Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Lahiri

One of my favorite authors is Jhumpa Lahiri. Born of Benghali immigrants in London, she moved with her family to the U.S. when she was just three. Her stories and novels are set mostly in the United States, focusing on first- and second-generation Americans. Her first story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize, while her first novel, The Namesake, was adapted into a movie. But it's her next collection, Unaccustomed Earth, that is my favorite of hers.

In an interview with The Atlantic Magazine, Lahiri is asked about her approach to short stories versus her approach to novels:

I don't make a huge distinction in terms of what they require because I think an idea is either working or it isn't. And it can work—or not—at long or short or medium length. It depends on what the story I want to tell needs. I always think first about the nature of the story. When I had the idea for The Namesake, I felt that it had to be a novel—it couldn't work as a story. With this new book [Unaccustomed Earth], as opposed to the first collection, I worked on many of the stories for years while they kept evolving and evolving and evolving. One difference is that in The Namesake each piece was contributing to a larger whole.

Lahiri's style doesn't seem to change from short story to novel. She creates interesting and complex characters and describes them in prose that is "un-self-conscious." She says,

I like [my writing] to be plain. It appeals to me more. There's form and there's function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn't comfortable. I don't want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can.

This statement is extremely appealing to me as a writer-in-training. I love the idea of plainness as a virtue. "Plain" is not a synonym for "boring" or "simple." Rather, I take it to mean (borrowing from William Zinsser) stripping the writing of superfluous adjectives and adverbs, those "adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence."


Karen Walker said...

She is one of my favorite authors as well. Thanks for sharing some of her thoughts about writing. Also, very nice to "meet" you on the a-z challenge.

AllMyPosts said...


I never heard of the author. Thanks for the info.

"Plainness" as a virtue for author? It is important. You can't expect everyone to be a oxford genius to understand some stupid phrasing. Better simple and straight to point than being idiotic right??

with warm regards
CatchyTips for Writers

Angela Felsted said...

Plain is unpretentious, clear, and to the point.

August said...

Thanks Karen, AllMyPosts. Angela, that's a great definition!