Friday, February 21, 2020

What's in a Name(sake)?

By Abir

This week's question: Review a black American author’s work that you think a white person would love

Wow. Okay then.

Interesting question. Bit of a weird one. I’m not really sure where to start.

I’m not white, so my first reaction was, ’how would I know what y’all would love?’.

My second reaction was – surely it depends on the white person in question? 

 Maybe it’s a North American thing, and I am conscious that your history has left you with a legacy that is racially charged and difficult in a way that maybe British race relations aren’t (though believe me, we have a truck load of difficult racial issues which we just don’t talk about), but the question almost feels like it’s putting people in boxes – that there are books which black people will love and books that white people will love, rather than just books some of us will love and others will not love, regardless of ethnicity.

It’s possible I’m misreading the question. Maybe it means – review a book that will give white Americans an insight into the lives of Black Americans, in which case, that’s a laudable aim, but not one that I’m particularly qualified to write about. I do have some favourite African American authors, chief amongst them being the peerless Attica Locke, who I think is one of the finest writers in the English speaking world today, regardless of genre. But Terry has already showcased Attica’s work this week, so I’m too late to do that. (That’s the downside of being on on a Friday.)

Instead, I’m going to talk about a different book from an author with a different background. It’s a book which touched me in a way few others have. It's the story of an Indian immigrant family to the US, and that book is The Namesake by Indian author, Jhumpa Lahiri, and deals with the themes of the immigrant experience: the clash of cultures; the conflicts of assimilation; and, most poignantly, the tangled ties between generations. 

Jhumpa Lahiri is one the most brilliant of authors of her generation, having won a plethora of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN/Hemingway award. 

It’s the story of the Ganguli family, their emigration from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta, India through their fraught transformation into Americans. 

On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. 

When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the conflict of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd name. 

Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation American path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves. 

The book was bought for me, many years ago by my then girlfriend. That girlfriend is now my wife. That’s how much the book meant to me! And if you want an insight into the lives of immigrants to the USA who might not look like you, this is a brilliant place to start.

1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

Thanks. I have heard wonderful things about this book for years, but let myself get swamped by my crime fiction reading. I have a handful of friends whose families immigrated from India and who have lived lives that either pull in two directions or whose multiple cultural experiences come together happily over time. Time to read this!