What I’ve Been Reading – Unaccustomed Earth

I’ve never been to India. I’ve never been to the east coast, or attended an Ivy League school. I’ve never traveled up and down the coast searching my soul. I’ve never had parents who were born in another country, who couldn’t understand why I was unwilling to honor their traditions, no matter how outdated and out of style.

What I’ve read:

Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri

Yet, I feel like, given the chance, I could perform in these situations without fail, my mind fully understanding the consequences of each action. I could be a second-generation Indian living in Boston. I could travel to Calcutta and know what it feels like to be both privileged and brilliant.

Thanks, Jhumpa.

Unaccustomed EarthJhumpa Lahiri – who won the Pulitzer for her first book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies – has a style that’s genuine, not tricky or cute. There’s no mind-bending literary allusions, no sideways words or slight of hand. It’s all honest; great writing from a mind that seems to understand every aspect of social and psychological growth, from child to adult.

Unaccustomed Earth is like Interpreter of Maladies in that it’s a book of short stories. It’s unlike Interpreter in that there’s a common theme throughout each story: the chasm that separates parents born in India from their largely Americanized children. It’s this theme that makes everything so relatable. After all, the reader gets several chances to capture the feeling of confusion in living someplace new, or the pained development of a college student as he struggles to ditch his old culture in preference to the new.

The scenes seem the same – private school education, solemn fathers, traditional mothers, young adults struggling to understand their place between two cultures. But it’s the emotion that makes each story so phenomenal. These are studies into the minds of multi-continental misfits; unable to effectively fit into a mold, they move from adoration to frustration in just pages. They are human, as relatable as any characters I’ve ever read.

What I remember most about Lahiri’s stories is their finality. Often, short stories are left open-ended, leaving the reader to deduct each character’s final outcome through a series of hints. It’s what makes short stories so creative – they can begin and end at any point.

Lahiri, on the other hand, leaves only a slight opening, summing up each story with some of the most powerful final words I’ve ever read. They’re still open ended, but they close in a way that brings conclusion, the stories ending not like a bottle with the bottom cut out, but like a cloth bag with a string tied around it.

I thought I would be frustrated, reading about the same type of character over and over again across eight stories. Instead, it helped me focus. And by the end, I had nothing but praise.

This was lovingly handwritten on April 16th, 2009