Entering the World of Jhumpa Lahiri

Long before I moved to Cambridge I was a lover of Jhumpa Lahiri‘s writing. An Indian American author, Jhumpa Lahiri allows the reader to enter the worlds of the children of immigrants, getting inside both the head and heart of the reader.

Her characters are all Bengali and many of them come to the United States for education, attending graduate school and beyond at Harvard and MIT. While the parents long for the foods and families left in their countries of origin, their children are trying to navigate both east and west as they mature into adults and find themselves more and more distanced from the world of their parents.

Many of her short stories as well as her well-known book “The Namesake” take place in Cambridge or between Cambridge and India. When I moved to Cambridge I felt like I had entered her world. With Pakistan as my backdrop, and Cambridge as my present, her stories became even more poignant and real to me. As she described small apartments in Central or Inman Squares, and the biting cold that sooner or later demanded a heavy wool coat be worn over the silk of a sari, I realized this was the world where I was now living. Seeing older Indian couples walking along the Charles River or Mass Ave took me to the pages of her stories, where she would describe similar scenes, always able to articulate the internal longing and homesickness that are an inevitable part of the life of an immigrant. That sense of never quite belonging to the country their children call home.

As I walk by graduate student housing and see young couples outside I wonder if they are raising the children that Jhumpa Lahiri writes about in her short stories. Children who, despite deep love for their parents, find negotiating two worlds slightly schizophrenic and at times impossible.

While reading her books I am suspended between worlds, where both parent and child are dealing with hidden longing and disconnect. Where the worlds of east and west, so vastly different from food to politics are sometimes at peace and other times in conflict. As the books come to an end, I leave with a greater understanding of both child and parent, and if I am honest – myself.

“Just being brought up by people who didn’t and still don’t feel fully here, fully present–that’s very intense,” ….. “It’s not just all about the house we live in and the friends we have right here. There was always a whole other alternative universe to our lives.” from Jhumpa Lahiri: The Quiet Laureate – Time Magazine 2008

Immigrants: Art Informing Advocacy

Immigrants lined up – Ellis Island 1902

I care deeply about immigrants. At all stages of the immigration process, immigrants have been patients, colleagues and friends. We share much in common as I, along with them, have worked through the process of coming to peace with my new country and surroundings.

Though I like to think I know a lot about my immigrant friends and their lives, and in many ways I do, I have never lived as they do. It has been far easier for me to find jobs and conduct legal business; to buy a house and enroll my children in school. There are things I don’t have to worry about in my role as a citizen. Gone are the days when my husband traipsed through the back streets of Cairo attempting to get an Egyptian birth certificate for one of our newborns, only to take the documents to the American Embassy and have an Egyptian on staff congratulate him on our “baby boy” who was, in fact, a baby girl (but who would know that from the translation on the documents intended as proof for our “Certificate of an American Born Abroad”)

Because of my love of immigrants as people and familiarity in the long process of making America “home”, I read with interest about an artist in New York City named Tania Bruguera. In order to raise awareness and advocate for immigrants she is living with “five illegal immigrants and their six children, including a newborn, while scraping by on the minimum wage, without health insurance”, and all this in a tiny apartment. Through the process she has taken space that was previously a beauty supply shop and turned it into a headquarters for a new advocacy group: Immigrant Movement International.

Her agenda is clear and could be called PoliArt – that’s my word for it – a blending of her politics and her art. She wants to offer “English classes, legal help and impromptu performances” and in the process empower immigrants. Her roommates, it turns out,aren’t too thrilled. In her words “They don’t get it. They’re not very excited”.  It’s easy to understand why. As they work hard to obtain legal papers and make a life, why would she give up what they want so desperately? And of course, when immigrants come to the center, they have no use for art. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs would place art fairly high up the pyramid. Immigrants care about a place to live, food and safety.

The article challenges me. While I could armchair discuss her motives, Tania is forcing herself into a place where she can feel the process and discomfort deeply.  She doesn’t want to just “hear things in the office,” she wants to “feel them”. Feeling them frames her art and subsequently her advocacy.

As a performance artist she recently took her “art’ to the subway where she had immigrants ride the train and recount their stories to the person next to them. While journalists use the art of writing, and photographers use pictures to paint thousands of words, she has decided to use the “literal human face” as her art and tool for awareness.

Even as I read about this artist, I am aware she is living this way for the short-term. I have other examples in my life of those who have done similar things in the United States and in other countries for the long-term. A surgeon who gave up the chance for a successful and lucrative practice in the United States to work for years unknown in Pakistan, medical journals refusing to publish some of her articles because “they couldn’t be true!”. Successful professors, nurses, linguists – all doing the same for years at a time. Interesting that the NY Times has never written articles on them, and probably never will. Their names and stories are written in an invisible, eternal pen.

As I think about this artist and others who leave a life they know for a life that challenges and informs, I’m left with a mixture of feelings. One is skepticism and another grudging admiration, but the most important is a feeling of being challenged. Do I care enough about people to live among them and know their world, not just about their world? What am I called to do for issues I care about and am I willing to go that route? These are the things I think about as I sit in the early morning on my big couch, full of comfortable pillows. No one else is awake – it’s just me, the pillows, and my big questions without easy answers.

Too Fortunate

Rockport inner harbour showing lobster fleet a...
Image via Wikipedia

Travel to the end of Route 128 in the North Shore of Boston and you will end up in Rockport, Massachusetts – a charming town on the rocky Atlantic coast, where art galleries mix with unique shops and beautiful gardens. Before turning right to Bearskin Neck in the downtown area you will pass a pottery shop called Too Fortunate Pottery“. It is a small space filled with light, uniquely crafted pottery, and a potter’s wheel.  I first discovered this shop years ago when, wanting to escape the madness of an American mall at Christmastime, my husband and I chose to do all of our Christmas shopping in Rockport. Wandering in to the pottery shop I wanted to stay forever.  It wasn’t just the pottery itself, beautiful though it was, it was the peace and the space transporting me to a world  beyond my current reality. Perhaps it was all in the timing as we found this shop in the middle of a critical process of culture-shock, experiencing our first Christmas in ten years in the United States after moving from Cairo.

On one of my future visits to the shop I began speaking with one of the owners.  I asked her about the name of the store. She looked at me, paused, and then replied “One day, as we were working and creating, we looked at each other and realized that we were too fortunate to have this shop and do what we loved all day long. The name came to us that day – Too Fortunate Pottery.”

I have never forgotten this conversation and this window into the creativity and gratefulness of the artists.

Perhaps it’s my limited view but I see fewer people passionate about their work. I can’t think of many who could put up the sign “Too Fortunate” to describe their life’s work and calling. There are also many who may not be willing to give up their retirement plans, yearly raises, and that critical 2-week vacation that the west understands as the American Dream to do what they are passionate about. For others, it is finances and life circumstances that dictate their work, demanding attention to jobs that are not their life choice.

This is what makes the work of the artist so critical and desperately needed – creating a space where the majority of us can rest and feel the sense of timelessness and peace so that we too consider ourselves fortunate.

Confessions From a Film Loving Family

Our family loves films. Comedies, tragedies, suspense, satire, mystery – no matter the genre, we laugh, we cry, we discuss and we always watch the Oscars.

Our love of film is a bit overwhelming for the unsuspecting guest in our home as memorization of lines and reenactment of characters spills into our ‘real life’.  I remember one dinner with friends where we quoted almost verbatim the script to “Waiting for Guffman” – a mockery of community theatre. The only problem? They had never seen the film and who had a need or desire to see it after we were through with them.

When our kids were young and we lived overseas, we would rent pirated videos of newly released films to indulge our passion. The pictures were often distorted and poor quality but our kids didn’t know any better, and we were not about to tell them. Moving on to the United States, we began to hold Oscar Parties on Oscar night, putting up a life-size Oscar made of cardboard and laying down a red plastic tablecloth, a cheap simulation of ‘the red carpet’. We would dress up according to the films of the year and memories of my husband dressed as Caesar from ‘The Gladiator’, my daughter Annie dressed as Virginia Woolf from ‘The Hours’, and one of my boys a young and handsome Zorro are captured in faded color photos.

Maybe it was a need to occasionally escape reality that led us to a love of films, but I like to think it was more than that. I like to imagine it was our love of stories and storytelling where themes from movie plots could challenge, humor, delight and inspire. Or our wish to live life in living color complete with our own characters and plot. For some time I tried to defend this part of us, and then realized that I didn’t need to.  It was us and not something to be ashamed of.

And so it brings me to the Oscars, held tomorrow night, with the network sponsor enjoying the revenue of millions of dollars in advertising. It isn’t that we love Hollywood and all it stands for, but throughout history stories have been used as a way to connect people and make them think, to illustrate and reflect relationships and the human condition and soul. A current medium for the telling of these stories is film with all its gifts and flaws – and that is why we love film and why I will watch and enjoy the Oscars.

Bloggers Note: This year I have the privilege of enjoying the Oscars in Chicago with our sons Micah and Joel. Micah graduated in May with a major in Film from Northwestern University. We like to think we were influential in his decision to go into film or maybe when young, he thought pirated films were the real thing and was convinced that someone could do a better job.