Last reviewed: June 2017
July 11, 1967
Jhumpa Lahiri (la-HAR-ee) was born in London on July 11, 1967, to Bengali parents originally from Calcutta. Her mother, a teacher, and her father, a librarian, immigrated to the United States when she was a child, and Lahiri grew up in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. She was a shy child, uncomfortable in groups, who started writing ten-page “novels” during recess with friends, quiet girls like her who enjoyed stories. In one interview, Lahiri said she always hoped for rainy days so she could stay inside and write instead of having to run around the playground.
In high school, Lahiri stopped writing fiction, for she had no confidence in her ability in the form, and instead wrote articles for the high school newspaper. In college, she took some creative writing classes but still felt she might never succeed in writing fiction and thus decided to be an academic. After being turned down by a number of graduate schools, she got a job as a research assistant at a nonprofit organization, discovered the ease of writing with a computer, and began writing fiction again. Jhumpa Lahiri.
Jhumpa Lahiri, 2013.
A second-generation immigrant, Lahiri found it difficult having parents who, even after living abroad for thirty years, still considered India home. She said she inherited a sense of exile from her parents, even though she felt more American than they. Lahiri, realizing that loneliness and a sense of alienation are hard for immigrant parents, thought that the problem for their children was that they feel neither one thing nor the other. Having visited India often, Lahiri said she never felt any more at home there than she did in the United States.
Much of Lahiri’s time spent in Calcutta as a child was with her grandmother, which she said made it possible for her to experience solitude and which also encouraged her to see things from different points of view. Being a second-generation American did not make her want to be a writer so much as it made her want to write, to seek solace by recording her observations in a place where she answered only to herself. The act of writing made it possible, she said, to withdraw into herself.
Because Lahiri went to Calcutta neither as a tourist nor as a former resident, she learned to observe things as an outsider, even though she felt she belonged there in some fundamental way. She said her first stories were set in Calcutta as a result of this combination of distance and intimacy. However, she claimed never to have thought consciously of trying to deal with questions of cultural identify in her writing as much as simply beginning with a conflict in a character’s life.
Lahiri received her BA from Barnard College in New York City in 1989 and subsequently enrolled in Boston University’s creative writing program, from which she received her MA in 1993. Lahiri also received an MA in English and an MA in comparative literature and the arts from Boston University. She earned her doctorate in Renaissance studies from Boston University in 1997 but decided she wanted to write fiction. She said that she worked for the PhD out of a sense of duty and practicality, but pursuing it was never something she loved. She wrote stories on the side while doing the research for her dissertation. Lahiri worked in the summer of 1997 at Boston magazine as an intern, doing routine tasks and writing news stories. She received a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she studied in 1997 and 1998. The experience at Provincetown changed everything: In seven months’ time she got an agent, had a story published in The New Yorker, and got a book contact.
The title story of Lahiri’s collection of stories was included in both Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. The New Yorker named her one of the twenty best writers under the age of forty. She won the Transatlantic Review award from the Henfield Foundation, the Louisiana Review Award for Short Fiction, a fiction prize from The Louisville Review, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and ultimately the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies in 2000. Her 2013 novel, The Lowland, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award. Lahiri has taught creative writing at Boston University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Princeton University.