Jhumpa Lahiri made a splash in 2000 with her debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but with her first novel, The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin), she’s managed to avoid the sophomore jinx. The book examines the marriage of Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, a young couple from Calcutta trying to make a life in Cambridge, where Ashoke is a doctoral student at MIT. Not only are they far from home and family, more than a little lost and lonely, they’re awaiting the birth of their first child. Initially Ashima clings determinedly to her homeland’s culture, dressing in saris and sandals and cooking Indian meals, but as their son, Gogol (the titular namesake, after the Russian writer his father admires), and daughter, Sonali, grow up, signs of assimilation creep in: a home in the suburbs with a barbecue on the porch, presents under a Christmas tree, Hamburger Helper with lamb for dinner. Gogol moves away, both figuratively and literally, embracing American culture (and a wealthy young woman) and resisting his mother’s cultural tether while living the high life in New York; Ashima does her best to bridge both cultures and still encourage her children to appreciate their heritage. This sweetly told story depicts the joys and tragedies common to all families while exploring issues of cultural identity and generational relations with dignity and grace. Lahiri, herself the child of immigrants (she was born in London and grew up in Rhode Island), reads from The Namesake on Wednesday, September 24, at 7 PM at International House, University of Chicago, 1414 E. 59th (the event’s hosted by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore; call 773-752-4381 for info), and again on Thursday, September 25, at 6 PM at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, 312-747-4300.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marion Ettlinger.