Jhumpa Lahiri Speaks for Living Writers Series

Colin Sheridan

On Thursday, September 16, Colgate hosted Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, as part of this year’s Living Writers series.

Living Writers, or English 360, is a course offered to upperclassmen. Started over 25 years ago by the novelist and professor Fred Busch, the class gives students the exciting opportunity to meet and speak with the authors whose works they read. Living Writers was the first course of its kind in the United States and has since been replicated at many other universities.

The course took a ten-year hiatus and was started up again last fall by Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and English Professor Jane Pinchin and Associate English Professor Jennifer Brice. Last year’s line-up included ten writers, three of which were Pulitzer Prize winners (Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides and Elizabeth Strout).

 “This year our focus is on the international and again we have ten superb writers on our roster including the Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul,” Pinchin said.

Lahiri was the second author on this year’s noteworthy line-up, which began September 8 with Julia Alvarez.

“Jhumpa Lahiri was chosen because she is, by any and all measures, a wonderful writer, winner of numerous prizes including the Pulitzer,” Pinchin said.

Lahiri was also an appropriate choice for this year’s international theme. Born in London to Indian parents, Lahiri was raised in Rhode Island.

In addition to the Pulitzer, Lahiri has received the Guggenheim Fellowship as well as the Pen/Hemingway Award and the New Yorker Debut of the Year for her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. The Namesake, a novel, was chosen as one of the best books of the year by Entertainment Weekly as well as USA

Today and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist and a New York Times notable book. Lahiri was recently selected as one of the The New Yorker’s “20 Writers for the 21st Century.”

Last Thursday, Lahiri read a portion of “Hell-Heaven,” taken from her newest collection, Unaccustomed Earth. The story is about a Bengali-American woman who recounts her mother’s and her own close relationship with a family friend.

Lahiri took questions afterwards, followed by a book signing. The lecture took place in a crowded Olin Hall, and was attended by faculty and students alike.

This year, “thanks to a wonderful team in Alumni Affairs and ITS, we will broadcast the public readings live to alumni all over the world,” Pinchin said.

Most of Lahiri’s works are centered around Indian immigrants, though when asked if she would ever consider writing a story about a different sort of individual, she remarked, “my impulse behind my writing is not to portray a particular cultural experience or population, but I try to make sense of the human condition.”

“Hell-Heaven” certainly achieves this understanding. The story was published in The New Yorker. The New York Times commented that in the story Lahiri uses “her lapidary eye for detail to conjure their daily lives with extraordinary precision.”

Lahiri began her lecture by saying that she had, at one point, come extremely close to becoming a professor at Colgate, saying that her decision against it was “as close as I have ever come to leaving someone at the altar.”

Lahiri mentioned that she felt that she was simply not ready to teach writing to others.

When asked if she selects her stories or if they select her, Lahiri said, “both. There’s a part of me that’s active and seeking in terms of what I write about and wants deliberately to write about something and then there are also elements of stories that are given to me, already inside of me, that need to be written about.”

Later, when asked how she determines whether one of her stories should be a novel or a short story, she said, “I love what short stories can do in such a small amount of space. I usually try to write a short story, and if I can’t I write a novel.”