You could feel the excitement contained in the tiny 8th floor lobby at Broadcasting House. Thirty of us had gathered to listen to the Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri – a woman whose short stories are so powerful and evocative that you believe she is writing about your own life – being interviewed by Harriett Gilbert for the World Book Club. The experience taught me one thing: never meet your heroes (I explain at the end).
Harriett Gilbert was a delight; animated and gracious and sporting a very cool tie. It’s a shame that her warmth wasn’t matched by her interviewee. It’s not unusual to read about Jhumpa Lahiri being reserved or distant and luckily this doesn’t take away from her exceptional talent and maturity as a writer (and she’s only human, after all). In spite of her coolness in demeanour, there is a genuine depth in her explanations. She spoke of writing about profound shifts and of growth and loss, nodding once again to her two favourite authors William Trevor (she is nourished by his short stories) and Flannery O’Connor. Writing for Jhumpa Lahiri is seldom an intellectual process, but rather intuitive. In the interview she describes vividly how she inhabited Ruma’s father (in Unaccustomed Earth) and wanted to know and write his side of the story.
The questions from the audience were great, but she neatly sidestepped any real discussion on writing about wealthy, academic migrant experiences, instead of writing about the skilled, educated migrants who end up ‘driving taxis and cleaning’. I guess she’s earned the privilege of never really having to justify what she chooses to write about, as her writing is no longer ‘young’. What’s clear is that she understands her craft, not the craft of writing and owns it wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Such is the conviction of a seasoned award-winning writer – listen for yourself.
So, why the ‘never meet your heroes’ comment? Well, I travelled over 200 miles and took a day of annual leave from work to attend this event, head streaming with a nasty cold. I own 4 of her books: I love her writing. I brought all 4 books with me, hoping she would be able to sign each copy: 2 minutes of her time. At the end of the event, myself and another women approached her with our books to sign, and she along with her PR person visibly balked at the request. I never did get my books signed. So there we are: never meet your heroes. On the way home, a very nice man in a local cafe gave me a free hot lemon drink for my cold. Every cloud, I guess.