reading those lines, I found myself thinking of the recent film The End of the Tour, which I reviewed favorably for this site, in part because I thought it did such a good job of discussing literary fame. That movie addresses the impending worldwide renown of David Foster Wallace, who, having just spent several weeks playing the part of Famous Author during his book tour for Infinite Jest, has to figure out how to get back to the oblivious, giddy part of himself that loves to make up stuff. The drama (and comedy) is in watching him try to escape himself while a reporter sticks a microphone in his face.

Lahiri’s memoir is also haunted by the dream of escape, especially in the two short pieces of fiction that she includes as stand-alone chapters. They are by far the most emotionally resonant pieces of writing in the book, which goes to show how well the mask of fiction works for her. Lahiri says that writing in Italian is another mask for her, and it’s interesting to note how her stories in Italian differ from her stories in English. With only two very short fictions it’s hard to draw conclusions, but I think it’s fair to say that they are much more dreamlike than her previous work. In a brief passage in which Lahiri analyzes the autobiographical elements of her past stories and novels, she says that writing in Italian has allowed her to “move toward abstraction:”

The places are undefined, the characters are so far nameless, without a particular cultural identity. The result, I think, is writing that is freed in certain ways from the concrete world. I now construct a less specific setting…Writing in Italian, I feel that my feet are no longer on the ground.

For Lahiri, leaving the concrete world means leaving behind her parents’ experience, and the world they lived in. It’s a world she says she has tried to reconstruct in her fiction as a way of bridging the divide between India and America, the past and the present. She admits that it took her “a long time to accept that my writing did not have to assume that responsibility.” As a reader, I’ve always felt that sense of responsibility lurking in her stories, though I wouldn’t say it’s been detrimental. It may be what gives her prose its clarity and depth. Still, it’s refreshing to hear that Lahiri felt the need to break free. She describes In Other Words as “the first book I’ve written as an adult, but also, from the linguistic point of view, as a child.” That’s probably the best description of this book that anyone can give; it captures its in-between, searching qualities, and the way that it hints at new work to come.

The New Wave: On the State of Indian Fiction in America

In the fifth episode of the hit sitcom New Girl, a self-styled stud tries to impress an Indian-American woman by declaring that he loves India. When pressed for details, he stumbles his way through the following catalogue:

I love Slumdog. I love naan. I love pepper. I love Ben Kingsley, the stories of Rudyard Kipling. I have respect for cows, of course. I love the Taj Mahal, Deepak Chopra, anyone named Patel. I love monsoons. I love cobras in baskets…I love mango chutney, really, any type of chutney.

The point is clear: the average American’s knowledge of Indian culture is superficial, stereotypical, and offensive. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the joke — and an Indian-American woman in a leading role on primetime TV — confirms how much Indian culture has permeated American pop culture. This should not be surprising: With a population that increased to 2.8 million from 1.7 million between 2000 and 2010, Indians are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They may also be one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in literary fiction — in America and the larger Anglophone world.

Fiction written in English by authors of Indian descent has been critically acclaimed and commercially successful for decades. Now a new wave of talent has arrived: In 2012, the Indian-American writers Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James published their debut short story collections — I Am An Executioner: Love Stories and Aerogrammes, respectively — while British-Indian author Hari Kunzru published his fourth novel, Gods Without Men: While it may be too soon for these authors to have achieved the heavyweight status of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, their imaginative, provocative, and well-crafted books suggest the continuation of a literary legacy and a move into “post-post-colonial,” “post-ethnic” territory.

Parameswaran, James, and Kunzru inherit three decades of Anglo-Indian literary success. Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children, about a boy born on the precise moment of Indian Independence, won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. His most notorious novel The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini that sparked international controversy and massive sales, an experience upon which he reflects in his memoir Joseph Anton, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. In recent years, the Booker has gone to Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, a hybrid of Invisible Man and Native Son set on the subcontinent. And as recently announced, the six authors shortlisted for the 2012 Booker includes Jeet Thayil, born in India, raised in Hong Kong, India and the U.S., and the author of the novel Narcopolis, about a 1970s opium den.

The new wave is also indebted to Lahiri, who rocked the American lit establishment — and book clubs nationwide — with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by the novel, The Namesake, later a Mira Nair-directed movie, and Unaccustomed Earth, another stunning and more ambitious story collection that cemented Lahiri’s reputation as the marquee Indian-American fiction writer and a master of short fiction.

Beyond heritage, Parameswaran, Kunzru, and James have similar pedigrees. Parameswaran went to Yale for college and law school, Kunzru went to Oxford, and James went to college at Harvard and grad school at Columbia. (Rushdie went to Cambridge). Too old to be wunderkind, all are still young by literary standards: James is 31, Parameswaran is 40, and Kunzru is 43. And while they hail from Michigan and Texas, Kentucky, and London, all three now live in the New York area. Perhaps a brunch is in order?

True to their heritage, all three address issues of Indian identity. In the central storyline of Gods, an Indian-American man marries a Jewish-American woman and the incipient tensions in their marriage combust after their son disappears. In “Ethnic Ken,” a story in Aerogrammes, an Indian-American girl plays with a brown-skinned version of Barbie’s boyfriend; the doll apparently cost half the price of the “regular” Ken. In one of the many tragicomic stories in Executioner, an unemployed Indian computer salesman pretends to be a doctor — the paradigmatic profession for high-status Indian Americans — with ghastly consequences. In their treatment of ethnicity, all three books join Lahiri in a subgenre that one of James’s characters, an aspiring screenwriter, calls “not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.”

Nevertheless, all three authors transcend the stereotypical expectations of “ethnic” fiction, including the notion that characters must share their author’s ethnicity.

Several stories in Executioner and Aerogrammes feature non-Indian characters. And the Indian-American protagonist in Gods shares a stage with non-Indians including an 18th-century Spaniard, a 19th-century Mormon, and a contemporary (Caucasian) British rock star. Even among the Indian characters, there is diversity: James’s Indian characters speak Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, Kunzru’s Indian characters speak Punjabi, spoken in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, and Parameswaran’s titular executioner speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” Such simple differences may remind Western readers that India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot and internationally engaged country, not a monolithic, homogenous, insular place.

As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters. The narrator of one story in Executioner is an elephant; another is a murderous, guilt-stricken tiger, a literal version of Adiga’s titular “white tiger.” A story in Aerogrammes concerns a chimpanzee that nearly convinces a woman he is human. Strangest of all, Gods opens with a cryptic fable with characters named Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, Southern Fox, and the protagonist Coyote, who sets up a meth lab in the desert. Take that, Kipling.

Regardless of species, all three books grapple with physical, emotional, and existential despair, albeit in different tones and moods. Gods is cerebral, somber, and grim. As he did in the reverse outsourcing fable Transmission, Kunzru assaults his characters until they break, and relents only after they have lost nearly everything. (For the film, perhaps Werner Herzog or P.T. Anderson could direct?) By contrast, Aerogrammes is sweet, sad, and painfully earnest. Characters are naïve, blind, or delusional, whether it’s the Indian wrestlers who don’t realize the sport is supposed to be fake, or the boy who refuses accept his mother’s new husband. There’s pain suffering in Executioner, too but it’s often undercut by humor or an authorial wink, either implied or in meta-fictional parentheses or footnotes.

While Aerogrammes essentially falls into the category of realist fiction, Parameswaran and Kunzru flirt with other genres. Besides the two talking animal stories, Executioner includes a spy thriller, “Narrative of Agent 974702,” and a science fiction tale, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319).” Perhaps most fantastical — yet paradoxically most credible — is the cult at the center of Gods, a desert commune that fuses Christianity, Buddhism, New Age, and Alien Worship into an explosive whole. Then again, as Kunzru semi-subtly implies, such a group is not so different than the Europeans who Christianized Native Americans or Mormons who found Zion in the American West.

While fundamentally contemporary, all three books derive depth from history. In Executioner, the meta-fictional tale “Four Rajeshes” concerns a railway clerk in colonial India at the turn of the 20th century and his version of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The opening story in Aerogrammes features a pair of Indian wrestlers who arrive in England in 1910 to engage in literal and figurative battles with their colonial overlords. Perhaps because it is a novel, Gods is even more historically ambitious, with a storyline that spans more than 200 years. Ultimately, all three authors use history to transcend personal experience, shattering the expectation that “ethnic” fiction must be autobiographical. In a way, they all respond to the question that Rushdie poses in Joseph Anton when recalling his inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses:

The great question of how the world joins up — not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.

In terms of style and structure, Aerogrammes is the most conventional of the three. The plainspoken prose obeys the aesthetic in which the writer’s voice is secondary to the story. The nine stories are more or less uniform length, each about 20 pages. Ultimately, James seems to value cohesion and consistency over shock and surprise. Parameswaran takes the opposite tack. His voice is always strong and varies widely from story to story; some seem like the work of different authors. If the books were Beatles albums, Aerogrammes would be Rubber Soul, the harmonious whole with songs of essentially equal weight, and Executioner would be The White Album, a hectic hodgepodge of competing voices. (Speaking of The Beatles, didn’t they help bring Indian music and spirituality into Western popular culture?)

Gods splits the difference between these two extremes. Like Executioner, it’s grandiose, sprawling, and dense. With its multiple points of view, multiple settings, and non-linear structure, it often reads like a collection of loosely linked stories. Some plots literally converge; others merely inform each other. Yet over 369 pages, Kunzru maintains cohesion. Part of this may stem from his use of the close third person point of view (which James does in most of her stories). It may also be a matter of experience; perhaps on their fourth books, James and Parameswaran may find a similar balance of ambition and unity.

For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger? Will these books be a curiosity or a gateway to wider American interest in Indian culture? Will more Indian Americans join Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as high-profile politicians? Will we see more Indians Americans in popular entertainment: TV, movies, sports?

In a poignant scene in Interpreter of Maladies that sums up the cultural barriers at the heart of the book, an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix, an Indian snack. The Indian clerk dismisses her with four words: “Too spicy for you.” Perhaps one day, that scene will seem outmoded, if not unfathomable.

Art Garfunkel is a Voracious Reader

A perfect post to leave you with as we head into the long weekend. Perhaps, like many people, you’ve been wondering what Art Garfunkel’s been reading for… oh… the last 39 years, give or take. Luckily, he’s been keeping track.As a result, perusing through the nearly 1,000 books he’s read in that time, I now know that:When I was born, Art Garfunkel was reading Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur.When I graduated high school, he was reading “Our Crowd” by Stephen Birmingham.When I graduated college, he was reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.And when I got married, he was reading Love, Groucho, the letters of Groucho Marx.What was Art Garfunkel reading on the important dates in your life? (Thanks to John for sending that brilliant link my way)

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