Virtual book club: ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Jhumpa Lahiri is no stranger to praise. Focusing on the lives of second-generation Bengali immigrants in America, her fiction abounds with both warmth and wit. Readers are drawn to Lahiri’s nuanced grasp of filial relationships, particularly the undercurrent of intergenerational conflict that runs through her storyworlds. 

Too often, and too easily, it’s tempting to easily label Lahiri’s fiction as ‘representing the immigrant experience’, as though that’s a unilateral concept. However, Lahiri’s fiction excels because it fluidly immerses us into each character’s consciousness.

Reviewers have lauded Unaccustomed Earth as “the finest she has ever written yet” (Financial Express). As fans of Lahiri’s work, we started exploring Unaccustomed Earth, and how many of the ideas or themes that Lahiri raises apply to not only a twenty-first century multicultural audience, but our own lives.

We started by discussing the title: what exactly does Lahiri mean by Unaccustomed Earth?

Constance: I find myself constantly drawn towards books that feature epigraphs in the beginning. Small in scope, but often loaded with meaning, an epigraph offers a tantalising glimpse of what the reader can expect. And Lahiri does not disappoint in Unaccustomed Earth. She opens with this highly resonant quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne: “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”  

Anna: Exactly. From the outset there is a sense of disjuncture that comes from the ‘unaccustomed’ or the unfamiliar that is experienced through immigration and settling. Yet there is an element of tongue-in-cheek irony in using Hawthorne, this notoriously WASPish writer who was once indeed an immigrant – it all boils down to the difficulty in defining who exactly is an “American” and the complexities that come from varying experiences of American-ness.

Lahiri’s fiction excels because it fluidly immerses us into each character’s consciousness

Constance: Definitely. Especially with fiction about immigration, where second-generation characters begin to come of age, these questions of agency, fate, and homecoming are pervasive and difficult to avoid.  

Anna: We do love a good coming-of age story! Lahiri said something very interesting in an interview with The New Yorker that she finds writing to be “a very private form of consolation,” could you argue there is something almost therapeutic or cathartic through her depiction of coming-of-age and family life in America?

Constance: I think that Lahiri’s fiction certainly achieves this. Notably, the consolation operates on both levels both for the reader and the writer. Specifically, I love how Lahiri explores the lack of communication between parents and children. Looking at Unaccustomed Earth, the postcard poignantly reminds us of many things, from the intergenerational language barrier to different value systems. What resonated with me most was how parents and children can lead wholly separate lives, despite living under the same roof. 

Anna: Yes, I completely see that. I particularly enjoyed your observation on this clash of value-systems; part of the success of Lahiri’s realism comes from the relatability of her prose. This is not only a distinctively American issue, but applies to so many people globally, goodness knows we know about this. 

Constance: So true! I think that this relatability especially shows in sibling relationships. When I was reading Only Goodness, I couldn’t leave my bed. Lots of people describe powerful fiction as ‘gripping’: I used to find this a cliché, but I was literally glued to the page. Sudha and Rahul, the siblings in the story, share a very close knit bond with each other, but less so with their parents, and their dynamic simultaneously seems so universal, yet so personal. 

Part of the success of Lahiri’s realism comes from the relatability of her prose

Anna: Yet there is also a banality to what she is writing about, these are very common issues that she elevates. In Unaccustomed Earth, Ruma’s reflection on her mother speaking Bengali that hit her ‘with more force than the funeral’. This sense of loss that Ruma feels is doubled and amplified, it’s not only the loss of her mother but the loss of this connection to home – her mother-tongue. She makes something so ordinary and personal so profound.

Constance: Definitely, I found that the silences, even though they seem banal, were especially powerful, particularly when events spiralled out of control and were beyond repair. In Chinese we have a saying (覆水难收), which roughly translates to “spilt water can’t be collected”. This is something that my family used to say to me growing up whenever I made a mistake, and it suddenly resurfaced then. 

Anna: I had very similar experiences with my mum and dad! She would use the Tamil word for calling us naughty or my dad would curtly say ‘smettila’ if either my siblings or I were being foolish. I digress… I loved ‘Only Goodness’ too – particularly the relationship between the two siblings and how Lahiri interweaves familial familiarity and estrangement as they go into adulthood, it definitely hit home.

Constance:  I couldn’t have said it any better myself! I’ve always gravitated towards narratives of immigration, and this year I’m growing fonder of the short story. Within a small space, Lahiri’s characters in Unaccustomed Earth bring so much solace to the reader, and I would definitely recommend it. 

Anna: Completely. Without running the risk of universalising the experiences that Lahiri writes of, there’s something deeply consolatory about reading her work that reminds one that they’re not alone in the experiences they may face.

Image: Tabitha Turner via Unsplash

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