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Writer Jhumpa Lahiri looks at the camera for a portrait

Writer Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri's new novel is The Namesake. Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies, her collection of short stories. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. The Namesake is about being an Indian immigrant in America, when the Ganguli family leaves Calcutta and settles in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

20:19

Other segments from the episode on September 4, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 4, 2003: Interview with Garrison Keillor; Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri; Review of Dave Holland Quintet album "Extended Play: Live at Birdland."

Transcript

DATE September 4, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Garrison Keillor on his writing career and new book,
"Love Me"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Garrison Keillor has a new novel called "Love Me," and it's his first book of
fiction since 1993 that isn't set in Lake Wobegon. "Love Me" is about a
writer from Minnesota who has always dreamed of writing for The New Yorker.
After his first novel becomes a surprise best-seller, he leaves Minnesota and
his wife, moves to a Manhattan apartment and fulfills his dream of writing for
the magazine. But his second novel flops, he faces a colossal writer's block
and ends up writing a newspaper advice column.

Garrison Keillor is, of course, the creator and host of Public Radio's "A
Prairie Home Companion," which often has sketches and monologues set in his
fictional prairie town of Lake Wobegon. Several of his books have been
best-sellers. He's also written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. And he
used to write an advice column for the online magazine Salon under the name
Mr. Blue, the same pen name his character uses.

Let's start with a reading from "Love Me." In this chapter, the writer, Larry
Wyler, has just moved to Manhattan and is beginning his first day at The New
Yorker.

Mr. GARRISON KEILLOR: (Reading) `25 West 43rd Street, an address emblazoned
in the brain of every ambitious, young English major in America. We wrote the
address on an envelope in big, neat block letters on the odd chance that the
editors might pay attention to neat handwriting and carefully folded our
neatly typed manuscript of hollyhocks and sealed it and put it in the mailbox
that we believed was the lucky mailbox for that day--maybe the downtown one,
maybe the one on the corner of the school where children danced around waiting
for their bus--and went home and daydreamed about the new life that would be
ours when The New Yorker put its large hand on our little head and said, "You,
my son, are worthy. Enter into the gates of literature: one, untold wealth;
two, admiration of women; three, opportunities to travel; four, personal
friendships with other writers; five, discounts on trips, automobiles,
jewelry."

What we did not enclose with the story was our cover letter. We debated
whether to and then nixed it. "To the editors, I suffer from chronic pain
syndrome and can't eat and am all skin and bones and the lone bright spot in
my life is when I sit down with a tablet and ballpoint pen and write my
stories. I enclose one that I worked on for almost three years. If you
publish it, I will be the happiest boy in the USA. If you reject it, I will
kill myself, maybe in the oven or else in the car with the engine running and
the tailpipe plugged. In my pocket will be your rejection slip. Think about
it. Larry Wyler."'

GROSS: That's Garrison Keillor reading from his new novel "Love Me."

Garrison, when did you start reading The New Yorker, and what did it first
mean to you?

Mr. KEILLOR: I was 13 years old. My junior high school English teacher,
Frane Anderson(ph), lent me a copy. I'd never seen it before in my life. I
sat and pored over it. And, to me, it was the most elegant thing I'd ever
seen.

GROSS: Is there anything about the style of writing that was different from
anything you had ever seen before?

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, looking back, I wonder if I didn't sort of conflate the
writing with the advertisements, with the little notices up front for the
jazz clubs where Blossom Dearie was playing, you know, somewhere on the East
Side. And it just all kind of worked together, the cartoons and everything.
But I loved A.J. Liebling. To me, he stood out from the rest of them as
somebody who could not possibly be from Minnesota. He was a true New Yorker
to me. I didn't read The New Yorker in order to read memoirs about somebody's
childhood on the Great Plains. I read it to find out about the big city
itself. And he was a big-city writer.

GROSS: Well, that's the thing. When you started to strive to be published in
The New Yorker, did you feel like you had to change your voice and become
somebody who you weren't?

Mr. KEILLOR: You know, if I'd been smarter, I would've done it, I mean, if I
had thought that was the key. But I had no idea what my voice was, so I just
wrote every sort of thing and packed it into envelopes and sent it East. And
they bought a story of mine back in 1969. They just bought it off the slush
pile, and it was almost a historic event at the magazine when this happened.
After I went there and got an office there, people recalled this to me.

GROSS: And...

Mr. KEILLOR: It happened so seldom.

GROSS: ...what was that story?

Mr. KEILLOR: It was a story called `Local Family Makes Son Happy.' And it
was a tiny story. It probably was less than 250--no, about 300 words. And it
was a story about a family who are worried about their teen-age son and
worried that he may be killed in a car crash. And so to keep him home and
give him what all boys want, they hire a prostitute for him. And it all works
out really well, and she cooks and everything. And the story ended up with a
recipe for fancy eggs.

GROSS: So what kind of letter did you get back from The New Yorker when they
decided to publish this?

Mr. KEILLOR: A brief letter on their creamy stationary from Roger Angell,
which I read sitting on the front steps of my house about 85 times and I never
showed to anybody.

GROSS: What did it say?

Mr. KEILLOR: Roger Angell, who's still at The New Yorker, who's 81 years old,
was a great letter writer, a great writer of encouraging letters to young
writers. And so he began it with a paragraph, I'm sure, of fulsome praise
about this wonderful piece I had written and then a little paragraph about the
other pieces that he had decided not to accept and, you know, `Probably we're
all wrong about this, but somehow they just seemed, you know, not to be quite
right, not to be you at your best,' and so forth. He was so great at turning
down things and accepting things. And after you read a letter from Roger
Angell, you really walked on air for probably 15 or 20 minutes.

GROSS: In 1966, and this was, I think, before your article was accepted by
The New Yorker, you went to, I think, The Atlantic, maybe The New Yorker,
several other magazines and publishing houses looking for work. Were you
confident of yourself, or did you feel like you had to create a new
personality for yourself as you were presenting yourself to all these
important places?

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, I thought I had constructed a pretty good personality for
myself. But, of course, when you take the bus all the way out to New York,
as I did, and you are living down on West 19th Street, in what was then a
pretty rough neighborhood in Chelsea, and you're hiking and taking the subway
up to Midtown and you've spent a lot of time sitting, waiting in lobbies, your
carefully constructed persona starts to crack at the edges, and you really
start to seem kind of needy and pitiful, I think.

But, nonetheless, they all did me the great favor of turning me down, which,
as you look back, was, you know, the best thing that could have happened to
you instead of getting a job, as you were hoping, as a researcher at Sports
Illustrated and to go to work in the hive of Time Inc. and spend the next 30
years, you know, filing clippings. Instead, you were released out into the
world to be a writer, which was exactly the right thing, except you weren't
smart enough to know it at the time.

GROSS: Your character moves to New York after he makes a lot of money with
his first book, but his wife doesn't want to go, so he goes alone. And his
description of what The New Yorker is like sounds like it's based on your
fantasies from when you were growing up in Minnesota imagining what life in
The New Yorker might've been like. So would you read us his description of
life at The New Yorker on page 76?

Mr. KEILLOR: You thought this sounded like fiction? You thought this--this
didn't ring true to you? Let me read it to you and see if you don't change
your mind about this one.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. KEILLOR: (Reading) `The magazine was a club, like the US Senate, and once
you got in, you hobnobbed with everybody. There was no high-hatting, no
stiff-arming the junior members, only a pleasant pool of amiability. E.B.
White took me bird-watching, and E.M. Frimbo took me on the Bangor Night
Mail(ph). And Pauline Kael took me to movies. She always brought her own
popcorn because theaters didn't use real butter. I played Ping-Pong with S.J.
Perelman. He said, "Stand up there and I'll whip the bejiggers out of you,
you sullen peasant. The S.J. stands for San Juan, baby. You familiar with
the muerte?" And after he whipped me, he adjusted his chapeau and loped away
natty, cool, keen as a wolfhound, off to lunch with some lissome starlet and
lure her back to his pied-a'-terre at the San Moritz.

J.F. Powers took me to his barber Joe around the corner from St. Ignatius.
Salinger gave me his memoirs, a cardboard carton that weighed about 30 pounds.
Shawn dropped in. He was short, muscular, bald with big hands. He said, "You
sail?" I said, "I have." He said, "You're on."'

GROSS: So, Garrison, compare that to what you actually found at The New
Yorker.

Mr. KEILLOR: You expect me to tell you what I actually found, the years of
neglect and suffering and misery sitting in an anteroom, trying to wait to get
in to see people? No. No, there was some truth to that. The New Yorker was
a very congenial place. Some people were more congenial than others. But Joe
Mitchell was a very nice guy. He'd love to go to lunch, and he loved to
regale people with stories about his pal, A.J. Liebling. And Brendan Gill was
just the soul of amiability. There was no high-hatting on Brendan's part and
a lot of other people as well. It was the young, ambitious people who were
cold and didn't have any time for you.

GROSS: I wonder what it was like for you to be edited at The New Yorker.
Your character is told by the editor, William Shawn, that his writing is
fussy and girlish. I don't imagine you were told that.

Mr. KEILLOR: What was it like to be edited by Mr. Shawn? He was a very
careful editor. And the legend about William Shawn, which was absolute
truth, was that he read and made his mark on everything that went into the
magazine. Your editor, my editor, Roger Angell, read it, of course, and made
his suggestions, and the copy editor made anonymous suggestions. And the
grammarian, Eleanor Gould, made her suggestions in the margin. And then there
were small, very neat suggestions for a change of word here, possibly adding a
comma there, perhaps ridding one of this comma. And each one was with the
initials W.S. in a little box. It was, really, quite amazing to be edited by
him. You accepted maybe a half, maybe a third of his suggestions and felt
grateful for those. And there was no problem in turning down the ones you
turned down. He was a great, great editor. And how he ever did all of that
work and still lead a life, I have no idea.

GROSS: Did you stop writing for The New Yorker when the editor changed?

Mr. KEILLOR: I packed up my office and moved all the books out one day when
I heard that Tina Brown had been appointed the new editor of The New Yorker.
It took me about five minutes to think about this. And I simply did it.
There was a new regime coming in, and it wasn't one that I was sympathetic to.
And I thought, `There are other things to do in life.'

GROSS: My guest is Garrison Keillor. His new novel is called "Love Me."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Garrison Keillor is my guest, and his new book is a novel called "Love
Me" about a writer who, after he has a hugely successful best-seller, ends up
writing for The New Yorker and then facing writer's block.

Now your character starts writing an advice column for a Minneapolis paper,
and it's the only thing he can write. He's totally blocked when it comes to
his fiction, but he can write this advice column.

Mr. KEILLOR: Yeah.

GROSS: And you actually wrote a column for Salon under the same pen name that
your character uses, Mr. Blue.

Mr. KEILLOR: Mr. Blue.

GROSS: And, you know, I liked your advice column in Salon. And I thought...

Mr. KEILLOR: Oh? Oh, did you?

GROSS: Like, here's an advice you gave one woman. I wrote this down...

Mr. KEILLOR: Yes. Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...so I could read it to you. And this is a woman who's feeling
guilty about her three-month affair which she hasn't told her husband about.
And you say to her that she might be in need of some simple narrative therapy.
You say, `See a psychologist and tell the whole story. It can ease your
spirit to hear it come out of your own mouth and bounce off the walls and not
be resonating and resonating in your head.' And reading that, I thought, well,
you know, that's interesting that you see therapy as being narrative therapy,
about telling your story. And what do you think is helpful about that?

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, I've never been in therapy, so I don't know. I'm
surmising that the reason you pay that other person to sit there, in the dim
light with the legal pad on their lap, is so that you tell your story. And
that's the reason for this sort of open-ended questioning of therapists. I
only know about this from, you know, reading Woody Allen and from New Yorker
cartoons, but this is what I surmised.

You surely don't expect this person to say wise things to you or to lead you
towards some wisdom that is not already there in your head. So you must be
there so that you can tell your story. And once you get it outside of
yourself, then you are better able to see it, and perhaps you are better able
to see how ordinary it is. What in the midsts of your own imagination seemed
to be a very dramatic, very profoundly disturbing story, when it comes out of
your mouth and hangs there in the air, it's really kind of everyday.

GROSS: When you were asked to write an advice column for Salon, did you
think, `Oh, this is another thing I'm being asked to do because I'm a
celebrity, and I get asked to do all kinds of things that, you know, aren't
really designed for me'?

Mr. KEILLOR: They wanted me to write a column about politics. I thought,
`That is way too much work.' And I don't know enough. I don't know any--and
I don't want to write about politics. So I suggested that I write an advice
column. They were a little uncertain about that, but I felt there was a real
niche here, and I still do. Advice columns tend to be written by women. And
I think that women need to hear a man talk about these very same romantic
situations and family problems and: `How do I find somebody to be in love
with? I'm 48 years old and I have a good job, and I own my own home and I
have a lot of friends. And my friends say I'm fun to be with, and I'm fairly
good-looking. And why can't I find somebody who will love me and let me love
them?' I think a man's point of view should be heard on these things,
particularly by women.

GROSS: I'm guessing here, but I'm guessing, that in your private life you
weren't known as the person that everybody goes to for advice about their
messy emotional lives. What made you think that you could actually do this?

Mr. KEILLOR: People don't come to me in real life and ask because I am a
writer, and they don't trust writers. They know that writers have no scruples
when it comes to good material. And they could pour out their little heart to
me, and two weeks later, on a Saturday, they would hear the essence of their
story done up in a "Guy Noir" episode. So that's why people don't in real
life. But I felt that I could do this, and I found it to be a great column
to do.

GROSS: One last question. Is doing "Prairie Home Companion" still fun for
you, if it ever was fun in that sense? It's a lot of work.

Mr. KEILLOR: It's a lot of fun. It's a very sociable show to do. And we
have a very capable crew, and I find it very congenial to be around them, the
technical people and the backstage people and so forth. And I like that. But
I'm looking forward to this next season. And I am in the process of trying to
put together something I've never had before, and that is a cast of writers
and to have a bunch of writers around who will work on this. Comedy belongs,
in large part I think, to young people. And I am looking at people who are in
their early and mid-20s, and I found some wonderful people. And so I'm
looking forward to that and moving into a gray eminence stage of life and
having these people do the heavy lifting. And...

GROSS: So they'd be writing sketches or writing your monologues, too?

Mr. KEILLOR: Oh, they'll write sketches. I want them to write sketches.
And I want to make a half-hour radio series out of "Guy Noir, Private Eye," so
that he can go off on his own and solve crimes among the well-to-do, and then
create a new series of sketches on the show and just keep on working in behalf
of Beebopareebop Rhubarb Pie and the Catsup Advisory Board and the American
Duct Tape Council and all of our other generous sponsors.

GROSS: That sounds great. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KEILLOR: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Garrison Keillor's new novel is called "Love Me." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jhumpa Lahiri discusses her new novel "The Namesake"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Jhumpa Lahiri, won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2000 for her
first book, the collection of short stories "Interpreter of Maladies." Her
first novel, "The Namesake," has just been published. And like her short
stories, it's about the lives of immigrants and their children. A young
couple, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli has emigrated from Calcutta to Massachusetts
where they have a son who they name Gogol. In a New York Times book review of
"The Namesake," critic Mitchiko Kakutani wrote, `It is a novel about two
generations of the Ganguli family, and at the same time, it is a novel about
exile and its discontents, a novel that is as affecting in its Jacobean
exploration of fathers and sons, parents and children as it is resonant in its
exploration of what is acquired and lost by immigrants and their children in
pursuit of the American dream. Jhumpa Lahiri is the daughter of immigrants
from Calcutta. She was born in London in 1967 and grew up in Rhode Island.
She now lives in Brooklyn.

Let's start with a reading from "The Namesake" from the first chapter which is
set in 1968, a year and a half after Ashima Ganguli has moved to America.
She's in the hospital, about to give birth to her son.

Ms. JHUMPA LAHIRI (Writer): (Reading) Dr. Ashley(ph) pokes in his head from
time to time. `No need to worry,' he chirps, putting a stethoscope to
Ashima's belly, patting her hand, admiring her various bracelets. `Everything
is looking perfectly normal. We are expecting a perfectly normal delivery,
Mrs. Ganguli.' But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past 18 months,
ever since she's arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all. It's
not so much the pain, which she knows somehow she will survive. It's the
consequence, motherhood in a foreign land. For it was one thing to be
pregnant, to suffer the queasy mornings in bed, the sleepless nights, the dull
throbbing in her back, the countless visits to the bathroom. Throughout the
experience, in spite of her growing discomfort, she'd been astonished by her
body's ability to make life exactly as her mother and grandmother and all her
great grandmothers had done. That it was happening so far from home,
unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved had made it more miraculous
still. But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is
related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative
and spare.

GROSS: That's Jhumpa Lahiri reading from her new novel, "The Namesake."

I want to ask you about a phrase in there. She's worried about having this
baby unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved. And I wonder what made
you think of being unobserved by those she loved.

Ms. LAHIRI: Well, I think I was just thinking about, you know, when we go
through traumatic, dramatic changes in life, be they good or bad, to have to
be isolated while those things are happening, I think, makes them somehow
unreal in a way. And so I think that what Ashima's feeling here is that she
needs to be acknowledged. Her life, her pregnancy, all of this needs to be
acknowledged somehow by people she really knows and trusts rather than the
people in America whom she doesn't know and doesn't trust.

GROSS: It's as if it needs to be witnessed by the people she really loves,
the people she really connects to.

Ms. LAHIRI: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: And they're not there to witness this, so it's not a full experience.

Ms. LAHIRI: Yes. Yes, exactly.

GROSS: Names are very important in your book. And one of the main characters
is the son of a couple who is from India. And the son is named Gogol. He
doesn't really understand why he has that name. All he knows is that it's
really weird and kind of embarrassing, like, when he's in school and they
start reading Gogol, and his name is Gogol. He's not really proud of it.
He's just kind of confused and kind of embarrassed. Gogol was his pet name.
There was a tradition in this family that the grandmother would name all the
children, but the grandmother is far away, and a letter with the name never
arrives. But the parents have given the son a pet name. What is the pet name
in the Bengali tradition?

Ms. LAHIRI: The pet name is essentially the name that is used at home and by
family and by friends and by people with whom you're very close. But really
stemming from the family, the pet name is what your parents call you, what
your grandparents call you, what your siblings would call you, your older
siblings. If they're younger, they don't call you by name, because there's a
separate tradition of having to address your elders by specific terms and
never by name.

GROSS: And it's only for people who know you really well.

Ms. LAHIRI: Yes.

GROSS: Other people probably don't even know what that name is.

Ms. LAHIRI: Yes. And what usually ends up happening, what I've observed
usually ends up happening is that as soon as the child goes to school, he or
she is enrolled under the formal name, the proper name, the good name. And as
a result, you can have very close friends, you know, made after the age of say
five or six who will call you by your good name. And many times, I've
observed that, you know, I may have, you know, aunts and uncles who've met
each other in, say, college or high school and, you know, subsequently got
married. And they will call each other by their good name. So really, the
pet name, at its heart, is a reference to childhood, to those very earliest
years of your life when you are very firmly within the fold of a family and
taken care of and all of those things that are implicit in being very young
and not having an independence and a separate identity from your family.

GROSS: Could you tell us what your pet name was?

Ms. LAHIRI: My pet name is Jhumpa, and my good name never took hold. I
actually have two other names that were supposed to be my--well, one of them
was supposed to end up being my public name, my name in the world. But what
happened in real life is sort of similar to what happens to my character,
Gogol, which is that when I was enrolled in school, I think it was
kindergarten, and my parents took me to school and said, `Here's our daughter.
Her name is Nilanjana,' which is the first of my good names on my birth
certificate and on my passport. And the teacher must have looked a bit
overwhelmed by the name, and I think asked something along the lines of, `Do
you have anything shorter?' And my parents said, `Well, we also call her
Jhumpa.' And she decided that that was the better option. And I don't think
my parents realized at the time that this would really stick so firmly, and
that my good name never really had a chance. And so as a result, I've been
Jhumpa in public and in private all my life. And it's been remarked upon by
many of my Indian relatives, that this is somehow inappropriate. And many
people, after I published my book, you know, many people sort of said, you
know, `Why are you published under that name? That's not the name you're
supposed to publish books under, you know. That's just a pet name.' So it's
very funny to me.

GROSS: The son in your novel, Gogol, is given that name, because his father
was reading a book by Gogol when his father was saved from a train wreck. And
it was in fact a page from the book that was seen by the rescuers. And if he
hadn't been reading that book, the rescuers wouldn't have known he was there,
and wouldn't have been able to save his life. But Gogol doesn't know that.
Why wouldn't the father tell Gogol the story behind his name?

Ms. LAHIRI: I think the reason the father withholds that information about
how he was rescued from this train wreck may have something to do with the
fact that once the father goes to America, he wants to put that accident, the
memory of that night behind him in a way, and doesn't really want to--I don't
know. I imagine that he's sort of compartmentalized his life in terms of
before the accident and after the accident. I think geographically that, you
know, manifests itself as life in India vs. life in the United States. I
think also it probably has to do with a more general kind of estrangement that
the father feels toward his son in terms of how different they are, how
different their life experiences have been and will be, and just the sort of
distance that exists between them emotionally.

GROSS: Is this something that you feel a lot of children of immigrants have
faced, that they are defining experiences that their parents have had that
their parents feel are, like, from another world or another part of their life
or somehow kind of inexplicable and untranslatable for their children, and
therefore, it increases the gap, it increases the cultural divide, because
these key things aren't translated for the children?

Ms. LAHIRI: I think so. I think you put that very, very well. I think
there's a sense that once you're in the new world, you're just working so hard
to survive in the present and move toward the future in a way that there isn't
even energy or time to dwell on that past in a way. And I think for me at
least, observing my parents, I just saw them in the moment. I just saw them
as foreigners living in New England, struggling, having accents, you know,
being bewildered by things. And their lives in India were so remote, and
there was so little for them to connect with, you know, in terms of their
past, you know. It was just these letters, half of which got lost in the
mail and, you know, the occasional phone call and the occasional visit. And,
you know, I think the world has really changed so much in the time that I've
been alive, I think it is different for immigrants now in many ways. I mean,
the world has sort of grown smaller, and communication is so much more
available in so many different ways and improved. But I felt, you know, when
I was growing up in the '70s, I really felt that India was just another
planet. It was just another world.

GROSS: Could you speak their language, or were you only able to communicate
with them in English?

Ms. LAHIRI: No, Bengali was my first language, literally. I didn't speak any
English until I went to school. And so I always knew how to speak with them
in Bengali, and I continue to speak with them in Bengali.

GROSS: My guest is Jhumpa Lahiri. Her new novel is called "The Namesake."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jhumpa Lahiri. She won a Pulitzer prize for her first
book which is a collection of short stories called "Interpreter of Maladies."
Her new book is a novel called "The Namesake."

You grew up thinking of your parents as the foreigners, the people struggling
with English, the people who didn't understand American custom. What was it
like for you when you went with them to India and saw them in their own
culture, knowing that you were the foreigner there?

Ms. LAHIRI: Well, I both was and wasn't the foreigner, which made it
interesting. Technically, I had been raised in another part of the world and
knew things that, for example, my relatives in India didn't know. But on the
other hand, I did feel a sense of belonging that I didn't feel in the United
States, but it was all very, you know, mixed. It was never one thing. And
similarly, I think, over the years, I saw my parents returning to a place
where they ostensibly belonged, where they had family, where they had, you
know, all of these memories and connections and a sense of place. But over
the years, I thought that all of those things were attenuated, and that they,
too, felt like foreigners. And so I never saw anything as being strictly one
thing or the other. And I think that going there taught me a lot about, you
know, the position of a person who leaves one's native country. My parents
always put is as they always feel like they have a foot in two separate boats
on the water, and each of the boats is floating and wanting to sort of go in
its own direction, and you're sort of stuck in between, not knowing which to
go into.

GROSS: In your book, the son, Gogol, never sees his parents display any
physical affection. What was your understanding of love and marriage from
watching your parents?

Ms. LAHIRI: My parents had an arranged marriage, and so I was aware that
this tradition existed in the world. Most of their relatives have had
similarly arranged marriages. And I felt a combination, I think, growing up,
of both bewilderment that, you know, two strangers could suddenly find
themselves married as a result of an afternoon's meeting or decision by their
parents or what have you. But I also felt very protective of them, because I
felt that, you know, that their marriage and also, you know, all of these
other marriages that I knew of was regarded, you know, as a sort of bizarre
primitive tradition that was backward somehow in the eyes of, say, my American
friends or, you know, acquaintances in school, you know. So I really felt
both things. Even as a young child, I was always hesitant to, you know,
accept one way and reject the other way.

GROSS: Your first book, a collection of short stories called "Interpreter of
Maladies," won a Pulitzer prize. Did winning a big prize like this for your
first book make it any easier or more difficult to write your second book?

Ms. LAHIRI: It certainly didn't make it easier, because nothing make writing
easy for me. I can't imagine anything that could make it easy. I wish there
were something, but unfortunately, I don't think that thing exists. It was, I
think, that, you know, what I've tried to do is really sort of associate that,
all of the attention that was brought to me because of the Pulitzer, I sort of
associated it very firmly with "Interpreter of Maladies." And by the time I
had won the prize, I was already working on "The Namesake," and "Interpreter
of Maladies" was very much a part of my past, very much a part of my past.
And I just sort of thought, `Well, this is one prize that belongs to one book
that I'm going to write. And, you know, but my goal is to write, you know, to
create a body of work and to keep writing books. And, you know, some will win
prizes I guess. One of them has won a prize. I don't assume they all will.

GROSS: Do you consider writing to be very difficult?

Ms. LAHIRI: Extremely difficult, yes.

GROSS: Do you enjoy it? I realize enjoy, when you're talking about work,
isn't enjoy like when you're talking about sitting at the beach. But I mean,
I guess...

Ms. LAHIRI: I enjoy the challenge, yes. I enjoy the challenge of it, but,
you know, it's not sitting at the beach. I don't have a good time while I'm
working at it. It's very difficult just in a basic way, just in terms of
writing the sentences, and being satisfied with them on any level is very
hard. And it's also hard, you know, the sort of psychological aspect of it,
the thinking about things, imagining things, confronting your fears, your pain
in your life and the lives of other people. That's also very difficult for
me.

GROSS: So this kind of comes down to: Why do it? Why write? What compels
you to do it?

Ms. LAHIRI: It's not really a choice for me. I never thought that way about
writing. People sometimes say, `When did you decide you wanted to be a
writer?' There was no moment of decision. I started writing as soon as I
could start to read. It's sort of like someone asking me, `Why do you read?'
You know, I read to understand life. I write to understand life, you know. I
can't explain it in any other way. I only know that if I don't write, I don't
feel like I'm living fully, and that I'm not understanding life as best as I
can. And I also just don't feel right. I feel quite miserable actually if
I'm not at least trying to write. So that's why I do it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. LAHIRI: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel is called "The Namesake."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by the Dave Holland
Quintet. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Dave Holland Quintet album "Extended Play: Live at
Birdland"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Bass player Dave Holland founded a quintet in 1997 that has become something
of a jazz phenomenon, acclaimed by many writers as the best working group in
the music and topping numerous jazz polls. The quintet has just released a
live album. Our own critic Kevin Whitehead weighs in.

(Soundbite of "Prime Directive" by the Dave Holland Quintet)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

Dave Holland's tune "Prime Directive." Right away you can hear reasons
Holland's quintet is a critical hit: the simultaneous horn solos, the way the
band sneaks up on a catchy theme, and a propulsive rhythm that kicks everyone
along. Still, it's curious a group so many folks call the best in jazz so
seldom plays straight (vocally imitates rhythm) swing time. Drummer Billy
Kilson spent so little time splashing on his ride cymbal, he sounds more like
a funk than a jazz drummer.

On the quintet's new double CD for ECM, "Extended Play: Live at Birdland",
even the swingingest bits may be wrenched out of context or squeezed into an
unfamiliar one. Trombonist Robin Eubanks' tune "Metamorphos" starts out in
tricky 10/8 time and then gets really complicated. Here, swing is just one
rhythmic option among many.

(Soundbite of "Metamorphos" by the Dave Holland Quintet)

WHITEHEAD: I bet they rehearsed that a lot. But then, precision is Dave
Holland's hallmark. He plays the bass fiddle in tune with clear articulation
and on-top-of-the-beat phrasing that made him an instant hit when he arrived
in New York from England in the '60s. As leader, Holland likes riffs or vamps
that pile up in layers, interlocking parts conceptually derived from
minimalism or Third World percussion choirs. That influence is underscored
when vibraphonist Steve Nelson plays the wood marimba. "Jugglers Parade" also
recalls composer Anthony Davis' music inspired by Indonesian gamelans.

(Soundbite of "Jugglers Parade" by the Dave Holland Quintet)

WHITEHEAD: In a way this whole band is about rhythm, and the group concept is
so clear, trombonist Eubanks and saxophonist Chris Potter can write for it in
what sounds like Holland's voice. Both horn players sound especially good
here, phrasing as incisively as the rhythm section. This is Chris Potter.

(Soundbite of music by the Dave Holland Quintet)

WHITEHEAD: I've admired Dave Holland for as long as I've listened to jazz,
but I'm not as gaga over his quintet as some colleagues are. There are
ingenious structures and fine performances on "Extended Play," and the band
sounds more fiery live than in the studio, but to me it sounds a bit
claustrophobic and predetermined, despite the freewheeling solos and
improvised breaks. In Dave Holland's quintet, everything runs like clockwork,
which is its strength and limitation.

(Soundbite of music by the Dave Holland Quintet)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times. He reviewed the new live album by the Dave Holland Quintet.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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