The other night I went to a Jhumpa Lahiri reading and Q&A. A good friend from college did his BA thesis on Interpreter of Maladies. I wrote my first conference paper on the Mira Nair film adaptation of The Namesake. I picked up Unaccustomed Earth as soon as it came out in hardback. I had high hopes for that book. And then...well it seemed very similar to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. The same stories were being told over and over again, the only thing new seemed to be the names. Was Lahiri a one-trick pony? I went to this talk interested but prepared not to like her much. I figured she'd probably have many of the traits I found off-putting (and that one often encounters at this school). The person who introduced was downright bizarre. He was nervous and shaky and didn't really talk at all about her (to the point that I had to look up her bio later on Wikipedia because he had told us NOTHING about her background) but rambled from topics from writing to how different people buried their dead. He might have thrown some bad poetry in there at one point (do NOT get me started on poetry). Things were not looking good for this talk. I prepared myself to be very disappointed.
You guys, Jhumpa Lahiri is downright lovely. I guess I was expecting her to have a lilting British-Indian accent. This is not the case; her voice is quintessentially American. It's higher-pitched than I thought it would be, which made her even more adorable. She did a great reading. Her voice was even and sweet and delightful to listen to. When she stopped I actually sighed. I really felt as though I could have listened to her read the entire book of short stories. The Q&A portion wasn't great, but that was the fault of the woman asking the questions. Lahiri did the best she could with random questions and ramblings with no coherent meaning. You know that Chris Farley SNL skit where he "interviews" people by just summing up the plot of the movie by saying stuff like "You know that part where um, where like you shot that bad guy and um, there was like fire and stuff? You know that part? That was awesome" and then the other person is left sitting there without a question to answer? Well that's basically what happened. Also, the interviewer could have asked her any number of interesting and broad questions about themes and meanings in her stories. What she did instead was ask her a bunch of really specific questions about interior spaces (like living rooms) or the names of people in specific stories. I'd read everything she wrote and was having trouble following the questions so I imagine if one wasn't quite as familiar with her work it was probably even more frustrating to listen to.
Moral of the story: I'm going to give Unaccustomed Earth a closer read. I feel I owe it to Jhumpa to delve a little deeper into her creations because she's so lovely and unassuming as a person that I can't help but feel her stories must be the same way. I recommend you do the same.