Extending the Immigrant Frame: Jhumpa Lahiri\'s \"Hema and Kaushik ...

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Julia Leyda [email protected] MESEA Pécs 2010 Extending the Immigrant Frame: Jhumpa Lahiri's “Hema and Kaushik” I've ...


Julia Leyda [email protected] MESEA Pécs 2010

Extending the Immigrant Frame: Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Hema and Kaushik” I’ve been teaching and studying Jhumpa Lahiri’s work for many years, and this paper is an effort to come to terms with some initially puzzling, seemingly contradictory findings. On the one hand, as an Americanist educated in the multicultural era in the United States, I almost instinctively read and study authors with an awareness of identity: gender, race, nationality, class, sexuality, and so forth. This has become for me, over the years, an ingrained way of sorting and categorizing, a useful organizing tool as well as hermeneutic device. So when I teach Lahiri’s fiction, it goes almost without saying that I encourage discussions of those issues, and students seem to find them interesting. Yet recently I have been surprised to find myself pushing against the impulse that I had previously encouraged, asking students to look beyond identity issues to consider questions of literary form and literary history, approaches that pre-date the multiculturalist methods in which I have been quite happily immersed during most of my own education and academic career. Of course, there is no inherent contradiction between studying content and studying form, and it is axiomatic today that the two are complementary, even inextricably linked. Yet a series of incidents led me to feel that they were at times almost antagonistic—I began to feel like my students, and perhaps other readers of Lahiri, were somehow overemphasizing culture in their interpretations to the point where other concerns got left out. Here are some anecdotes to illustrate what I mean. First of all, many students have a tendency to want to find a single, simple key that will unlock a text—this is probably an understandable desire. When they see that the author is Indian American and that many of her characters are too, it becomes very easy to, first, assume that the fictional works are autobiographical, and next, to try to use cultural identity as the primary factor in their interpretation of the works. There is nothing inherently wrong


in doing this, yet it can in practice sometimes lead to overly reductive, occasionally just plain wrong, conclusions. For example, in the story “A Temporary Matter,” the main characters are both second-generation: they are US-born children of Indian immigrants. Yet students often refer to them as “from India” and even a critic, David Remy, describes the young couple as being “sustained by the customs of their native land” (Remy). These are nitpicky points, I admit, but still I find it important to point out the distinction, and the mistake in the published article—showing that scholars as well as undergraduates make mistakes. Once I started to notice the tendency toward this kind of assumption and reductionism, it was everywhere. Among students and general readers and also some critics, the desire to categorize is clear. Lahiri’s works are almost always reviewed alongside other South Asian writers (Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, for example, was constantly paired with Interpreter of Maladies in review articles). The publishing companies of course have their own reasons for marketing Lahiri’s books as exotic consumables seemingly from India: it sells. In 2006, the web site Sepia Mutiny published “Anatomy of a Genre,” a humorously annotated image of the front and back covers of a new book by an Indian author, calling attention to all the ways the identity of the author is exploited along with the book’s content to market it as an exotic object (slide 1). Much the same kinds of marketing strategies also come into play with many of Lahiri’s book covers. A selection of them from different countries—and thus different publishers—shows some patterns: the emphasis on images of India, especially spices, fabrics, women in saris, etc. (slides 2-5). In a recent interview with Lahiri, I asked her opinion of the marketing and book covers of her work: Too many flowers, for one thing. I adore flowers, but my writing isn't flowery. The Namesake was the story of a boy, yet the cover on the US edition was of a giant


flower. … Foreign editions often resort to a stock image of India—a deity, or spices, or an elephant, or a woman in a sari. It's tiresome and unimaginative. Drawing on Graham Huggan’s study of exoticizing British postcolonial writers such as Salman Rushdie, Ursula Kluwick argues that much of the marketing and reviewing of Lahiri’s books, along with books by writers born in India, depicts her work as mysterious and sensual, even when the writing itself does not seem to fit such characterization. This critique of Orientalizing discourses associated with (and, some say, inherent within) Lahiri’s and other South Asian (American) writers’ work informs some of the most compelling current scholarship (see Rajan; Bhalla; Majithia; Srikanth; Shankar). These are an interesting contrast to the cover of her latest book, Unaccustomed Earth, in its English-language Indian release, which evokes some of the actual mood of the book in its mid-century modern aesthetic (slide 6). As Sau-Ling Wong and Melani McAlister demonstrate in the context of Amy Tan’s 1989 bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, the work of Asian American women writers in the age of multiculturalism was subject to the “quasi-ethnographic, Orientalist discourse” endemic to that time and place (181). Wong and McAlister argue that Tan’s novel and similar works in the late 80s served as exemplars of ‘mainstream’ feminist writing; Asian American matrilineal literature; quasi ethnography about the Orient; Chinese-American ‘tour-guiding’ works; post-civil rights ethnic soul-searching ….(202) Twenty years later, Lavina Shankar agrues that South Asian American women writers such as Chitra Divakaruni perpetuate a similar phenomenon in their portrayals of female heroines in transition between the “binaries of a repressive, patriarchal India, and [the] liberatory space” of America (30). Shankar points out that novels by South Asian American women


writers “lend themselves readily to co-optation by stereotypical Western, feminist perceptions and ways of seeing” (30). In a similar vein, Lisa Lau coins the expression “reOrientalism” to describe the ways in which much of the literary work by diasporic South Asian women writers collectively constitutes a new form of “Othering”: Orientalism is no longer the relationship of dominance and representation of the Oriental by the non-Oriental or Occidental, but … this role appears to have been taken over (in part at least) by other Orientals, namely, the diaporic authors. (572) Lau’s argument shows how this body of work by South Asian women based mainly in the US continues to “set [South Asia] in opposition to ‘the West,’ thereby locking both into stereotypes, [and] continuing to define the Orient relative to the Occident” (590). As critics identify the dangers of the writers themselves revising but also often reinscribing the binaries that have historically been the creation of their western oppressors, I suggest that readers and students of these works are also influenced by these same Orientalizing discourses. In addition to the ways in which the works themselves may contribute to a reOrientalism, many scholars argue that Orientalist discourses permeate the reception of South Asian women writers’, including Jhumpa Lahiri’s, work (Lau; Rajan; Sen). I would like to stress that these critics do not place the responsibility for this phenomenon entirely on the authors, although some do indicate grounds for criticism: Shankar posits Lahiri as a more promising counterpoint to Divakaruni, while Sen finds only two stories in Interpreter of Maladies that do not “perpetrate Orientalist notions of essentialized cultural differences” (64). But whether authors are complicit or not, the cultural conditions in the US (and other western countries) seem to make it difficult for reading audiences—predominantly white and female—to embrace an Indian American writer’s book on its own terms; readers are


too often influenced by exoticizing stereotypes often present in the marketing and reviews that hover like a cloud over so many newly published books by so-called hyphenated American authors. It seems likely that such heavy-handed Orientalizing discourses can encourage or reinforce a reductive overemphasis on questions of cultural identity in Lahiri’s work. These habits of judging a book by its cover, so to speak, echoes back and forth between the marketplace and classroom engagements with Lahiri’s work. I’d like to propose one possible strategy for avoiding these assumptions and misapprehensions and the narrow focus they can encourage: a return to the study of literary form. Distinct from New Critical formalism, in which close attention to the internal characteristics of the text was accompanied by an insistence on the irrelevance of the author’s identity or the historical context of the work, I want to experiment with an attention to literary form that works in balance with cultural approaches. I’m not alone in this pendulum swing back towards form (but not all the way back to the New Critics!). For example, Sue-Im Lee argues that within Asian American literary studies over the past two decades, interest in literary form has often taken a back seat to considerations of culture: “Asian American literary criticism has become almost indistinguishable from the reading of ‘culture,’” which can sometimes seem to reduce literary works to “exemplifications of a particular ideology, phenomenon, or a conflict; or as illustrations of the political, economic, and sociological concerns of the times” (2). In the rest of this paper, I’d like to move towards a return to formalist literary analysis, following Lee’s suggestion, which nonetheless remains open to the “content,” including the themes of cultural identity, and the wider context of history. In the longer version of this paper, I perform a close reading of Lahiri’s work in which I begin with important aspects of the literary form, instead of beginning with an examination of issues of culture and identity. Here I will attempt to


summarize my close reading without in-depth quotation and analysis, more to sketch out an alternative route, rather than to convince you of my particular interpretations. Part Two of Lahiri’s third and most recent book, Unaccustomed Earth, “Hema and Kaushik,” is made up of the three linked stories I deal with here. Taking literary form as a starting point in the longer paper, I interpret the stories’ motifs of water and death in greater detail. The result of explicating these conventional literary motifs is an interpretation of the stories’ central dilemma: the constant push and pull between the desire for stability and the need for change and movement. In the end, an attention to culture can further support this reading, but by beginning with form, I hope to attend first to the aesthetic dimensions of the stories that are not predicated on cultural contexts or information. I hope that this paraphrase of that close reading will show how considerations of form can, and often will, lead to questions of culture—but will not limit analysis to only culture. Hema and Kaushik meet at different points in their childhood and teens, and again as adults. Almost all of their encounters with one another, and many of their experiences on their own, are connected in some way to water, death, or both. I begin by analyzing passages in which Kaushik and his family are staying with young Hema and her family near Boston. He privately reveals to Hema that his mother has cancer, which the family had been keeping secret. Kaushik’s family move into a modernist house with a pool, to please his mother’s insistence on having access to water. She is constantly described in terms of her love of water: looking at the ocean and swimming in the pool, for example. After she dies and Kaushik’s father remarries, the water motif seems to shift in meaning, signifying instead his and his father’s grief, a painful feeling they wish to be rid of, rather than her vitality: a leak in the flat roof, for example, and the constant need to have the pool cleaned.


Kaushik struggles with his grief alone, abruptly leaving his father and new stepmother (and stepsisters) to take a road trip along the wintry coast of New England in which the descriptions of the ocean and his engagement with the seaside landscape reveal the complexities of his longings: for his mother, for death, and for solitude. His mother had requested that her ashes be scattered on the Atlantic; later Kaushik dies in the tsunami, so that both mother and son are in a sense buried at sea. Hema’s first experience with death is linked thus with Kaushik and his family—she later becomes a professor of classics, studying dead languages, and finds herself fascinated with the Etruscans and their funerary art. She has grown into a successful independent middle-class woman, doing well in her career and buying a house on her own. Yet she feels the need for a partner and agrees to marry a man she likes well enough but doesn’t know or love. But just before her marriage, she meets Kaushik again in Italy while on sabbatical and they have an affair. Both seem on the verge of love, but neither takes the first step to discuss how they feel and Hema leaves for her wedding confused and hurt, while Kaushik flies to Thailand for his vacation alone, on his way to a new job in Hong Kong. Both characters have encountered in this affair something that they have tried to avoid: Hema sees a potential threat to her independence when Kaushik (rather awkwardly, or arrogantly) asks her at the last minute to give up her career and her engagement and join him in Hong Kong. On the other hand, Kaushik for the first time feels a desire to commit to a woman and relinquish some of his own independence, at just the time when he is in transition, and, indeed, although he doesn’t know it, very near his own death. Yet in many ways his death by water represents a kind of stability after all, reuniting him symbolically with his mother, the only other woman he didn’t want to lose. Hema reads about the tsunami and realizes that Kaushik is dead long before the news travels from his parents to


hers. Although her wedding is tinged with secret mourning, the story ends with her hope for the future with her new husband and the child she now carries (which is his, not Kaushik’s). Leading up to Kaushik’s death, the stories represent Hema’s and Kaushik’s alternating and contradictory desires for stability and freedom through water images and metaphors. The ocean, and other bodies of water, the conventional literary symbol of life, fertility, and eternity, recur throughout the stories in connection with Kaushik’s character and his lack of love and stability since her death. In the longer paper, I try to demonstrate through an in-depth interpretation that a complex reading of Lahiri’s work need not center on cultural differences or Indian American identity. Hema and Kaushik are both Americans who have cultural connections to India, the US, and several other countries. Certainly it is possible to interpret their struggle to find stability in life as a consequence of their parents’ immigration to the US and their bicultural upbringing; there are other productive directions including an expansion into the motifs of water in Hinduism, connected with purification and with death rituals. But by beginning with an interrogation of literary form my interpretation has, I hope, shown that a more circuitous route can be rewarding as well.

Works Cited “Anatomy of a Genre.” Sepia Mutiny. 24 Jan. 2006. Rpt. in Bhalla. Bhalla, Tamara Ayesha. Between History and Identity: Reading the Authentic in South Asian Diasporic Literature and Community. Dissertation. U Michigan. 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2009. Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.


Kluwick, Ursula. “Postcolonial Literatures on a Global Market: Packaging the ‘Mysterious East’ for Western Consumption.” Translation of Cultures. Ed. Petra Rüdiger and Konrad Gross. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 75-94. Print. Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. New York: Knopf, 2008. Print. Lau, Lisa. “Re-Orientalism: The Perpetration and Development of Orientalism by Orientals.” Modern Asian Studies 43.2 (2009): 571-90. Web. Lee, Sue-Im. “Introduction: The Aesthetic in Asian American Literary Discourse.” Lee and Davis 1-14. Lee, Sue-Im and Rocio Davis. Literary Gestures: The Aesthetic in Asian American Writing. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2006. Print. McAlister, Melani. “(Mis)reading The Joy Luck Club.” Asian America 1 (1992): 102-18. Print. Rajan, Gita. “Poignant Pleasures: Feminist Ethics as Aesthetics in Jhumpa Lahiri and Anita Rao Badami.” Lee and Davis 104-20. Remy, David. “Critical Essay on ‘A Temporary Matter.’” Short Stories for Students 19 (2004). Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Apr. 2008. Sen, Asha. “From National to Transnational: Three Generations of South Asian American Women Writers.” Asiatic 3.1 (2009): 54-68. Web. Shankar, Lavina Dhingra. “Not Too Spicy: Exotic Mistresses of Cultural Translation in the Fiction of Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri.” Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India. Ed. Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 23-52. Print. Srikanth, Rajini. The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2004. Print.


Wong, Sau-ling C. “‘Sugar Sisterhood’: Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon.” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 174-210. Google Books. Web. 27 Nov. 2009.

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