How Success Didn’t Change Jhumpa Lahiri

During the Q and A moderated by the Washington Post, the questions for Jhumpa Lahiri were fairly standard.

Love your work! How do you handle discouragement? someone from Wexford, PA asked.

Feeling lost, hitting walls, discouragement, it’s part of the process, Ms. Lahiri responded. “You can’t really create without confronting those things.”

How did your upbringing shape you as a writer? this from Northfield, MN.

Well, my parents came from one part of the world (Bengal, India) and were learning to live in another part (Kingston, Rhode Island), was how Ms. Lahiri began her answer.

She grew up with two languages, two types of food, two senses of being. And she had felt inadequate in both her Indian side and her American side. Like she came up short because she wasn’t fully one or the other.

But with writing, she said, “I didn’t have to answer to anyone’s expectations other than my own.” In fact, one of her great loves is sitting quietly in a room imagining things.

No one asked, but it’s still worth asking: How does she start her work?

With humility and a sense of awe, she would say. “My work accrues sentence by sentence,” she once wrote. Sentences that come when she’s sitting quietly or chopping vegetables or waiting for the subway. A process undoubtedly filled with feeling lost, hitting walls, discouragement.

But the sentences Ms. Lahiri accrues have been received with a Pulitzer, turned into a movie, recognized with a National Humanities Medal.

So, how has success changed your writing process? Washington, D.C. wanted to know.

“It hasn’t,” Ms. Lahiri said. After all, she wrote to meet her own expectations. No one else’s.

“The promise of success has never inspired me to write, and a lack of it will never keep me from it.”

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