Born in 1967 in London, to parents of Bengali heritage, Jhumpa Lahiri, like Gogol and Sonia in The Namesake, was raised in New England (although in Rhode Island, rather than Massachusetts, like the Gangulis). She attended Barnard, majoring in English, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University, and then a PhD in Renaissance Studies, also from BU. Her first published book, containing short stories written over many years, is titled Interpreter of Maladies. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Lahiri earns a living both as a fiction writer and as a teacher of creative writing. She is currently on the faculty at Princeton University, where she leads workshops in fiction, and has taught at other colleges in the United States. Lahiri’s fans are many, including the President of the United States, Barack Obama, who in 2014 presented Lahiri with the National Humanities Medal. For several years, Lahiri, her husband Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush (a magazine editor), and their two children lived in Rome.
To the extent that The Namesake tracks the lives of Bengali-Americans living in the Northeastern United States, one might say that the novel is inspired by the facts of Lahiri’s life. But The Namesake is also a work of fiction. Thus, there are important differences between Lahiri’s biography and the stories of the characters she portrays. Foremost among these differences is the decision to base the novel not on one perspective, but on several. The unnamed narrator, who refers to characters in the third person, using he or she, relates the thoughts of Ashima, Ashoke, Moushumi, and Gogol. The characters’ perspectives change as the novel progresses, and sometimes Lahiri’s narrator will move from one character’s mind to another within a single chapter.
The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies are perhaps Lahiri’s best-known works, although each of her publications, including the short-story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008) and the novel The Lowland (2013), has led to significant sales and broad acclaim. Lahiri is known as a writer of immigrant life, especially relating to the experiences of Bengalis living in the United States. But it would be limiting to state that this is Lahiri’s sole preoccupation. Instead, The Namesake tracks a great many other issues: people’s romantic relationships and friendships; the nature of family and loss; and the impact of literature, art, and food on people’s lives. Lahiri, throughout The Namesake, makes reference to the cultural practices not only of Bengalis and Americans, but of Britons and Europeans as well.
The Namesake is a novel of identities—and of the way people shape and change those identities over time. Lahiri draws on a history of English-language and European fiction dating back hundreds of years. She makes use, in particular, of a genre known as the Bildungsroman, or “novel of education,” to track Ashima, Ashoke, and Nikhil/Gogol through time. Lahiri demonstrates how each of these characters grows, falls in love, and suffers misfortune. She depicts them both as members of families and communities and as individuals, with needs and wants that are particular to them. As much as it is a novel about Bengali-American experience, The Namesake is also a novel of what it means to “make” and “name” oneself within a culture, be it American or otherwise.
Lahiri demonstrates these concerns most clearly in the title of the work. Ashoke initially names his son “Gogol,” after Nikolai Gogol, a famous Russian author whose fictions have special importance to Ashoke. For years, Gogol finds his name strange, then a burden. He does not understand why his father wished to name him after a bizarre, impoverished artist, whose stories, like “The Nose,” are often sad, strange, and unlike “real life.” Over time, however, Gogol comes to understand the train-wreck during which his father was reading Gogol’s work. This occurs after Gogol has changed his name to Nikhil, and begun introducing himself this way to friends in college. Thus, just as Gogol feels he has escaped his “burden” of a name, given him by his parents, he begins to understand the importance that that name has for Ashoke and Ashima.
Gogol’s gradual understanding of what “Gogol” means maps onto his development as a student, architect, friend, and romantic partner over many years. The world Lahiri creates both stresses the importance of names and shows that all names, all identities, exist in flux. Gogol becomes Gogol, but by the end of the novel, he finds himself reading Nikolai Gogol in his old home near Boston. When he is a younger man, he wants only to escape the identities he feels are imposed on him by his family. But he learns, over time, to understand the struggles of his parents’ generation, and the differences between those struggles and his own.
The Namesake is as much a reflection of the author’s many cultural and intellectual interests as it is an account of the immigrant experience. More than a book “for” or “about” Bengali-Americans, The Namesake takes up questions salient to any American, in any cultural community.