Thursday, February 5, 2009

Story-Teller Extraordinaire

I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. It's mesmerizing. I normally don't go about buying every famous author's next book. Yet, I knew I would be buying and reading Unaccustomed Earth the moment my eyes fell on the book's epigraph, a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne, that inspired 19th century New England novelist most famous for The Scarlet Letter:

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn out soil. My children...shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Jhumpa Lahiri has gained much fame, all quite well-deserved, for her two prior works, one of which was made into a movie. The reason her writings hold special meaning for people like me, is because nearly all her stories are inspired by the experience of Bengali-Indian immigrants to the United States. In Namesake she focuses on the immigrant generation. In Unaccustomed Earth she uncovers the life of the children those immigrants had as both embraced America as their home.

As I read one story after another in Unaccustomed Earth, I marveled at the power story-tellers have. Good story-tellers take their readers on elaborate, even transformational, journeys over which readers surrender all control to the story-teller.

Unaccustomed Earth has two common threads running through it: life experiences of Indian-Americans (I should say Bengali-Indian-Americans) and a sometimes-subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle sexual tension that the author builds and maintains throughout her stories (with the exception of two stories). Many Muslims might be a bit uncomfortable because of the consistency with which she holds to the latter theme. A good story-teller can glorify the trivialization of something sacred as well as make fun of the fact that some hold it sacred. Jhumpa Lahiri does both when it comes to that most intimate and sacred connection between two humans. But she does more. She lays bare the struggles of the Indian-American immigrant family from the perspective of one who has had front-row center seats to this show all her life. On things that other readers find simply funny, the reader who has witnessed life from the same perspective as the author will laugh to tears. There is very little pretension, the author does not try to be someone else. The stories are powerful because of their simplicity in both plot and prose.

What will resonate with all Muslims is the struggle between the old and the new. The journey into the unaccustomed earth by the new generation and all the joys and gut-wrenching it entails. I hope many of you will read and enjoy it. I hope somewhere out there are young Muslims who will grow up to tell the story of American Muslims and their foray into this unaccustomed earth.

No comments: