Click here to listen to a piece I produced for American Student Radio on Jhumpa Lahiri wannabes.
She was wearing a maroon, comfortable shirt, paired with brown pants that sloshed as she walked and an decadent, teal-stoned necklace. She appeared serious, almost disinterested and stoic.
Is she nervous? Bored?
I contemplated as author Jhumpa Lahiri sat poised on the stage of the Whittenberger Auditorium last Monday. She checked her fingernails, adjusted her ring. As Indiana Unviersity Hutton Honors College Dean Andrea Ciccarelli gave an introduction, Lahiri quietly coughed, the first audible breath of her voice caught on microphone.
“I find labels limiting — I always have,” she said, prompted with a question. Her response mirrored the search for identity so many of her characters partake in, unsure of where they fit in. It’s a feature of her stories that has always interested me, resonated with me, explaining why Lahiri is one of my favorite authors.
I read The Namesake a year and a half ago and found it fascinating. I saw so many parallels between my life and the life of Gogol, the main character: both second-generation Indian-Americans, conflicted on how to balance the obligation of an Indian lifestyle with the reality of an American one, and with immigrant parents whose marriage was arranged. By reading the book, I figured out how to deal with my own definition of identity and place.
Lahiri’s declaration that labels are limiting was reassuring, as I frequently think of myself as an “in between” of many groups. She even said that growing up she didn’t feel Indian or American, that the Christmas tree her parents put up in their house didn’t make her feel more at home, that she was always “searching for something else” but didn’t know what it was.
She said that by learning, reading and living in English, her parents’ second language, felt like she was betraying them. I rarely felt that English was “an enemy territory for my family”, as Lahiri said it was for hers, but did notice the distinction between the language my parents used to talk to family and the language they used to talk to neighbors, and registered the unfamiliarity, the sign of displacement.
She pauses after a question is posed, seeking the right words before proceeding. She voices something I have always felt, something I’m proud of: “The word ‘tradition’ makes me uncomfortable…it intimidates me.”
I suddenly realize why I’m so interested and engaged with Lahiri’s lecture and books — she reminds me of myself. Okay no, I don’t have a Pulitzer Prize and no, I don’t even love writing nor am I drawn to Italian language. So yes, in many ways I am nothing like Lahiri, but I do see resemblances in our accents, our expressive hand gestures, our backgrounds, our juggle of cultures and our desire for belonging.
It’s not that I want to be Lahiri specifically, I just want to be more like her — confident in thoughts, words and identity. But despite her seeming steadiness, she said that nothing is set in stone.
“Identity is just a work in progress. It always has been.”