A Cool Thing You Probably Missed: Jhumpa Lahiri lecture

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A little known fact about Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is that she is a Rhode Island native. Although she was born in London, Lahiri grew up in Kingston, RI, after her parents immigrated to America when she was two. Her father is a librarian at URI, and was seated front and center at her talk, hosted by the Brown Bookstore, on Sunday. The event consisted a reading from Lahiri’s new novel, The Lowland, which deals with four generations of an Indian-American family that moves to Rhode Island from Calcutta, and discussing her work with poet William Corbett. (Ed. Fun fact! Mindy Lahiri, the protagonist of The Mindy Project, is named after Jhumpa Lahiri.) Read on for a breakdown of what I learned from one of our home state’s most prolific contemporary authors:

Confirmed: being a luddite is cool AND helpful to your work!  Corbett described his first question as the “kind that the Paris Review would ask” (which any hip literary soul would have recognized anyway), wanting to know Lahiri’s actual method of writing. Turns out she is totally anti-technology! I mean, obviously she types everything eventually, but Lahiri starts writing everything by hand, then switches a laptop that— drumroll— doesn’t have internet! This makes so much sense to me because I often think about how it’s possible to write a novel when you have to check Facebook every five minutes. I hate technology and have a fear of people who are “developing apps”, and I worry that this will lead to failure in life, but clearly it works for some people. Even after typing things up, she prints out her work and writes on it, and said most of her novels actually comes from marginalia.

Being wildly successful doesn’t make all that sure of yourself. The first ten minutes of the event were actually spent dealing with microphone and sound issues. (Unsurprisingly, no one in the room seemed to know how to operate technology.) Lahiri actually really needed the sound boost—she’s a timid speaker, in contrast to Corbett, who was able to get by without any sort of microphone. Her answers were incredibly well constructed; she spoke in full sentences, with lots of commas, just like how she writes (notice what I’m doing here). But she isn’t funny or gregarious: she’s just a normal human who isn’t at her most comfortable speaking about her work in front of a ton of strangers. Weird, right?!?

Fuck the haters. Towards the end of the talk, Lahiri spoke about her reluctance to read reviews of her novels, saying that while she needs the comments and critiques of her trusted mentors and friends, critics’ opinions just don’t get her anywhere. “I got an email from a friend once saying they’d read an ‘interesting’ review of the book. I knew what ‘interesting’ meant, I spent two days crying myself to sleep without ever having read the review.” This all is coming from someone who, again, won a Pulitizer Prize at 32. It’s a reassuring message — to put stake only in the opinions of people you value and trust, and fuck everyone else because what do they even know? (She didn’t actually dismiss the value of critics like this, saying that they were very necessary as readers but “what are they going to tell me about my own work?” A very ‘I write for myself’ take on the craft, which is maybe the only way to survive as a writer.)

Sometimes writers are cliché, and it’s still cool. She wrote most of the book in a “brownstone in Brooklyn”, and now she lives in Rome with her husband and writes in cafés. Guess what? That sounds awesome. I wrote this post in Coffee Exchange, which is similar, right?

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