My Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.


LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.


COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.


It's highly disappointing to see a successful person falling all over themselves in an identity crisis, particularly with regard to race and culture.

Is it too much to expect that people would consider their language and culture to be that which is predominant in the place where they grew up? Why is there some aversion in dark skinned people to believe they are a part of a culture formed by whites many centuries ago. If I raised my girls in Africa, should they feel disconnected from their environment and neighbors?

I was born in Canada, the son of Polish immigrants and of Jewish religion/ethnicity. My wife is Lithuanian. Why don't we suffer from this lack of identity?

Err, my reply for some reason didn't reply to this comment but as a stand-alone comment. Apologies.

I am not familiar with this woman or her books, but she seems to be saying that she identifies more with the area and town she grew up in and less with the state that this area happens to be in. She did not mention race or ancestry. What's your interpretation?

I admit I may have misinterpreted what she said or meant.

"If I raised my girls in Africa, should they feel disconnected from their environment and neighbors?"

If they are raised by American parents, I don't think they will get a typical (whatever specific African culture you have in mind) upbring, much less experience the surrounding culture in a typical way. Wether you call it being disconect is your call - I never heard it called it that way when it is Whites or non-Muslim Asians doing it. Apparently it is only being disconnected when "dark-skinned" people do it.

I referred to the experiences of disconnect with Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews, all of which are all white. I don't believe the sentiment is melanin specific. But I do hear more complaints about racism from non white people than I believe came from those other groups.

Well, I have seen lots of Asians and Europeans (and their children) who never "connected" to the wider Brazilian culture, never were expected to and would be shocked (and so would we) if they were told they had to (I doubt children of American missionaries in China in the early 20 th Century were expected to "connect" with the Chinese culture in any meaningful way). When I was young, the Pomerans in my birth state were allowed free rein to keep their culture and identity as much as they wanted. Even today, I doubt most of them speak Portuguese at home. The laws concerning official language were barely applied back then and I doubt they are applied today. The "Germans" in my state were famous for their harsh - or maybe simply strict in a "tough way" - way of raising their children - sending them to school even when they were somewhat ill and the like. Except during the Fascist regime (1937-1945) and during a short backlash after the Japanese Uprising, the Japanese and the Germans kept their separate schools - if they were willing to fund them - and newspapers. At last one Brazilian president was raised speaking Goethe's language.

Again, I can not imagine preying on other people just because they want to keep their cultures and traditions.

Most of the state department experts on China were children of missionaries. Then again China is a far more compelling country than Brazil so experiences may differ. In China the pinnacle of art isn't a parade float.

So the children of early 20 th Century missionaries, many of them famous people whose lives are a matter of public record, became all Confucians, right? Oh, God. Seriously, Americsnracism are gerting weirder and weirder.

* American racism is getting weirder and weirder.
I am pretty sure Ms/Mrs Lahiri could serve as a specialist in American culture (well, if the word "culture" can be used so carelessly of course). So what?

"Then again China is a far more compelling country than Brazil so experiences may differ. In China the pinnacle of art isn’t a parade float."

We are nit as sophisticate as your Chinese friends, I gather. As anyone can tell you, murderingAmerican missionaries and killing American young men in Korea is the pinnacle of human achievement. But who cares about it when one can buy shirts?

As a Canadian and someone who also shares partially a similar background to Lahiri, I am going to respond in a manner to this that is probably foolishly personal and honest for a comment section that is so vitrol-laden.

A)Some of us come/escape from countries where we were already outsiders, minorities or pariahs - its logical to feel caution even after you make it to safety.

B) More importantly, being part of the community is a two-way street. Given your own ancestry and the Jewish experience in Europe, I'd think you appreciate how fragile the ability to be part of the nation or community is, no matter how hard you try to be part of it.

Being non-white or "dark-skinned" as you refer to it, means you can't blend in and makes this fragility more apparent. I've been to small towns in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes - I've gotten both friendly and unfriendly stares and looks, the fact is you look different.

C)The fact that one can acknowledge and appreciate this tension and anxiety doesn't mean "dark-skinned people" have an aversion to being part of North American culture anymore than films about the Irish, Italian and Jewish experience in New York mean those communities don't feel American.

In some ways, it may be necessary to acknowledge and apprecaite the tension or difference to become part of the community.

D) Growing up in the Toronto Area, I've had friends of 1st and 2nd generation Polish, Italian and Eastern European descent proudly display their heritage. "Cakers" is a term many Canadians of Southern European descent use for Anglos. So, I suggest it may not be just dark-skinned people that fall victim to this.

E) Your question about raising daughters in Africa may be answered by the struggles of Albert Camus during the Algerian Civil War and his inabiltiy to be considered a proud Algerian of European Descent, thanks to nationalist forces in Algeria and in France.


You give a fair response and i shall endeavor to do the same.

B. You are correct that i did not have the experience of fruitlessly trying to "blend in." Ill admit that there may be difficulties beyond my comprehension, but i invite you to accept that the difficulties perceived by darker skinned people may be non-existent or greatly exaggerated. Instances of racism are clearly dispiriting, but like terrorism the actual incidence of such events can be far less than is perceived. If you suffered one racist comment every day, this would cause real psychic harm despite being the actions of only an infinitesimal other people you encounter. How much words hurt is difficult to gauge and are, for some people, at worst an irritant.

A. I suspect that being an outcast in India is far more severe than being the only indian in your town in Canada or the US. The obvious distinctions are the public goods of prosperity, opportunity, law enforcement, property rights, sanitation, etc. Being poor and isolated in the West is fairly comfortable.

C. The Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews etc coming to America DID face discrimination, segregation, and hardship. They DID culturally isolate themselves both as a form of mutual protection AND for social comfort. It took centuries for them to dissolve in the melting pot. Meanwhile South Carolina and Louisiana - two of the most seemingly racist states - both have Indian governors.

E. I have little doubt that we would have adjustment problems in Africa and Asia where Caucasians are viewed with suspicion at best and hatred at worst. My point is not how we are treated but how we form our sense of identity. Would we and should we see ourselves as 'African' or forever hold ourselves out to be Americans? I would think id be more eager to call myself an African if i had been persecuted in America, but thats just me.

To me, the sentiment of this author and yourself strike me as a self-inflicted wound of race consciousness. While i see nothing inherently wrong with maintaining cultural heritage, i consider it a hobby, not an identity. I have little in common with Polish Jews despite the fact my parents dealt with that hardship directly. I am grateful that they left Poland so that i could NOT experience that.

'but i invite you to accept that the difficulties perceived by darker skinned people may be non-existent or greatly exaggerated'

Because otherwise, you would actually have to accept what darker skinned people say. Better to imagine a colorblind world than have anyone tell you it isn't so.

Either way your hard left white view point doesn't matter. White leftism is dead the future belongs to minority leftism and white center-right nationalism.

You mean I am required to accept unsupported and self-serving claims?

My law school professors would be aghast.

The can't blend in argument is a form of special pleading in my book. How long do you think a 12 year old kid from Texas was able to blend in in Belgium? Until the first time I had to speak. So what exactly is the value of blending in if we aren't talking about animals. For social beings skin color grants you a temporary reprieve from ostracism at best.

I would say the vast majority of Belgian i encountered were either sullenly neutral or jerks to me during my four years there yet it would never occur to me to resent Belgium nor if a Belgian were to engage me in a friendly conversation would I launch forth a stream of crocodile tears about my time there. Much less would I expect the Belgium to effusively soak up my contempt.

Being an expat is very different from being an immigrant. As the former, you can probably tolerate being treated differently as you know "home" exists somewhere else and you are going to return there soon. Lahiri probably did not have that luxury.

For my part, I should state that I spent almost a decade in the US (grad school and work) and never perceived any American treating me differently because of the way I looked (I'm Indian.) But then, I'm a rather introverted, borderline Arperger-y, person who is completely indifferent to these things. On the other hand, kids can be both discriminating and hypersensitive, so I'm guessing a number of dark-skinned immigrants in America simply have lingering bitterness from being excluded from activities (or even bullied around) in the school playground.

More special pleading. Home is where you make it.

If the immigration policies I prefered where implemented it is likely her home would be India. More than that if it's a lack of home that harmed her, her resentment should be directed at her parents. And frankly that's how my father encouraged me to look at the negative effects of living in Belgium (a country to which I'm nonetheless extremely sympathetic and wouldn't have any trouble naming as the setting for any book I wrote). He said that i shouldn't "blame" Belgium, but blame him for making the career choice. It is after all their country.

You are talking a language I don't care for, or even understand at some level. Who is pleading for what exactly? I just offered a possible explanation of why Lahiri may feel the way she does. If every explanation of a phenomenon you dislike sounds like pleading, it is you who who have a problem.

And where exactly was Lahiri blaming the US for anything? She's a bleeping writer, for God's sake. Expressing her thoughts and feelings through writings is part of her job description. So she feels she doesn't necessarily belong anywhere. So what? Why does that bother you so much? Has that somehow made here an anti-social person? Or un-American? Why do the thoughts and feelings in the deep recesses of someone's heart bother you alt-right people so much?

From your other comments here, its clear that your ideological priors are doing more work than my writing is if you think I have any resentment, contempt or crocodile tears for my country.

I'm very grateful (!) to have grown up where I did and I'm very lucky to be doing better than most people (across the melanin spectrum) in my country are.

I was simply discussing why that sense of homelessness may occur, and why it doesn't mean a person can't be still proud or connected if they acknowledge it.

By the way, you may appreciate or miss that temporary reprieve once you find yourself in South Chicago at night or if you were a Sikh man being beaten to death because you were mistaken for a Muslim.

I was referring to the interview which is the subject of this post. The one in which the author explains that she was so "traumatized" by her experiences that she wasn't even able to name Rhode Island in her first few novels.

I'm unclear at how my white skin would help me in particular at night in South Chicago and its lamentable that all of one Sikh was mistaken for a Muslim and killed, but neither seems like a particularly convincing counter argument. Being white during the Sepoy Mutiny was misforuanate too. Care to generalize from that incident?

Indians in the USA suffer an almost imperceptible level of murder in the USA. Any murdered Indian in the USA is almost certainly murdered by a fellow Indians. If 2nd generation Indians are going to insist on feeling resentful why not resent their parents that brought them here? Because that doesn't accrue status points.

Find myself in South Chicago? Did I ever mention what I did for work in the mid 80s and much of the 90s?

The lack of a home country never made me feel homeless. Home has always been directly beneath my feet. I don't speak more than ten words of Polish. I converted to Catholicism. I care far more about where I'm going than where I came from. I don't dare feel entitled and persecuted because one set of my grandparents were killed by Nazis and the other set by Stalin. That's their tragedy. My parents fled for a better life in the West, and I'm fortunate to be here.

I find your appeal to ideology disturbing. Why is my sense of comfort with my American home an artifact of ideology? Or might my ideology stem from that comfort?

Why is the discomfort of a brown person in America that is consistent with the underprivileged race narrative non-ideological?

1) The vast majority of humans don't consider home as a concept to be adopted and discarded, like a new set of clothes, which makes your approach fundamentally dependent on the acceptance of others. If tomorrow you were to take a job in another culture (say Dubai), could you really proclaim yourself to be Emirati? And if natives in both countries grasped the shallowness of your loyalties, why in turn should they trust you?

2) The trauma and total destruction of your past makes the consideration of an alternate identity much less plausible. There are few Polish Jews left, and the culture that remains is too remote and insignificant to serve as an identity, especially when you can subsume into the far more appealing worldview of white America.

3) Lahiri's identity crisis - and comfort - stems from the dilemmas of "submission". Does one submit and take confort in the culture of one's highly contingent, individual experience - or do they return to the protection of an old culture, which after all contains their parents, extended family, friends and associates across civil society, history and yes - a popular culture with people who look like them. Accepting partial affinity is more honest, but comes with a bit of loneliness sometimes.

My humble opinion is that immigrants have it much easier than Third Culture Kids. For immigrants, its essentially a one way street, for TCKs its much more complicated.

It was really hard for me - until I realized that we're all alone in this world, life's a bitch and then you die, however else you want to frame it.

I am not sure in what period Willitts's parents left Poland, but in my personal experience (a Polish Jew who kept moving to and from Poland throughout childhood and early adulthood), reports of Polish antisemitism are greatly exaggerated. I say this with ancestors who have the most blue chip martyrdom credentials (concentration camps, victims of March 68).

By far the most underappreciated form of bigotry that I experienced was anti-Polinism in the UK - since you can't label it as racism, its an escape valve where all the pent up hatred and frustration seems to be directed at.

My father and mother emigrated to Canada in 1954 and 1958, respectively. They didn't speak often about maltreatment in Poland, but their religion was a large part of why they were able to leave. Let's just say no one discouraged them.

Let me guess - Ms. Lahiri was too articulate and elegant to be subjected to a round of "overrated or underrated".

I got the feeling that there was a continuous flow of thought-provoking questions and a certain thesis Prof TC had about her writings and any break to get to overrated or underrated would have been jarring. Doubt it had to with articulation and elegance.

I am biased , being of Indian origin and having read and admired all her books ( including the ones translated from Italian) , but as TC says , this was one of the very best conversations.

What is it precisely that celebrate March 17th?
Successful assimilation, yet persistently insistent we're still unique?
An eager embrace of the commercialization of a stereotype?

Not permitting others the complexity of their own experiences and feelings is truly a peculiar form of selfishness.

Do women suffer identity crises more than men? (And I am excluding male midlife ones that are driven by spousal menopause.)

I was afraid this had been cancelled!

Very well done interview. Previous commenters who talk in a negative way about her alienation from Rhode Island may have missed some clues - she **wanted** to be one of the girls who wore the expensive sneakers that were markers of social happiness back in the day in her Rhode Island - even the supreme nostalgists of the twentieth century rarely expressed that sort of envy or jealousy for their "schoolmates" (a word she used and which I do not think actually exists as an American word - and I think she knows it - writers are complicated!). And who among us, had we grown up female in Rhode Island in those years, would not have remembered not being able to wear the cool girl sneakers? Some of us, I am sure, but not all of us. The scene where she saw a Norton Tolstoy and a Norton Dostoyevsky in her older sister's little collection of grown-up college student books, and felt a pull towards whatever genius was therein, was well expressed. No underrated/overrated section, but Domenic Starnone, W.S. Merwin, the late Mark Strand, and Melville and his Italian translator Pavese get call-outs (as underrated, I guess). The comments about her parents buying rare well-written books from far-off Bengal, bookstore to rickshaw to slow boat to New England, were touching, reminding me of the passion for samizdat literature in the Russia I tangentially knew in the Brezhnev days, or the similar passion for genuine Russian books in the Mid-Atlantic region amongst Russians and Russophiles in the Reagan years.

Jhumpa was born just as the Naxalite movement (a Maoist insurrection against the established Communist and Socialist parties) was getting under way. She was four when the Bangladesh war broke out and eight when the Bangladeshi President was assassinated and Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency in which the leading Communist party in Bengal was targeted.
All these traumatic events affected the Bengali bhadralok (bildungsburgertum) disproportionately and, it may be, Jhumpa's melancholy tone reflects a childhood in which her father was preoccupied by the fate of his own class of idealistic scholars. Gayatri Spivak's trajectory, in the late Seventies and Eighties, suggests that the expat Bengali saw Reagan and Thatcher as being part of the same cultural disaster that had beset their own people. At the same time, not just Literary Theory but Literary Culture was being severely downgraded not least because Spivak and Bhabha and Guha and so on were writing outright nonsense little better than Sokal's famous spoof article. Indeed, since Sokal was both a genuine Leftist and Scientist, his spoof was actually more cogent. Earlier generations of cultured Bengali intellectuals had fared better in the US. The phrase 'speak truth to power'- now associated with paranoid Foucauldian gesture politics- is associated with a Quaker publication which featured an idealistic Bengali Professor of the Swami Vivekananda type. Sadly, the public space for Amiya Chakravarty type high minded scolding has shrunk. Furthermore, kids born in the Reagan era are smart and have a sense of humor and don't want to write boring witless crap. Instead they go on TV and do well- like Mindy Kaling or Aziz Ansari (both South Indians, not Bengalis) and this just goes to show how like Capitalism is totally evil and rotting old Calcutta is so much superior from a truly moral point of view.

Well, this is the 1st Conversation with Tyler I feel I didn't understand it. Did Tyler made very specific questions about her books? Other interviews are more general or Tyler makes a better introduction to the people being interviewed? What happened this time?

Also, I work a lot with maps and was a bit surprised Tyler used Calcutta instead of Kolkata.

Anyway, this conversation left me intrigued about Agota Kristof. I've seen posters with her name in local theaters but never curious enough to see a play of hers. Reading a bit about her work I can tell why she was appreciated in Neuchâtel. I'm still coming to terms with the Swiss taste of art that leaves unsettling feelings after watching/reading. But, perhaps the Swiss are intelligent consumers.Theater is a good format, 60-90 minutes of disturbing things and you go back to your cozy home, a book means far more hours of things that leave you worried.

Transcript has been corrected to reflect the official name of Kolkata--thanks.


"Again, from my mother I inherited, received, learned to appreciate Indian classical music."

For a south Indian, it is very irritating to hear "Indian classical music" used to refer to only the North Indian form.

Aside: based on the limited information in the interview and earlier marginal revolution posts, I would make limited-confidence conjectures that TC has better taste in (north) Indian classical than her.

This probably just reveals my lack of being well-cultured (whatever that means) but this was the first Conversation with Tyler that I quit before the end (I technically made it to the end of Camille Paglia but I spaced out on the drive to the airport and didn't really absorb anything). I didn't even make it 15 minutes. Am I alone here?

For reference some of my favorite conversations so far were Fuschia Dunlop, Margalit Fox, and Ezra Klein.

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