Boris Kachka interviews Jhumpa Lahiri.
But Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon. Unaccustomed Earth is, once again, about upwardly mobile South Asians from New England, and so is the novel she’s working on. “ ‘Is that all you’ve got in there?’ I get asked the question all the time,” says Lahiri. “It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.”
I mean, I find upwardly mobile South Asians from New England fascinating. Deeply, deeply fascinating. Particularly Bengalis! But in fairness, Updike has written about a pretty wide array of subjects. For example, the first Updike novel I ever read, and I can’t say I’m as familiar as I should be with his work, was a strange and wonderful allegorical novel called Brazil. A friend just mentioned that Updike wrote The Coup, a celebrated account of a power struggle in a Cold War-era African dictatorship. Now, this could be an “ethnic thing.” It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Updike has non-WASPs in his family. I’m just saying — let’s not drag Updike into this! And must we suggest that the questions are necessarily an “ethnic thing”? The questions could also be rooted in a “boredom thing.”
Then there is the fact that the number of Rabbit-like WASPs dwarfs the number of upwardly mobile South Asians from New England. It is entirely possible that Lahiri has now, with Unaccustomed Earth, exhausted the supply of upwardly mobile South Asian stories from New England. She will have to move to upwardly mobile South Asian stories from Westchester, Rockland, and Bergen counties, and later she will travel to the very rich vein that is New Jersey.
It’s true that Naipaul has written a hell of a lot about Trinidad, which is tiny. But it goes without saying that his range is considerable. Madison Smartt Bell is obsessed with Haiti. We’ll see if Lahiri changes her mind at some point down the road.