Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

Q: The titles of your stories are spare yet weighty, especially “Interpreter of Maladies.” Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with that title?

A: Usually titles don’t emerge until I’m well underway with a story, and sometimes I finish something and still have to search for a title. “Interpreter of Maladies” was an exception. This title was born before I even knew what the story would be about. At first it was simply a phrase that came to me during my graduate school years in Boston. One day I crossed paths with an acquaintance of Armenian descent who had kindly helped me move, some time before, into one of my many Boston apartments. We stopped to chat, and he told me he was working in a doctor’s office, translating on behalf of the doctor’s many Russian patients. As I walked back home the phrase “interpreter of maladies” popped into my head as a way of describing what this person was doing. It lingered long enough for me to jot the phrase down on a piece of paper. Every so often I would come across it, thinking it might make a good title, but the story didn’t materialize for another five years or so.

Q: The stories in Interpreter of Maladies generally end without a resolution. We draw our own conclusions. Please talk about your approach to determining how a story will end.

A: Stories end when they are working to the best of my ability. Everything I write is a journey, metaphorically speaking. In fact, I tend to think of it as a passage across a lake. There is a point in the process when I’m no longer actively composing and fabricating, and that is one sign that I’m about to reach the other side. There are also cues less easy to describe, telling me to let a story go. I like to give a story as much time as possible to ripen, to look back at things after they’ve left my system and to get feedback from a few readers. If I still can’t think of anything that’s missing, and feel satisfied that the parts of the story are all justifiable and properly expressed, then I move on to something new.

Q: The stories in Interpreter of Maladies are so poignant and nuanced, that your writing has been described as wise beyond your years. Can you talk a bit about how your experiences may have influenced these stories?

A: Certainly I draw quite a bit on the general landscape of my upbringing. I was raised in New England by Bengali immigrant parents and have lived practically all my life on the East Coast of the United States. I was always aware that my parents didn’t fully belong in this country, both because of their own feelings and because of how they have been treated over the years. The example of my parents and their circle of Bengali friends has made me both curious about and sensitive to the experience of being foreign. I’ve also been conscious of how I am also a foreigner in some respects. I think that if a person doesn’t feel fully at home somewhere, then one feels foreign, regardless of literal ties to another place. Though I lacked the connection to India my parents felt, and missed, there were things I didn’t fully participate in during the course of my American childhood, things I seemed to watch through a glass. When I would go to visit India with my family I saw that there, too, we didn’t fully belong. Every aspect of my family’s history can be described as a hovering between two places.

Q: Your writing has been compared to a wide range of authors from E.M. Forster to V.S. Naipul to Philip Roth. Which authors/books have been most influential in your development as a writer?

A: Different authors have inspired and influenced me in different ways at different times, and the discovery of a great author, or the rediscovery of one I’ve encountered in the past, is one of the deepest and most exciting experiences in my life. I have always loved reading literature from an early age, and if it weren’t for the example of other writers I would never have written a word. When I first began writing seriously I studied stories by James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Conner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf were also important at that stage. I am eternally indebted to two living writers, William Trevor and Mavis Gallant. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Hardy and am completely under his spell.

Q: How do you go about observing and filing away for use in a story those perfect little descriptions of Americans and Indians that in a few well-chosen words distinguish one culture from another?

A: They occur to me in the process of writing. I don’t seek them out deliberately. They come from an unconscious place.

Q: Interpreter of Maladies joins a list of books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, My Ántonia, The Things They Carried, A Raisin in the Sun and Pride and Prejudice as One Book, One Chicago selections. Can you share with us your reaction to hearing that your book had been selected for all Chicagoans to read?

A: It is a tremendous honor, and also extremely humbling, to be in the company of such powerful and enduring writers. I salute the city of Chicago for promoting and celebrating the act of reading and the importance of literature on such a grand, civic scale. In a world where so many senseless and destructive events are constantly taking place, it is especially consoling, and commendable.

Content last updated: October 31, 2006

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