Interpreter of Maladies
It's 1999, and a young Bengali/Indian American author named Jhumpa Lahiri publishes her first work: a collection of nine short stories focused on the Bengali/Indian immigrant experience. Many of the stories had been previously published in magazines and literary reviews, but they come together as Interpreter of Maladies, named after of one of the stories in the collection.
Lahiri's book is a smashing success. With her literary debut, she wins the 1999 O. Henry Award and the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Reviewers rave. And she's featured on Oprah's Top Ten booklist (we all know what that means: this book went on to sell 15 million copies.)
We can see why.
These nine stories are about the contemporary Indian immigrant, but they sidestep all the stereotypes associated with "minority" or "ethnic" literature. The stories are truly global (she sets stories in India, not just in America), but they feel local. Why? Because they are such intimate explorations of a specific character or event.
You might not think you can relate to her characters since they appear so different at first, but then you find yourself understanding, even relating, to all sorts of people:
- an old gatekeeper who gets tossed out of the building she looks after
- a wife feeling lonely and disoriented in a new and unfamiliar home and culture
- the young college grad who gets into an affair with a married man
- the immigrant who's just a decent, honest man with decent, honest goals
Lahiri's main characters are all always flawed—but what redeems them (and maybe us) is how familiarly human they are. These characters require us to feel empathy because they do things that we might do too.
This collection shows us the wide scope of human experience across continents and cultures through the unique tales of people who live that experience every day. How does Lahiri accomplish all this in just nine short stories?
Why Should I Care?
We could convince you that reading Lahiri's stories make you more deeply human (which they do), or that these stories will make you feel smarter and more profound (which they will), but that's not why you're here.
You're here to get the real scoop on why you should read Interpreter of Maladies, so here it is: these stories teach you how to write.
"Wait…what?" you're thinking. "You mean if I read Interpreter of Maladies, I too will become a famous fiction writer?"
Well, that we can't promise.
But what the book does do is show you how to use the English language to structure—not just create—characters, moods, thoughts, stories, a whole book. And even if you're not interested in fiction, Lahiri's writing still shows you what a brilliantly clear sentence in English looks like. And that, readers, is no small feat.
Reading these stories can inspire you, not just to view humanity in a "We are the World" way, but to communicate with simplicity, too. Lahiri isn't about verbal gymnastics and linguistic fireworks; her writing is more like a humble candle that works hard to briefly illuminate a room. It's writing that's beautiful because it's accessible.
Of course, that means you have to do more than read the book—you have to pay attention to the way she writes. Lucky for you, she makes the whole business of reading pleasurable rather than torturous.
The final perk? If you take on Lahiri's writing as a model, every humanities teacher you ever have from now on will love you because your essays will be little gems of clarity in the middle of a stack of confused drudgery. Trust us on this one.