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14.06.2022

The Significance of Writing: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Hybrid Identity in Unaccustomed Earth

By Sietse Hagen

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‘In spite of the ocean that now separated her from her parents, she felt closer to them’ (Lahiri 144). In her book Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri examines the confrontation between second- and first-generation migrants. This clash of cultures between parent and child raises an issue of identity for the children as it is they who are in between the culture at home and the culture of the society in which they grow up. Just like most of her characters, Lahiri is a second-generation Bengali immigrant that grew up in America. As her characters are so similar to herself, this book becomes a way to reconcile with her hybrid identity and come to terms with the difference between her and her parents. It is through trauma theory and the themes of distancing and memory that Lahiri seeks an answer to her question of identity. By briefly examining the characters of the book in general and the characters of Hema and Kaushik in more detail, this essay will aim to reveal how writing this book is an act of redemption for Lahiri, and, how by writing this book, she can come to terms with her differences with her parents and the foreignness this creates in herself.

The idea that one can write about trauma to gain control over it and come to terms with it is broadly accepted by scholars and scientists, even being used in psychotherapy today, and it is exactly this act of redemption that Lahiri seems to be aiming for in her book Unaccustomed Earth. Lahiri’s trauma is one inherited by her parents, the trauma of exile. Gabriele Schwab explains that ‘unless trauma is worked through and integrated, it will be passed on to the next generation. If this happens, the next generation will inherit the psychic substance of the previous generation and display symptoms that do not emerge from their own individual experience but from a parent’s, relative’s, or community’s psychic conflicts, traumata, or secrets’ (49). It is this psychic substance that Lahiri encounters in her life, as she voices in an interview: ‘Just being brought up by people who didn’t and still don’t feel fully here, fully present – that’s very intense’ to which she adds that ‘there was always a whole other alternative universe to our lives’ (Lahiri). It is this universe, to borrow Lahiri’s words, one which she has not experienced herself; a reality passed down by her parents, that Lahiri is confronted by. A sense of foreignness is created by this distinction between the parent and the child. Julia Kristeva explains that ‘the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder’ (1). And thus, she concludes, ‘[t]he foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners’ (1). In other words, one has to come to terms with their own identity before trying to comprehend differences to others. Lahiri’s answer to this issue seems to be in line with Kristeva’s theory. In an explanation of Kristeva’s theory, Anna Smith suggests that ‘the landscape of literature … is inhabited by a foreignness that deflects the traveller and divides us from ourselves. We become, in other words, exiles’ (11). By writing this book, Lahiri can enter a fictional landscape similar to her own life but slightly different, and thus, entering a new world, she becomes an exile and is able to better identify with her exiled parents. It becomes clear that Lahiri writes this book with the intent of understanding herself, so as to understand her parents and their diasporic trauma and come to terms with her dual identity.

For Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth becomes an embodiment of her trauma, and, in consequence, a way to deal with this trauma. The very structure of the book can be interpreted as a traumatic response. Trauma scholar Cathy Caruth defines post-traumatic stress disorder as ‘a response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event or events, which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviors stemming from the event’ (200). Using this definition, it becomes clear that the structure of the book in its repetitiveness of characters, settings, and identity issues, takes on the form of a traumatic response. However, Lahiri’s characters truly bring to light the effect that writing has on her trauma. Confronted with a duality between the culture at home and the culture outside of their house, the characters are often struggling with the reconciliation of this hybridity. Whatever happens to the characters, they always move away from their parents to find their individuality. By distancing themselves from the parents, the children get the opportunity to truly develop their own identity. This act of distancing begins early on, and perhaps even unconsciously, often in the form of language as exemplified by Usha in ‘Hell-Heaven’ where she says that in English she ‘[expresses herself] more easily than in Bengali, which [she] was required to speak at home’ (Lahiri 69). This quote also signifies the difference between the parent and the child in the sense that the parents are seen to cling to the language of their upbringing, Bengali, while the children adapt to the language around them, outside of their house. Daniela Rogobete expresses this difference by listing two distinct ways a migrant might respond to displacement, exilic emplacement or diasporic fashioning. She links the former to first-generation migrants, suggesting that they are ‘inclined to long for a lost home and recreate imaginary homelands.’ She then claims that second-generation migrants ‘are still haunted by the memory of the Other space but are mainly preoccupied with taming the Otherness of the former generations and projecting their sense of loss and nostalgic appropriation of reality upon an objectively mapped out space’ (47). Yet, it is not only unconsciously that these characters gain distance from their parents. An example of this conscious distancing is seen in the character of Amit, who elopes with his wife Megan and reveals that ‘[f]or all their liberal Western ways he knew [his parents] wanted him to marry a Bengali girl, raised and educated as he had been’ (Lahiri 112). This shows that the parents still hold on to traditional Bengali values while those do not coincide with the identities of their children who feel more at home in the Western culture they grew up in. By distancing themselves from their parents, the children attempt to distance themselves from their parents’ trauma. Their multiple belonging leads them to choose to develop their identities as far away from their parents’ trauma, both geographically and mentally, because of which they get integrated more into the American culture and lose touch with their parents’ culture as a result. Thus, there is a sense of unbelonging in the parents who still long for India while there is a sense of multiple belonging in the children which often leads them outside of the house, where they begin to distance themselves from their parents through the culture of the outside world.

Accordingly, there exists a struggle within the second-generation migrants between forgetting and remembering their roots. Because of the ways in which the children drift apart from their parents, they tend to forget about their parents’ culture. A good example of this can be seen in the character of Kaushik. After the death of his mother, Kaushik forces himself to forget about her and everything that has to do with her. All of his mother’s pictures are closed off in a taped-off box and put away. However, when he gets confronted with the images of his mother whom he has so desperately tried to forget, his trauma comes back to him, or, in his own words, ‘the banished images assaulted [him]’ (Lahiri 286). Even before this event, Kaushik has struggled with seeing Chitra with his father: ‘I sat up and watched, imagining the rest of Chitra’s hair turning gray one day, imagining her growing into an old woman alongside my father the way my mother was meant to. That thought made me conscious, formally, of my hatred of her’ (Lahiri 276). What Kaushik experiences is what Kristeva coins as ‘uncanny strangeness.’ She explains this term as ‘the abyss separating me from the other who shocks me’ explaining that ‘[c]onfronting the foreigner whom I reject and with whom at the same time I identify, I lose my boundaries, I no longer have a container, the memory of experiences when I had been abandoned overwhelm me, I lose my composure’ (187). This explanation of uncanny strangeness perfectly applies to Kaushik’s situation. When he gets confronted with the images, he loses his composure with the two little girls and screams at them. He runs away from home and does not come back. It is only when he meets Hema, with whom he used to live as a child when his mother was still alive, that he starts to accept the loss of his mother and long for someone that reminds him of the time his mother was still alive. Hema shows Kaushik the way to remember and seems to be the advocate of distancing but not forgetting. Hema herself accepts some of the traditional values of Bengali culture by entering an arranged marriage. However, she does not marry a Bengali, moreover, she ‘refused to think of it as an arranged marriage, but knew in her heart that that was what it was’ (297): she refuses to label it as an arranged marriage to have agency over it. She distances herself from the term and just sees it as a marriage; she remembers but also remains distanced. According to Paul Gilroy, in diaspora consciousness, identity is ‘focused, less on the equalizing, pre-democratic force of sovereign territory and more on the social dynamics of remembrance and commemoration defined by a strong sense of dangers involved in forgetting the location of origin and the tearful process of dispersal’ (124). It seems that this diaspora consciousness is what Lahiri tries to preserve by showing the dangers of forgetting as represented in Kaushik and the desirable combination of commemoration and distancing as seen in Hema.

By examining Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, it has become clear that books and writing can function as a way to deal with trauma. Through writing these short stories, it seems Lahiri has found a way to reconcile the duality of her identity into a singular identity. By writing about the migrant experience of her parents and how this affects second-generation migrants, she successfully uses the act of remembering. Through trauma theory and Kristeva’s Freudian theory, it has become evident that Lahiri’s book is an embodiment of her inherited migratory trauma, which she deals with through the characters of her book. By both discussing the phenomenon of distancing and the role of memory, Lahiri illustrates the difficulties of the migratory experience and attempts to find a way to cope with this situation. Caruth has suggested that ‘trauma itself may provide the very link between cultures: not as a simple understanding of the pasts of others but rather, within the traumas of contemporary history, as our ability to listen through the departures we have all taken from ourselves’ (204). Echoing Kristeva’s theory of the foreigner, Caruth perfectly inscribes what Lahiri has done in Unaccustomed Earth. Lahiri works through her trauma and her parents’ trauma by becoming an exile in her own literature and connecting the cultures of the home and the society in which she grew up. Thus, Lahiri reveals a way in which cultural objects can serve as devices to work through personal traumas, thereby showing the significance culture can have on a person.

Works cited:

Caruth, Cathy. ‘Trauma and Experience.’ Theories of Memory: A Reader. Ed. Michael
Rossington and Anne Whitehead. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P, 2007, pp. 199-205.

Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge
MA: Harvard U P, 2000.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. ‘Jhumpa Lahiri: The Quiet Laureate.’ Time, by Lev Grossman.
http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,1738511,00.html

Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia U P. 1991.

Rogobete, Daniela. ‘In Search of the Invisible Roots: Immigrant Experiences in Jhumpa
Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.’ Romanian Journal of English Studies, vol. 13, no. 1,
2016, pp. 45-52.

Schwab, Gabriele. Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma.
New York: Columbia U P, 2010.

Smith, Anna. Julia Kristeva: Readings of Exile and Estrangement. London: Macmillan P,
LTD, 1996, pp. 11-50.

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