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Jhumpa Lahiri talks about home

September 12, 2008 |  3:40 pm

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In a 1977 photo, Girl Scout Troop 850 promotes sales of postcards for the local historic jail. Lahiri is in the second row from the top, second from right; Kellogg is the center of the row below.

Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, who's latest book is "Unaccustomed Earth," is one of the contributors to the anthology "State by State," which is featured in today's paper. She spoke to me for the piece, saying yes to the interview, perhaps, because her essay is about moving from tiny Kingston, R.I., to Peace Dale, an adjacent town (also tiny). I grew up there too, in Kingston; we went to elementary school together (and, as you can see, were in Girl Scouts together). These excerpts are from our interview, which took place over the phone just before Labor Day.

Carolyn Kellogg: What made you say yes to this anthology?
Jhumpa Lahiri:
I feel that I’ve written so much fictionally around Rhode Island and just beyond Rhode Island, and I seem to have kind of co-opted Massachusetts for my fictional territory to the point where so many people assume I’m from Boston, which is, you know, not true. Although I did live in Boston for a good number of years.

I kind of wanted to think about the place where I really did grow up. I’ve also been thinking about setting my next fictional work in Rhode Island, so that also helped to motivate me. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe working on the "State by State" piece inspired me to set whatever it is I’m now writing in Rhode Island. I just sort of decided to look at that place, in as honest a way as I could. It’s hard; it’s hard to sum up even in eight or 10 pages, what that kind of experience is like, to grow up in a place. But I tried.

CK: What makes a landmark in a small town?
Jhumpa Lahiri:
If you grow up in a place, and you’re small, even if the place is itself also small, it’s huge, to you. It’s what's out there, it’s the world outside of your door. They were the landmarks. I think that after I moved away, I haven’t lived there for so many years, and when I go back, I see things that, you know, one always takes for granted. Oh, right, that church and the library and this stuff. It’s there, and it has a presence. It may be small and contained, but at the same time it’s very old, and very rich with a particular history, and a sort of, you know, center of that area. And very representative. And I think because they’re not only landmarks, but because I grew up there I had my own relationships with those places, in my own way of taking classes in the library and Girl Scouts in the church and all that stuff that makes it more personal for me. They’re not just places that tourists visit; they’re places that people of the community really enter into in their own ways

More, including photos of the library and the church, after the jump.

Kingcongchurch0912 CK: Is it the place of memory, or not so much?
Jhumpa Lahiri: It’s both. There are things that have stayed very much the same, and places that have developed in ways that are very unrecognizable for me.... I think this is the same for any part of the world at this point.... It felt more rural than anything else. I remember thinking about when I was younger visiting my parents’ friends who lived in the suburbs of Boston that we lived in a very different kind of place. I think that now there is a little bit more of that in the air. It’s attracted more people from other places....

Even now, throughout my life when I’ve gone back, I’ve maintained a nostalgia for Kingston; I really wish my parents had stayed there. Often I’ve told my parents, why don’t you just sell this house and move back to North Road or something? There’s something about those roads, those leafy roads, those houses, that area right around campus — you know what I’m talking about. There’s something about that particular area that has always felt safer to me. I don’t know why.

CK: Do you think it has anything to do with the architecture of place, the solid oldness of the buildings, the leafy trees — the physical environment?
Jhumpa Lahiri:
Yeah, I always preferred that. I always felt, a sort of sense of — I knew my parents came from a different country and they didn’t fit in in all of these ways, but there’s something about occupying an older home — which I do now, in my adult life, I live in an old house in Brooklyn. And I feel like the architecture itself, it absorbs you. It makes you part of a continuum of all of the other people who have lived here before you, all of the other generations and populations and everything. So, you know, maybe there is something about that. That was the case — in Peace Dale. I mean, there was something, to me, unsettling about the fact that we moved to a slightly different area and that we, that our parents built the house, that we sort of watched it go up in front our eyes, and that no one else had lived in it before. It seemed to emphasize our newness and our foreign-ness to the soil of Rhode Island. Maybe in Kingston, those houses, there’s a comfort behind the history for me.

CK: Talk a little bit about the idea of defining a home — you said in an interview that you didn’t really have a childhood home to go back to. Are you re-owning Rhode Island?
Jhumpa Lahiri:
I did, I do have a childhood home…. But I never felt fully at home in that home [in Peace Dale]. I never felt fully comfortable in that home, for whatever reason. I think because as a child and as an adolescent I was always questioning who we were and what we were doing there I was also always — I always felt somehow that it wasn’t quite right, something wasn’t quite right about how we lived and how we occupied the house and all that. In that sense I don’t have — I guess my childhood home has never been the equivalent of a solid rock place; it was always more of a blurry place for me. Yes, I lived there, I slept there, I ate there, I watched TV there, I did my homework there, all of those things happened there. I think — to be honest, as an adult, what I see now, what I recognize now, what I think I understand now, is that my parents, who were the people who, the adults in the house who owned the house and created the life in the house; they didn’t think of the house as their home. And I think it’s hard for children to feel at home in a place where their parents don’t feel at home, and where their parents are always remarking on the fact that it’s not their home. I know now, I feel now as a parent of two kids, because I feel so much more at home in my house now, as an adult, than I ever did when I was a kid in Rhode Island, I imagine my children will have a different relationship to this house. That they will sort of accept it and not question it in the way that I was always questioning that house.

CK: In the essay you write about going to work in the library. Were you conscious of following in your dad’s footsteps? [He works in the library at the University of Rhode Island.]Kingfreelib0912_2
Jhumpa Lahiri:
My father encouraged me to work in the library, just because it was the world that he knew. But I also wanted to do it. I also wanted to work in the library and be part of the library somehow, because it represented a world that really wasn’t represented in my home, and I wanted it to be. I always wanted to grow up in a house full of books, English books, and I wanted the sort of fireplaces that worked, overstuffed chairs, that whole kind of fantasy of a bookish New England life. So the library gave me that, for the hours that I was there I was surrounded by that atmosphere that I craved in my life. Exposed me to books, to readers, to reading, that I didn’t get in my own family’s life in the same way. My mother always read, but she read Bengali books, and it seemed well what were they? I can’t even read them. And she never talked about them. It was a very cryptic activity, her reading. So that’s what I really loved about the library.

CK: You also write about performing in plays. Did you actually enjoy doing theater? Or was there nothing else to do?
Jhumpa Lahiri:
I enjoyed it. I think I was a kid and I had the friends I had and I grew interested in things because  of the people I knew and the friends I had. I think one of the things that attracted me about theater and the stage was the ability to escape reality. And that is what I do in my work as a writer, but in a different way. And the freedom to put your own existence on ice and become another person. Which is something that an actor does literally, and I think that writers do it also but in a non-performative way. I enjoyed those aspects of it. You know, I was hopeless at any kind of sport, I didn’t feel like.... I couldn’t sign up for some kind of athletic club, so I enjoyed it on all of those levels. As I got older, I do remember feeling frustrated that I wasn’t chosen for roles that I wanted because of the way I looked, and so then I started to get more and more discouraged, and I sort of moved into the backstage realm of theater and plays. But I always enjoyed it, theater is drama, it’s literature, it’s words and stories. It did feed something in me, some need to escape, to imagine, to playact, to role-play, to get out of my mind and my body, and to be able to pretend to do something else.

— Carolyn Kellogg

1977 photo by the Narragansett Times. Used with permission. Other photos by Carolyn Kellogg.

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