What great timing for my favorite issue of the year to be sitting patiently in my mailbox waiting for me! It’s the Summer Fiction issue! New Yorker geeks everywhere, rejoice!
And of course, it’s packed with big name writers: Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jhumpa Lahiri, to name a few. Not surprisingly, it was Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri’s personal essay, “Trading Stories,” that inspired this post. Lahiri happens to be one of my favorite authors—her novel, The Namesake, and two short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, are some of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read.
In this essay, she writes about her love of reading and writing, but more specifically, about her journey to becoming a writer. For anyone not familiar with Lahiri, I think The Atlantic interviewer Isaac Chotiner describes her well, naming her “the acclaimed chronicler of the Bengali-immigrant experience”:
Both of her previous books—Interpreter of Maladies (a 2000 story collection that earned her the Pulitzer Prize), and The Namesake, a 2003 novel that later took shape as a popular film— explored the cultural dissonances experienced by immigrants caught between the culture of their Indian birthplace and the unfamiliar ways of their adopted home. In Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of eight short stories, Lahiri continues to explore this theme, this time with a focus on the lives of second-generation immigrants who must navigate both the traditional values of their immigrant parents and the mainstream American values of their peers.
It makes sense that the sort of “cultural dissonances” she writes of in her fiction also played a huge role in Lahiri’s journey to becoming a writer. In her essay, she writes about her parents, “For though they had created me, and reared me, and lived with me day after day, I knew I was a stranger to them, an American child. In spite of our closeness, I feared that I was alien.”
Many of Lahiri’s characters also have these types of fears toward, and relationships with, their parents. What I’ve found most beautiful and fascinating as I’ve read her works, though, is how this is coupled with powerful moments of her characters understanding and feeling close with their parents. While the cultural dissonance she often describes is specific to the Bengali-immigrant experience, I think the parent-child relationships are also completely universal. I think it’s fair to say that the very definition of “dissonance”— “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements”—sums up the teenager-parent dynamic. (Not that all of her characters are teens, but you get what I’m saying.)
It’s both astounding and a relief to me that a writer of Lahiri’s caliber has also experienced the same kind of self-doubt I grapple with in life, and particularly, with my writing. She discusses her deep love of books as a child, writing:
In life, especially as a young girl, I was afraid to participate in social activities. I worried about what others might make of me, how they might judge. But when I read I was free of this worry.
While Lahiri says that as an adolescent, she used writing as a vehicle to make friends and connect with others, later, she somewhat rejected the writer in her— “Though the compulsion to invent stories remained, self-doubt began to undermine it”—and instead, she focused on practicing music, performing in plays, and then later, decided she wanted to be a journalist (while also studying literature in college). Sounds familiar! I also “channelled my energy” into studying journalism and English lit. Yet still, as a student, and even now, more often than I’d like to admit, I feel intimidated by the act of writing. Lahiri writes:
At twenty-one, the writer in me was like a fly in the room—alive but insignificant, aimless, something that unsettled me whenever I grew aware of it, and which, for the most part, left me alone. I was not at a stage where I needed to worry about rejection from others. My insecurity was systemic, and preemptive, insuring that, before anyone else had the opportunity, I had already rejected myself.
Luckily, she quit rejecting herself, and embraced the writing.
Insecurity will get you. It’s terrifying to put yourself out there, whether it’s in life, or on the page. I think that, in life, in writing, whatever, it’s the moments when you embrace that fear and just fucking go for it, that the most beautiful things can happen. Like Lahiri writes, “writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do...Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’”