Essay: Jhumpa Lahiri and Indian American Fiction

Essay: Jhumpa Lahiri and Indian American Fiction

It took me more than a decade to finish both books. In the meantime, people from the Indian diaspora were becoming much more visible in American culture: the actors Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, the musicians Charli XCX and Norah Jones, and the politicians Nikki Haley and Pramila Jayapal. At the same time, books were proliferating in which life in the Indian diaspora was part of the landscape without being the principal subject, including Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone” (2009), Tania James’s “Aerogrammes” (2012) and Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life” (2014).

By the time Sathian wrote about Lahirism, Indian American literature was already moving beyond it. Sathian herself published a novel that year called “Gold Diggers” — a literary sendup of the model minority myth involving a potion made of stolen gold — which was optioned by Kaling for TV.

Even Lahiri seemed to have tired of Lahirism. In 2012, she moved to Rome and began writing in Italian, including “In Other Words” (2016), an essay collection in which she noted that she’d started creating characters “without a particular cultural identity.” Her most recent novel, “Whereabouts” (2021), also written in Italian, is a loose, meandering first-person narrative with a protagonist whose identity is so abstract that she isn’t even given a name.

Since then, the diversity of Indian American fiction has only continued to grow. In Sarah Thankam Mathews’s “All This Could Be Different” (2022), about a woman’s post-college life in Milwaukee, her narrator’s Indian American identity figures prominently, but so does her identity as someone who dates women, who lives in the Midwest and who is generally baffled by adulthood. Here’s a line from a sex scene in the novel: “I did not stop rubbing her clit, which had swollen like a raisin in payasam.” What is payasam, and how might a raisin swell in it? If you know, you know; if you don’t, there’s Google.

The other night, I opened my copy of The New Yorker and found a story by Lahiri from her new collection, “Roman Stories,” which comes out in October. The narrator is an unnamed Italian man considering an affair with a foreign, also unnamed, stranger. I admired a lot about it. It was also nothing like my writing, or Sathian’s or Mathews’s. I slept well that night and, in the morning, went back to my desk to write.

Vauhini Vara’s novel “The Immortal King Rao” was a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her new book, “This Is Salvaged,” a collection of stories, is out this month.

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