Jhumpa Lahiri’s 'The Lowland' Shows Immigrant Literature Is Obsolete


Jhumpa Lahiri's books are both widely popular and critically acclaimed for their simple yet searing accounts of the lives of Asian, usually Indian, immigrants. Her debut short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, focuses on the stories of Indians and Indian Americans and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. Her highly anticipated second novel, The Lowland, tells the story of two brothers born in Calcutta after the Partition, and has already been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award. But although many consider Lahiri's work an exemplar of "immigrant literature," the author has notably rejected this classification in the media attention leading up to the release of The Lowland. She is right to do so: in fact, it is books like The Lowland that prove the category "immigrant literature" itself should be considered obsolete.

The Lowland opens with brothers Subhash and Udayan in Tollygunge, a neighborhood in Calcutta where Lahiri spent part of her childhood. Their brotherhood is a formative experience: though Subhash is a year and a half older than Udayan, for all intents and purposes they are twins, starting school at the same time and answering to each other’s names. Udayan is the more courageous and charismatic of the two, and eventually joins the burgeoning Naxalite militant Communist movement as a young adult. Meanwhile, Subhash relocates to Rhode Island to pursue a doctorate, a move that was "not only for the sake of his education but also…to take a step Udayan never would."

The novel then follows Subhash as he "learns" America, "as he once must have learned to stand and walk and speak," and his life becomes irreparably uncoupled from Udayan and Calcutta. At this point, a reader might deem the text "immigrant literature"; after all, the novel is clearly about an immigrant's experience. Why, then, should this classification be avoided?

For one thing, the term "immigrant literature" itself is not very useful. "Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from," Lahiri says in an interview with the New York Times. "If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest?...Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction." To insist that Lahiri's books are "immigrant fiction" in a separate category from American fiction is the literary equivalent of asking someone like Lahiri, "Where are you from?" only to hear the tired, over-practiced answer: "Well, my parents were born in...but I'm an American citizen."

Indeed, to classify a novel as rich in texture as The Lowland as simply "immigrant fiction" would be to make the book much smaller than it is. Though the immigrant experience and the shifting spheres of Calcutta and Rhode Island form the backdrop of the novel, at its heart is the fraught and ultimately heartbreaking relationship between Subhash and Udayan.

What's more, Subhash is not merely an immigrant, and his story is as universal as it is particular. Lahiri describes his life as an immigrant with insightful precision, but her writing truly soars in the details of her characters' emotional experiences. Her subtle evocations of nature — "two ponds, oblong, side by side" in the titular lowland behind Tollygunge; a tree blown over in a storm, "its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived"; a banyan that "began life attached to another...encircling a hollow core if the host happened to die" — haunt the landscape of the novel with echoes of everything that has been lost. Her portrait of Udayan's intellectual idealism and its eventual dismemberment in the political turmoil of a newly independent state is as vital to the novel as is her depiction of an American university. Reducing great literature to "immigrant literature" is as gross a simplification as is reducing a complex and manifold person to one flimsy aspect of her being, be it her national origins, sex, or race.

Besides encouraging oversimplification, the classification of "immigrant literature" also discolors interpretation. In an interview following her last book, Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri states that too often, her stories are read as "sociological studies of the Indian immigrant community, which...they're absolutely not." Trying to be generous to her interviewer, she says, "I don't appreciate this sort of reading of my work but I also understand that it's natural."

It shouldn’t be natural. To read literature as speaking holistically for an entire group of people is to suppress that people's voice. To be a voice of a people is not to speak for them, or in their stead, but rather to articulate their need to be heard as raucous plurality. The Lowland, like all of Jhumpa Lahiri's stunning stories, is not meant to tell the immigration story. Rather, by opening the readers' hearts to Subhash and Udayan, it aims to communicate the universality of human hopes, fears, and triumphs.