In a city where avid readers regard authors as “rock stars,” Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri drew a capacity crowd over the weekend to the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C., where she received the annual PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction for “Unaccustomed Earth,” her latest book of short stories.
She is also the author of the award-winning collection of short stories about the Indian immigrant experience, “Interpreter of Maladies,” and novels “The Namesake” and “”The Lowland.” “The Namesake” was made into a film in 2007, directed by Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “Queen of Katwe”) and starring Kal Penn. She has also authored two nonfiction books.
Lahiri is no novice in the awards arena, having received the Pulitzer Prize and the 2014 National Humanities Medal, bestowed on her by President Barack Obama.
Yet she seemed slightly nervous during the Memorial reading, mainly because she was reading a short story she had written in Italian and translated into English herself.
After reading the story, “The Boundary” which was narrated in the voice of a young girl working in an Italian vacation house, Lahiri was interviewed by renowned author Dolen Perkins-Valdez, whose novels “Wench” and “Balm,” were both bestsellers.
”This is not the first story I wrote in Italian, but it is the first time I translated a story into English, so it’s the first time I have taken this journey alone,” the willowy author quipped.
”The story is called ‘The Boundary’ in English, and I realized there is no end point. The story always continues. The story has a beginning, a middle and end,” Lahiri said. “I’m not talking about the plot, I’m talking about the process of writing. People tell me I abandon my work. I never finish it. But that sense of instability is part of the creative process, that lack of closure.”
Perkins-Valdez questioned Lahiri about the usual descriptions of her work, among other aspects about the art and craft of literature, as well as the switch Lahiri has recently made to writing in Italian.
”It sounds freeing to be able to explore stories in other languages,” Perkins-Valdez said. “It does allow you to be a shape shifter in some sort of way.”
But Lahiri clearly rejects the label often given to her work of “immigrant fiction.”
“I don’t like categorizing things,” Lahiri said. “It’s complicated. When you look at the cataloguing [in libraries] you see how many terms have to overlap. You can’t contain life. You can’t contain the human experience. You can’t contain the human heart. Literature is about the human heart. How can you say ‘that’s an immigrant’s heart’ and ‘that’s a non- immigrant’s heart.’ That’s crazy!
”That’s not reality, that’s not my reality,” she said. “The increasing danger of our world is having too many ways to classify, label and categorize things. It is increasingly cut-up and we are cut off from one another. I find this really distressing.”
The annual prize was named for the late writer Bernard Malamud, whose first short story was published in 1949. He went on to write a number of books including “The Natural,” made into a film in 1984 starring Robert Redford, “The Assistant” and “The Magic Barrel.”
Malamud also served from 1979 to 1981 as president of the PEN American Center, which is an international writers organization founded in England in 1921 by John Galsworthy.
”PEN brings together writers from all over the world to meet as a fraternity, to foster literature, and to defend the written word whenever threatened,” Malamud wrote about his charge.
Coincidentally, Lahiri wrote an introduction to Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel.”
“I discovered Malamud’s stories late in my writer’s life, and it was very powerful. When I wrote the introduction some years ago, it strikes me, that I started out writing these stories and then I discovered Malamud’s stories and I discovered they were mirroring something back to me.
”There was so much going on there,” she said. “He is a writer where you have that maximum percentage of sentences that are just ringing with life.”
The award program also includes a visit by the recipient to a local school. Lahiri visited KIPP DC College Preparatory earlier in the day, where, according to PEN board member Deborah Tannen, the students lined up with their worn, dog-eared copies of “Interpreter of Maladies” to have them signed by the author.