Lahiri was born in London, England, the daughter of Indian immigrants. Her family moved to the United States when she was three; Lahiri considers herself an American, stating, “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.” Lahiri grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island, where her father worked as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island; the protagonist of Lahiri’s story “The Third and Final Continent” is based on her father. Lahiri’s mother wanted her children to grow up knowing of their Bengali heritage, and her family often visited relatives in Calcutta, India.
When she began kindergarten in Kingston, Lahiri’s teacher decided to call her by her pet name, Jhumpa, because it was easier to pronounce than her „good names“. Lahiri recalled, “I always felt so embarrassed by my name[…] You feel like you’re causing someone pain just by being who you are.” Lahiri’s ambivalence over her identity was the inspiration for the ambivalence of Gogol, the protagonist of her novel The Namesake, over his unusual name. Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School, and received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College in 1989.
Lahiri then received multiple degrees from Boston University: an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She took up a fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, which lasted for the next two years (1997—1998). Lahiri taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
During her six years at Boston University, Lahiri worked on short stories, nine of which were collected in her debut book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The stories address sensitive dilemmas in the lives of Indians or Indian immigrants, with themes such as marital difficulties, miscarriages, and the disconnection between first and second generation United States immigrants. Lahiri later wrote, “When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.” The collection was praised by American critics, but received mixed reviews in India, where reviewers were alternately enthusiastic and upset Lahiri had “not paint[ed] Indians in a more positive light.” Interpreter of Maladies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction (only the seventh time a story collection had won the award), and sold 600,000 copies.
In 2003, Lahiri published The Namesake, her highly-anticipated first novel. The book spans more than thirty years in the life of a fictional family, the Gangulis. The Calcutta-born parents immigrated to the United States as young adults, and their children, Gogol and Sonia, grow up in the United States experiencing the constant generational and cultural gap between their parents and them. A film adaptation of The Namesake was released in March 2007, directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn as Gogol and Bollywood stars Tabu and Irrfan Khan as his parents.
Lahiri’s second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, was released on April 1, 2008. Upon its publication, Unaccustomed Earth achieved the rare distinction of debuting on The New York Times best seller list in the number 1 slot. New York Times Book Review editor Dwight Garner stated, “It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction — particularly a book of stories — that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout.”
In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then Deputy Editor of TIME Latin America. Lahiri lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their two children, Octavio (b. 2002) and Noor (b. 2005).
Since 2005, Lahiri has been a Vice President of the PEN American Center, an organization designed to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers.
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