Jhumpa and Me

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August 11, 2015 by Benjamin

I have been intrigued by an author named Jhumpa Lahiri during my time in college. For some time it was hard enough to learn how to say her name, let alone interpret her writings. I started with one of her short stories in American Literature II class. I ended up reading several of her short stories (One such story is called “Hell-Heaven,” and you can read it on The New Yorker here) and one of her novels, and writing a research paper on her work.

She really writes about one thing in all of her stories: the Indian-American experience. She navigates the mind and emotions of first- and second- and third-generation Indian immigrants in a way that helps you understand conflicts that all immigrants face. You sympathize with her characters. And you are gripped by the conflicts of the story and wonder how they could possibly be resolved.

Some themes surface again and again: There are arranged marriages that offer little emotional incentive to either the bride or groom (there is therefore a lot of potential for affairs when those couples come to the free and individualized American culture. And yes, Lahiri includes plenty of sex in her writings, for your information). There is a tension between the older generation and the younger generation. Along with that, there is a tension between upholding the customs of India and adopting American culture (conflicts arise like what food to cook, and whether or not you should have a drivers license, and whether you should marry someone from India or America).

Even though Lahiri’s works are written about the Indian-American experience, they appeal to a universal audience. She candidly describes the universal search for identity and belonging. Lahiri portrays struggling people: adolescents wanting to fit in socially, husbands and wives floundering to understand one another, families grieving over the loss of a loved one. Her characters try to find belonging in the American Dream or in sex or romantic relationships. But they don’t find it. There always seems to be something missing. Most of her stories are, frankly, very sad.

Her stories never really describe anyone who has found that ultimate belonging. But her stories describe the search well. And that is worth a lot. I’ll learn what I can from her, and I’ll connect the dots that she leaves disconnected:

All people are invited to belong! True identity comes from belonging to God through Jesus Christ. Material things or sex or relationships are just pointers to a personal God who creates good things and who ultimately sent Jesus to buy back a stolen world.

And what is more, God cares for people who live and travel in a foreign land. Those of us that claim to follow Jesus should imitate God the Father’s care for travelers and foreigners.

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