Unaccustomed Earth

Unaccustomed Earth

April 2008

The title story of the book is about the family relationships between three generations: the father, his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash. The father, a retiree and recent widower, visits his daughter's new home in the suburbs of Seattle....

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352 Pages
4.4

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The title story of the book is about the family relationships between three generations: the father, his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash. The father, a retiree and recent widower, visits his daughter's new home in the suburbs of Seattle.

Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories from American author Jhumpa Lahiri. It is her second collection of stories, following Interpreter of Maladies (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). As with much of Lahiri's work, Unaccustomed Earth considers the lives of Bengali American characters and how they deal with their mixed cultural environment.

 

The book was Lahiri's first #1 on the New York Times Best-sellers list, where it debuted at the top spot.

Nilanjana Sudeshna "Jhumpa" Lahiri (born July 11, 1967) is an American author known for her short stories, novels and essays in English, and, more recently, in Italian.

 

Her debut collection of short-stories Interpreter of Maladies (1999) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was adapted into the popular film of the same name. Her second story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008) won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, while her second novel, The Lowland (2013), was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. In these works, Lahiri explored the Indian-immigrant experience in America. In 2011, Lahiri moved to Rome, Italy and has since then published two books of essays, and has a forthcoming novel, written in Italian. She has also translated some of her own writings and those of other authors from Italian into English.

In 2014, Lahiri was awarded the National Humanities Medal. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.

Awards

 

    1993 – TransAtlantic Award from the Henfield Foundation

    1999 – O. Henry Award for short story "Interpreter of Maladies"

    1999 – PEN/Hemingway Award (Best Fiction Debut of the Year) for "Interpreter of Maladies"

    1999 – "Interpreter of Maladies" selected as one of Best American Short Stories

    2000 – Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters

    2000 – "The Third and Final Continent" selected as one of Best American Short Stories

    2000 – The New Yorker's Best Debut of the Year for "Interpreter of Maladies"

    2000 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut "Interpreter of Maladies"

    2000 – James Beard Foundation's M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for "Indian Takeout" in Food & Wine Magazine

    2002 – Guggenheim Fellowship

    2002 – "Nobody's Business" selected as one of Best American Short Stories

    2008 – Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award for "Unaccustomed Earth"

    2009 – Asian American Literary Award for "Unaccustomed Earth"

    2009 – Premio Gregor von Rezzori for foreign fiction translated into Italian for "Unaccustomed Earth" ("Una nuova terra"), translated by Federica Oddera (Guanda)

    2014 – DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for The Lowland

    2014 – National Humanities Medal

    2017 – Pen/Malamud Award

 

Title and contents

 

The title of the collection is taken from a passage in "The Custom-House," the preface to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Four of the eight stories ("Hell-Heaven", "Nobody's Business", "Once in a Lifetime", and "Year's End") were previously published in The New Yorker.

Reception

 

Writing in The New York Times, Liesl Schillinger says, "Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth."Hirsh Sawhney, writing for The Guardian, believes that "is at core an old-guard New England writer. Her new book begins with a quote from Hawthorne, and this stirringly existential anthology recalls the New Englander JD Salinger's pessimistic vision of human relationships."

 

It made number one on the New York Times Book Review list of "10 Best Books of 2008" as chosen by the paper's editors. It also won the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award; there was no shortlist as the judges believe "no other title was a serious contender."

 

Review:

theguardian.com

Hirsh Sawhney

Devastated by his mother's death and his father's acquisition of a replacement bride, Kaushik, a protagonist in Jhumpa Lahiri's latest collection of short stories, storms out of the wealthy suburbs of Massachusetts. He drives northward, aimlessly, towards the desolate, craggy country near the Canadian border. After journeying through pine forests and contemplating ocean that "was the most unforgiving thing, nearly black at times", he's able to sense an elusive power, a power he believes his deceased mother now possesses. For Kaushik, the great American wilderness is a kind of temple. It awes him, just as it did New England's transcendentalist writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

This parallel isn't surprising. Lahiri, a Bengali-American who's been lauded as a teller of immigrant tales, is at core an old-guard New England writer. Her new book begins with a quote from Hawthorne, and this stirringly existential anthology recalls the New Englander JD Salinger's pessimistic vision of human relationships.

 

It's not that she ignores India or immigration. Her previous books, both groundbreaking in their own way, chronicle the pain and loneliness experienced by Bengali immigrants in the northeastern US, and this latest collection treads similar ground. In the story "Hell-Heaven", Usha, looking back on her Boston childhood, conjures up the sociocultural alienation that burdened her mother, a woman who wears "the red and white bangles unique to Bengali married women". Things lighten up for Usha's mother when she falls in love with Pranab, a bachelor Bengali immigrant who's studying at MIT. "He brought to my mother the first and, I suspect, the only pure happiness she ever felt."

Usha's mother is left heartbroken when Pranab decides to marry a white woman. At Pranab's wedding, Lahiri depicts various cultural clashes between Bengali and American cultures, a simplistic leftover from her previous work that enables her to spoon-feed western readers information about race and migration. Usha's father, she explains, works "through his meal, his fork and knife occasionally squeaking against the surface of the china, because he was accustomed to eating with his hands". His wife, on the other hand, behaves childishly, "speaking in Bengali, complaining about the formality of the proceedings". She is an archetypal female immigrant in Lahiri's world, anachronistic and disempowered.

 

This disempowerment trickles into the lives of her second-generation immigrant characters as well, as in the title story, "Unaccustomed Earth". Ruma, whose mother died after a reaction to anaesthesia, has recently moved to the lonely suburbs of Seattle with her workaholic white husband and bi-racial son Akash. "Growing up, her mother's example - moving to a foreign place for the sake of marriage, caring exclusively for children and a household - had served as a warning, a path to avoid. Yet this was Ruma's life now."

 

Her single father is about to visit their home for the first time, and Ruma is distressed by the possibility that he might decide to live with them permanently. But her father, who, like most of the book's male characters, is strikingly multidimensional, has his own worries. He's started dating a Bengali woman, and he painstakingly ponders divulging the details of this relationship to his daughter. As father and daughter enjoy an unexpectedly blissful week, Lahiri creates a gripping tale, which, like most of her stories, is driven by a simple question: can her characters escape loneliness and be happy?

 

The answer, more often than not, is no. Death, disease and migration, among other things, keep people isolated. Despite this unending bleakness - or perhaps because of it - Lahiri's writing is usually compelling. She has a subtle ear for dialogue and a knack for imaginative descriptions. "She would slouch in her chair, looking bothered but resigned, as if a subway she were riding had halted between stations."

 

Death and mourning permeate most stories in this collection, including the three linked ones in the final section, but Lahiri's most successful piece, "Only Goodness", isn't quite so funereal. Sudha, a Bengali-American grad student at LSE, receives an unexpected letter from her estranged alcoholic brother, Rahul, a Cornell dropout. (Think Salinger's Franny and Zooey.) Sudha's elated by the note, but the reunification with her brother throws her relationship with her English husband, as well as her infant son's safety, into peril. This story towers over others in the collection, not only because of Lahiri's skilful, succinct prose, but also because the author liberates her writing from simplistic cultural baggage and allows her characters to breathe as individuals.

 

What the characters in "Only Goodness" have in common with the rest of Lahiri's universe, however, is the fact that they all inhabit the most elite rungs of North American society, and this is her insurmountable weakness. Although many of her players are immigrants or are involved in inter-racial romances, they go to Harvard and expensive boarding schools; they study at Columbia's Butler Library and discuss Homer; they are doctors and academics - apart from the Bengali housewives, that is. The portrait of the US conjured up by this book is insular and antiquated and doesn't differ very much from the country evoked by Lahiri's crotchety New England predecessors. She fails to challenge the inadequacies of this elite America - the latent racism that underpins it - and, as a result, Unaccustomed Earth isn't a truly provocative or innovative American book.

 

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