7 Fascinating Facts About Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri.
Jhumpa Lahiri. / Leonardo Cendamo/GettyImages

Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri, otherwise known as Jhumpa Lahiri, first came to prominence with her award-winning 1999 debut, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Since then, she has penned novels (including The Lowland and The Namesake), short stories, poems, works of translation, articles, and essays for which she has received further admiration from critics and readers. Here are seven facts about the acclaimed writer.

1. Jhumpa Lahiri has an international background that is reflected in her work.

Lahiri was born in London on July 11, 1967, to Indian parents who had emigrated there from from Kolkata in West Bengal. The family moved to Rhode Island when Lahiri was 2. In more recent years, the author has lived in Rome and New Jersey.

Lahiri’s international background has informed her writing, which frequently explores the experiences of immigrants and the interactions between different nationalities and cultures. In fact, according to USA Today, Lahiri adapted one such interaction from her own childhood into The Namesake: A teacher at school said they found Jhumpa, her “pet name” (usually used exclusively by family and friends and only at home), more comfortable to pronounce than Nilanjana Sudeshna, her “good name” (the Bengali expression for the official name a person uses in the outside world)—so she began to be called Jhumpa publicly as well as privately.

2. Lahiri has three master’s degrees and a Ph.D. 

Before she began her literary career, Lahiri spent a lot of time in academia. Following her B.A. from Barnard College in English literature, she went on to earn three master’s degrees from Boston University: an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and an M.A. in Comparative Literature. She then took her studies at Boston to the doctoral level by completing a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.

3. A translation seminar she took at Boston University changed her life.

Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri in 2003. / Scott Gries/GettyImages

During her time as a graduate student at Boston University, Lahiri took a seminar on translation with Mary Ann McGrail. It ignited a love for the form, laying the foundations for some of Lahiri’s own literary work as well as translations she’s done of the writing of others. Her continued focus on translation studies at Boston led her to study a range of writers; one of her “most memorable courses” was studying Kafka with author Elie Wiesel. “So much of what I do, think, and care about today can be traced back to the translation seminar,” she would later say.

4. The reading and writing of diaries has played an important role in Lahiri’s development as an author.

Lahiri has said that both writing in her own diary and reading the diaries of others has been crucial for her literary progress. Virginia Woolf and Anne Frank’s diaries were particularly influential. In fact, Frank’s diary was the first Lahiri ever read, and Lahiri told the LA Review of Books that “I still trace my writing back to her for that reason. I learned so much from her about how to be a writer, about how a writer inhabited life and space and listened to people and just saw things.” The first thing Lahiri ever wrote was also in her diary, and she continues to keep one to this day. “It remains an enormous anchor in my life, whatever the notebook is at the moment and the pen that’s alongside it,” she said. “It’s become a laboratory for things that I do.”

5. Lahiri has won some of the most prestigious literary awards. 

Lahiri has won an impressive range of awards for her work. Her accolades include the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway award, both for her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. She was also shortlisted for both the 2013 Booker Prize and the National Book Award for her second novel, The Lowland.

6. Lahiri has been involved in TV and film, both behind and in front of the camera. 

Lahiri’s work isn’t restricted to the pages of books—she has also been involved in TV. In 2010, she was a consultant on an episode of the third season of HBO’s In Treatment, a show about the work of a psychotherapist; one of the patients featured in the season is a Bengali man who, following the death of his wife, moves to America to live with his son and daughter-in-law.

“Jhumpa was helpful in setting the bedrock of the story and creating the offstage characters,” scriptwriter Adam Rapp told The New York Times. “I would consult with her about rituals in Bengali culture dealing with death and marriage, and she took me through the scenario of a man coming over from Calcutta, what he would eat, what he would smoke, what kind of novels and poetry he would read.”

Lahiri has also been onscreen herself: She made a cameo appearance in the 2006 film version of her first novel The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair, in which she played Jhumpa mashi (maternal aunt Jhumpa).

7. She feels more freedom writing in Italian than in English.

Lahiri has said that Italian—which she became interested in learning after a trip to Florence in 1994—has become particularly important to her. “I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way,” she wrote in her book, In Other Words. She wrote a novel in Italian in 2018, and has also translated three novels by Italian author Domenico Starnone into English. In addition, Lahiri has written poetry in Italian, which she hasn’t yet done in English. And that diary she’s kept for years? These days, it’s in Italian, too.