Today I attended a BBC World Book Club recording with Jhumpa Lahiri. Although she is currently very much in demand as the Booker shortlisted author of The Lowland, today’s recording was about an earlier work, her short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. As she answered our questions a theme soon arose: her reluctance to make generalisations. Here are the types of questions she resisted:
Through your portrayal of Bengali characters, are you making a social comment on Indian culture?
In your presentation of American life, are you saying something about US society as a whole?
Do your male characters represent a weakness in modern masculinity?
Do the failed marriages in your stories suggest that human relationships are doomed?
Every time she was faced with this kind of question, Jhumpa Lahiri took a breath and batted back the same answer: I am not making general comments about the nature of a whole nation or culture, about men or women or about relationships. I am telling specific stories with specific characters; I am trying doing justice to individual lives.
She spoke about how, as writers, we need to get ‘as close as possible to the individual consciousness, to the human psyche.’ And she discussed how when she writes, her characters inhabit her so completely that she becomes them and so channels their stories.
She reminded us that writers are not a theorists or a sociologists. That it is not our job to make large, sweeping statements about the world and its inhabitants but rather to present the complexity of individual lives. And paradoxically, it is only through this commitment to the particular that we can begin to communicate universal truths, truths that transcend culture and gender, truths that touch us all because we are human.