Learning from Lahiri

I recently had the opportunity to hear Jhumpa Lahiri in Toronto being interviewed about and reading from her new novel “The Lowland.” I look forward to reading it because I have just finished and enjoyed Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories “Interpreter of Maladies.”

Two things struck me about these exposures to Lahiri and her writing.

Firstly, her work to date is grounded in the immigrant experience much like her own life as a person born in Calcutta, raised for a portion of her childhood in London, and then settled with her family on a more permanent basis in the United States. There are clear autobiographical elements in her writing in terms of cultural displacement, family dynamics, social values and mores. This intrigues me as a writer. I have published a memoir “August Farewell” and a novel “Searching for Gilead” and am currently at work on a collection of short stories “Booktales.” My memoir is, by definition, autobiographical but the novel is largely fictional with a few elements of what I call semi-fictionalized biography. The short stories that I’m working on now are significantly more distant from my real life in both subject matter and tone. I am endlessly fascinated by discussions within the literary community about the degree to which we draw on our own lives and the degree to which we write exclusively from our imagination.

Secondly, Lahiri is an exceptionally skilled writer of short stories. I found the stories in the “Interpreter of Maladies” collection to be little jewels, each telling a satisfyingly coherent mini-drama that in turn evoked a much larger panorama of universal human experience. Some of the initial reviews of “The Lowland” suggest that Lahiri’s skill does not generalize to the bigger canvas, the New York Times noting that “Lahiri’s work always seems much more assured within the tighter confines of the short story than the novel.” Just as with the question of autobiographical sources, I am personally engaged with the issue of skills related to different genres. After writing my novel “Searching for Gilead”, I intentionally chose a collection of short stories as my next writing project. I wanted to challenge myself to continue growing in the craft of writing and to set myself a task that would push me. Beyond the obvious differences of length, I’ve discovered not surprisingly that writing short stories requires a different set of skills than writing a novel.

I’m indebted to Jhumpa Lahiri for helping me think more deeply about these issues.

* * *

For information of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, see: http://amzn.to/19HRKK6

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, see my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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