Lessons learned

Last week, the Princeton Public Library and Princeton Day School welcomed author Jhumpa Lahiri to Princeton as part of Lahiri’s tour to promote her new book, “The Lowland.” Onstage with friend, colleague, and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, Jeffrey Eugenides at PDS’s McAneny Theater, the two offered an intimate evening of conversation about the book’s story and context, writing challenges and recognition.

The Lowland,” shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and longlisted for the National Book Award, is a multi-generational family saga rooted in the politics of post-colonial India. Two brothers, one a revolutionary activist, one apolitical, are bound by tragedy and tied to Gauri, a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past, a country torn by revolution, and a love that lasts long past death.

First Lahiri read from her new novel, also published in an extended excerpt online by the New Yorker. Known for her writings centered around the immigrant experience, this book led the author back to India to write about political upheaval in her grandparents’ Calcutta neighborhoods, and forward in time to explore her characters’  sense of isolation in a new country as they leave tumult behind and move to Rhode Island, where Lahiri grew up. “The real issue that interested me more in this book was, what it is like to have experienced life in a city where a situation, a political uprising, whatever you want to call it — attempted revolution, really, is what it was — has taken over the city, has altered life fundamentally, has created a dangerous, difficult, violent environment, has affected day-to-day life on practically every level?” she explained, this evening and in an NPR interview. “To be living with this day after day and then suddenly to be in a part of the world where it might as well not exist, because it is not on the radar of anybody you’re around, and just simply the silence — I imagine for the characters, I imagine for Gauri, it was both a relief and deeply unsettling.”

The audience learned how one recollected story of a troubling incident, recounted in a visit to India during the author’s youth, forms the basis for the entire saga.  Revelations were also shared about Lahiri’s choices of characters’ names and the difficulty of finding the book’s title. 

Looking back at the evening, I’ve added some more prosaic lessons learned from these writers in conversation.  

Even consummate wordsmiths can occasionally come up short and struggle to find the right word.

It’s possible to have a book title ready long before you have the story to go with it.

Write what you know, even when you’re inventing the details.

Family is the basis for myth as well as our personal history.

Never give up on that interesting idea, veiled memory, curious event, or enigmatic place you carry with you. (It can take eighteen years for a novel to take shape.)

We’ll soon know the literary prize results. Certainly there’s a lot of interest and excitement in our community of readers, revolving around the gracious and tenacious author who has shared a unique family history in her new novel, “The Lowland.” 

Photo courtesy of Kristin Friberg

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