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Jhumpa Lahiri was born in 1967 in London, England, and raised in Rhode Island. Her father and mother, a librarian and teacher, respectively, had emigrated from Calcutta, India, and Lahiri spoke Bengali with them at home. As Lahiri grew up, she never felt fully American because of her parents’ deep ties to India, her own frequent visits there, and the fact that she was born in another country altogether. As a child, Lahiri wrote stories and short novels and for her school newspaper, but she never seriously considered writing as a true path. For most of her young adulthood, Lahiri didn’t write at all, starting again only when she graduated from Barnard College, where she studied literature, and began figuring out what she should do next. Although she continued to write fiction and publish stories in small literary journals, Lahiri pursued three master’s degrees, in English, creative writing, and comparative studies, as well as a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies, at Boston University.
In 1998, Lahiri was accepted to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, an esteemed arts center that supports emerging and established writers and artists by providing them with short residencies that allow them time to work exclusively on their art. In the same year, she published “A Temporary Matter” in the New Yorker and began to garner immense critical praise. She went on to publish two more stories in the magazine within a one-year period, “Sexy” and “The Third and Final Continent.” These stories eventually became part of the nine-story collection Interpreter of Maladies, which Lahiri published in 1999.
Interpreter of Maladies was Lahiri’s first book and an immediate success. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, making Lahiri the first person of South Asian descent to win an individual Pulitzer Prize. Her collection triumphed over the work of two established writers—Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx, and Waiting, by Ha Jin. The title story, “Interpreter of Maladies,” won an O. Henry Award for Best American Short Stories and was included in the anthology Best American Short Stories in 1999.
Although Lahiri never lived in India, her frequent visits to Calcutta familiarized her with the city, and she chose to marry there in 2001. Most of Lahiri’s work focuses on the lives of Indian Americans, and the stories in Interpreter of Maladies are set in India or parts of the United States, including Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an unnamed university town very much like Cambridge. In her stories, characters come together for reasons that are not intimate and wind up finding themselves in intimate situations. For example, in “Interpreter of Maladies,” the two main characters find themselves together in a car because one of them hires the other as a tour guide. Other stories in the collection involve a landlady and her tenants, an after-school caretaker and her ward, and a married couple in crisis. Lahiri tells many of the stories through the unexpected narrative perspective of someone who is not closely related to the person under observation. Few of the stories involve dramatic plot lines, although most involve the aftershocks of some major life-changing event, such as an affair, a miscarriage, or immigration.
India looms large in each story, although its influence varies in each story as it does in each character’s life. India is a country of linguistic diversity. The central government uses both Hindi and English, as is required by the Indian constitution, and an additional twenty-two languages are recognized as official languages of India. By some counts, there are more than 400 languages spoken in India, while others prefer to say that there are more than 2,000 dialects. Indians have immigrated to the United States in astonishing numbers since the 1960s. Largely well educated and highly skilled, Indian immigrants come for a variety of reasons, but often to seek work in technological fields. Indian Americans now constitute the third-largest Asian American community in the United States.
In 2003, Lahiri published her second book, The Namesake, and continues to publish individual short stories. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children.