Friday, February 27, 2009

Shifting Angles of Interpretation: Reading Jhumpa Lahiri

Posted by Todd Pierce on February 27, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of our finest short story writers. She has won such prestigious awards as the O.Henry, Pen/Hemingway and the Pulitzer Prize for her novel the Namesake. Her most recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, will be released in paperback this April.

I recently began reading Jhumpa Lahiri after buying her most recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Since then I have closely read most of her work—if not repeatedly so. I believe Lahiri is a distinctive writer because of the way in which she can rapidly change the moods and perspectives of her characters in a subtle yet deceptive manner.

She achieves this effect with the combination of her balanced prose style and abrupt turns of thought. For example, the following two sentences in the excerpt below are roughly the same length, yet the second abruptly contradicts the first, producing a jarring effect:

There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.

This passage surprised me in both a pleasant and disturbing way. Ruma, one of the main characters from the title story of Unaccustomed Earth, first claims that she has ironically become “closer to her mother in death,” implying that new life is generated from her grief—but she then abruptly negates herself in the second sentence, claiming that this newly created “intimacy” is actually an “illusion.”

Such moments or epiphanies often permeate Lahiri’s work, but more importantly, they create a complex and ambivalent tension. This feature of her writing, in turn, is intensified by the way Lahiri structures this longest story in her collection: it is nearly sixty pages and is divided into twenty sections; these sections rotate between the two main characters, daughter and father, so that the perspective is always changing.

This structuring technique was appealing in that it allowed me to experience the shifting perspectives of the characters, whose moods and thoughts are constantly changing; I was thus able to participate in the process of how the daughter and father change their perceptions of each other as the story progresses to the point where I felt I had become a character myself in this complex interplay between daughter and father. The oscillating structure of the story, then, enabled me to empathize with their predicament of how they cope with the loss of the mother.

This great absence affects each of the characters in contrasting ways and thus creates distance and misunderstanding between each other; for instance, Ruma feels a renewed sense of grief when her father visits her because she has difficulty separating the image of the father from her mother. Her mother’s absence, then, is intensified with the presence of her father, especially since her father is unable to offer the emotional support she needs as she has become a mother and wife herself. What disturbs Ruma even more is that he appears happier now that her mother is gone: “Though it upset her to admit it, if anything, he seemed happier now; her mother’s death had lightened him, the opposite of what it had done to her.”

Ruma is then right—to some extent; her father is relieved in that he is free from the obligations of having a wife and family. This situation seems even more apparent as the father reflects on the fact that he actually did not really love his wife—even though he did greatly respect her. His apparent contentment, though, as perceived by Ruma, does not reflect the internal conflict that he experiences once again in relation to his wife; for example, when he first encounters Ruma at her home he found that she “resembled…his wife so strongly that he could not bear to look at her directly.” This encounter and ensuing visit, then, actually haunts him in that it evokes his more conflicted memories of raising a family, especially those associated with the hardships his wife and young children endured while he was earning his PhD.

His emotional states, then, seem to oscillate like the structure of the story itself; this structure or pattern (as suggested before) permeates the entire story so that it becomes difficult for the characters to know themselves or each other. In turn, this effect makes it difficult for readers to make certain or stable interpretations on the characters. For instance, on a first reading, I found the father extremely aloof and evasive through the perspective of Ruma; on further readings, however, my perspective changed when interpreting the situation through the perspective of the father. The way in which Lahiri structures her story, then, allows her readers see the characters in a more rounded and complex way.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kepler's Writer's Group February 28, 2009 Meeting

Dear Writers,

The next Kepler's Writer's Group meeting will take place on Saturday, February 28th, 2009, from 3:00-5:00 pm at our new location, located just one block from Kepler's Books. Diane H. has a great space for our writer's group. Think beautiful Victorian mansion, a wonderful, inspiring room...More details available to those who confirm their attendance with Aggie at

Please be sure to read the manuscripts and prepare your comments. If you don't have the material yet, contact me and I'll forward it to you by e-mail.

Here is the agenda I'd like to establish for the upcoming February meeting:

3:00-3:15 Meeting at Kepler's and proceeding to our new location (5 minutes short walk)
3:15-3:30 Introductions and announcements
3:30-3:50 1st manuscript group discussion
3:50-4:00 Author feedback/questions
4:00-4:20 2nd manuscript group discussion
4:20-4:30 Author feedback/questions
4:30-5:00 3rd manuscript group discussion or other writing topics

I hope to see a lot of you!


If you have a question, comment or suggestion, please use the comment box below.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Vagrants at Kepler's

On February 9th, 2009 Kepler's welcomed the award- winning author Yiyun Li, reading from her acclaimed novel The Vagrants. Li is also the author of the story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which won the inaugural Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award among others.

Irish writer Colm Toibin said about Yiyun's writing: "What concerns her most is the large matter of love, in all its twists and turns, and disappointment in all its strange variations, and levels of deep emotion and attachment buried in silence and misunderstanding."

In her recent FORUM interview with Michael Krasny, Yiyun Li said that all of her stories are stories about love. In "The Vagrants," she tells one of the most unusual love stories I have ever read, between a young disturbed man Bashi and Nini, a 12-year-old scavenger girl with a limp.

During Q&A session, Li passionately defended Bashi's controversial character, "If you read the book, you'll see, Bashi was capable of loving. He broke my heart in the end."

Yiyun Li in conversation with Rick Trushel, a member of Kepler's Writing Group.

Yiyun Li signs a copy of her book for Frank Sanchez, Kepler's head buyer.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese read at Kepler's on Thursday, February 5th, 2009.

More than 200 fans celebrated the publication of Dr. Verghese's first novel "Cutting for Stone," the best book I have read in years.

Andre Dubus III once said that, "What's so terrifying about the writing process is that it really is an art of exploration and discovery. With all of us, not just writers, there is a sort of knowledge of the other. We have a lot more in common than we realize, and I think writing is really a sustained act of empathy. The job description for the author is to imagine the lives of others."

Nobody does that better than Dr. Verghese, his compassion, empathy and nobility are so extraordinary that this book not only provides the words of comfort, but also a place for us to go, a homeland, to which one can return. This book will stay on my night table for a long, long time -- I cannot wait to start re-reading it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Let It Be

My posting of a few days ago made Jeff think about the use of be in sentences like Be it white or red, I like wine. "What is that?" he wrote. "Is that subjunctive, too?"

Yes, it is. On occasion we use be to convey that what we're talking about isn't presently happening -- in the case of your example, the wine in your sentence isn't now in your glass. Your use of "Be it" is short for "Whether it be," referring to a moment that isn't actually on the calendar.

We also use be inside ideas that follow suggest, recommend, ask, require, and demand. For instance,

The experts suggest (recommend, ask, require, demand) that we be careful when choosing a bottle of wine.

And we use be after words like important, imperative, critical, or crucial:

It's important (imperative, critical, crucial) that the wine be produced in a reputable region.

Some of us (and this is generational, I fear) use be after lest:

Lest you be fooled by an attractive bottle, read each label carefully.

Our use of subjunctive in all these instances makes a certain sense, for the clauses in question contain actions that are not presently occurring. But why do we use be (instead of were) to convey that message? The only distinction I can see is that actions depicted by be all live in the future, whereas actions represented by were reside (hypothetically, anyway) in the here-and-now. When we say "Lest I be late," we mean in the future; when we say "If I were late," we mean at the present moment. Apparently, that difference in time zone is reason enough to switch from were to be.

In case you are beginning to understand all of this, let's mix it up by looking at Shakespeare's use of be to indicate the present: "If music be the food of love, play on." Patrick Henry used be in the same way: "If this be treason, make the most of it." Those uses of be are short for "is considered to be," which is passive but present indicative (not subjunctive). There's still a hint of "I don't necessarily consider it such," but that innuendo comes to us via the passive voice, not subjunctive mood.

Most of us don't use be in the way that Shakespeare and Henry used it; we use it only inside ideas conveying advice or avoidance of unpleasant possibilities ("He recommends we be on time," "It's imperative that you be vigilant," "Lest I be considered greedy"). When there's an alternative involved, as in "Be it red or white," we often go for whether and present tense: "Whether it's red or white, I like wine." (That use of present tense means "all the time" or "true in general," rather than "happening now." )

If this be confusing, don't worry about it. Whenever be indisputably belongs in one of your sentences, it will knock loudly and wait confidently for you to open the door. Any word that raps lightly and then disappears isn't worth running after.

More questions? Don't be shy -- click on "Comments."