Like most Filipinos living in the Philippines, I have relatives who are bicultural in race or in upbringing. Often, when they come to visit the Philippines everyone states the evident, they look foreign or they act foreign. Yet, studying biculturism and cultural psychology one begins to realize how challenging things may be for them, for in their Western homes, they look too Asian and in their Asian home, they look too Western. Is it necessarily the best of both worlds? Or a constant limbo?
I bring this up, as Jhumpa Lahiri’s book Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories, touches on the lives of Indians growing up in the United States or in the United Kingdom. While Lahiri doesn’t necessarily touch on the issues, she gives light to how it is to grow up to migrant parents with a set of values and beliefs that are very different from the greater culture outside their homes.
Two Parts, Eight Stories
Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight stories divided into two parts. The first part has five distinct stories that deal with family, separation, and death. Of the five stories, only the first two, namely: Unaccustomed Earth and Hell-Heaven that gives us a glimpse of Indian Culture and the struggles that come in belonging to two different cultures. The first story tells us of a western-bred Indian daughter and a widowed father tiptoeing around a cultural practice of the child taking in the widowed parent into their home. Hell-heaven on the other hand deals with a life of newly migrated married Indian woman and the stark difference between migrants who uphold their cultural heritage and from those who embrace their adoptive culture. The other three stories, while involving characters of Indian heritage merely graze on a culture-specific theme. There are references to Indian parents sending their children to the US to be better educated and whatnot, however the remaining three stories deal with universal issues such as marital relationships, alcoholism and romantic relationships. It didn’t matter whether the characters were Indian or not as the stories reflected a plot not any different from another story with American, European or Asian heritage.
The second part of the book was divided into three stories, however all three follow the relationship of Hema and Kushik. Each story captures a moment in time wherein the lives of these two characters interact. In the first story, we see them as strangers living in the same house, one family extending Indian hospitality to a fellow Indian family. On the second story we find them quite grown up, meeting as acquaintances. In addition, on the last story, we find these two characters falling in love, breaking up and losing one another in a somewhat tragic end. Once again, the second part merely touches on the Indian culture while telling a story of two people who fall in and out of love.
Cultural or Not
The greatest question then we must pose is does it matter that these stories barely touch on Indian culture? Does it matter that these stories are too universal that hadn’t it been for the names of the characters one wouldn’t know the story being told is that of an Indian migrant family?
I picked up this book because it fit the requirements of the South Asian Reading Challenge. To be honest, I expected it to reveal more to me about the Indian culture or history like that of Anita Desai’s novel. Yet, if one thinks about it, there are universal human experiences that do not discriminate between cultures and I felt, Lahiri’s stories fitted her characters. Yes, they were Indian, yet they were second generation Indian. They were individuals who were born from Indian parents but raised in an environment quite different from that of their parents. Hence, their experiences outside the home are generally influenced by the greater adoptive culture.
There are two ways in approaching a book written by a person who is not White: one is to expect it to deal with things unique to their cultural heritage or the other is to open one’s mind to accept that their heritage doesn’t necessarily influence their story. What do I personally think? As a reader, I expect an Indian writer to write about an Indian experience or a Turk Writer to write about a Turkish experience. This view however also means I’m boxing writers based on some prejudice. Yet, experiences are not necessarily bound by culture, not all Indians struggle for identity in a Western world, some fit perfectly well living their lives along Western ideals while carrying with them their unique names. We all fall in love, struggle with relationships and deal with substance abuse. It doesn’t matter which culture you belong to, there is a story in that experience and we may deal with it within the bounds of a cultural heritage or within the bounds of greater society.
Unaccustomed Earth isn’t the book for someone seeking a book that gives an in-depth picture of Indian culture and society, however, it does tell a story. It speaks of people and of the experiences of second (or third) generation Indians and the lives they lead. Each story offers a little clue into what bicultural life is like, but doesn’t limit itself to that.
This books portrays the distance between the first generation migrants and their offspring and how each generation responds to the greater adopted culture.
While writing this review I was reminded by Elif Shafak’s Ted Talk. While she isn’t Indian she makes a wonderful point about writing stories outside your Ethnic/Cultural background.
When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a University campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters. And I also understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.
If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues…Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representative of their respective cultures.
Lahiri’s previous novel dabbled on the experiences of first generation immigrants, it is only in this book that she began to look on the second and third generation, which makes this collection of stories seemingly more Western that it is Indian. While I haven’t read her other books I think this is a wonderful turn and perspective to take.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. Her first collection of stories, Interpretation of Maladies, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her novel, The Namesake was a New York Times Notable Book. She now lives in New York. Her writing uses plain language and is mostly on Indian immigrants to America who must navigate between the culture of their homeland and that of their adopted society.