Thursday, April 3, 2008

Repost: GalleyCat - Jhumpa Lahiri Would Like Different Questions, Please

This one is worthy of a repost too. I saw this yesterday and made sure I'd flag it so I wouldn't forget to share it. It's about Pulitzer Prize winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri's frustration with being asked questions that hinge on her race.

Jhumpa Lahiri Would Like Different Questions, Please

jhumpa-lahiri-nymag.jpgAs Unaccustomed Earth starts showing up in bookstores, everybody wants to talk to Jhumpa Lahiri—and, as she tells Boris Kachka in her New York interview, one of the big topics is her literary focus on, in the profile's phrasing, "upwardly mobile South Asians from New England":

"'Is that all you've got in there?" I get asked that question all the time... It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It's the ethnic thing, that's what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there's nothing more important than that."

Case in point: In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, Robert Hughes comes right out and asks, "Have you ever thought of writing about non-Indians?" To which her answer is, actually, "I don't think that way when I'm writing stories. I just write from the point of view of some individual, trying to form a character who happens to be those things." Kera Bolonik's Bookforum interview, by way of comparison, deals with the topic not just by saying, hey, you've got Indians in your stories, but by asking insightful questions about the issues of assimiliation Lahiri writes about, "the growing chasm between the families [her characters] are creating and those in which they grew up."

I'm happy she aired her frustration. It's a Catch-22. Minorities should assimilate and learn how to interact happily with the mainstream society (yes, that's white society if you're a bit slow). However, it's whites who want to myopically focus on race (but of course call it playing the race card when minorities do it.)

This is a world she knows better than most. She's got a talent and can show us what it's like being South Asian while both trying to retain their norms and culture while also trying to assimilate. Why should she NOT write about it? As she asks, would a white author get such a silly question? I mean I can't believe that Nick Hornby writes about white men in Britain and the stuff that they deal with (fun novels BTW). However, when is he going to write about about Asian or African immigrants to the UK? The nerve of writers continuously crafting stories based on things you actually know!

Clearly, some in the media just can't let writers regardless of their race and background write about what they know. (Probably more accurate is they can't be bothered to sit down and actually think of insightful questions.) They like it better when they have a white woman writing about the made up hard life she had in the inner city rather than allowing a writer to tell stories that are drawn from her experiences and culture.

Again, Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. I think she's more than earned the right to not be hounded about writing about a world she knows well.

Another link re Lahiri: Jhumpa Lahiri: The Way Bobos Live Now?

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  1. I thought that the whole pouint fo writing is to speak your personal truth.

    It's beyond dumb that she should be asked to define her writing in such a way.

    Sometimes all I can do is shake my head at the sheer cluelessness of some white people.

  2. Yeah, personal truth is one of the goals.

    But, not always 'cause some people, particularly online, love fraud.

    However, I just can't get over how people of color are asked this when whites are just left free to talk continuously about their world. Yet we're made to think that we should shift our stories to sound more like theirs. That's bloody ridiculous.

    Let this woman write what moves her to write.

  3. Totally agree with you Expat Jane,must all stories contain white characters in order to be successful. I mean Jack London(a racist)didn't have any non-whites in his book and neither do a majority of WASP authors which is fine by me just as long as people of color get to tell their story,a story in which WASPY types probably wouldn't understand.

  4. But this just isn't any writer of color. This is Jhumpa Lahiri who is a Pulitzer Prize winner, so there are some WASPs somewhere who did relate. At least they related enough to realize she's a brilliant writer. I'd also bet the people in her management, literary agent and editor, are WASPs too, as the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white.

    I think WASPs can and do empathize with our issues. They have in the past. I'll just highlight a few that have impacted the experience of black America. Without the help of white abolitionists, white judges in certain key cases and white supporters during the civil rights movement you have to admit the black American struggle would have been much more difficult.

    I think this is more of a media issue where the media is too lazy to actually get into who they're interviewing. They're too lazy to think of good questions and stick with the obvious. When a person isn't white, then questions about race are easy subjects. I'm sure it's also an issue of WASP reporters not getting it on some level 'cause if they did, they'd realize how stupid those sorts of questions are.


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