The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues
OCT 2011 Issue

One Decade In Brooklyn...

Ed.’s note: In accepting the 2011 Brooklyn Book Festival’s Best of Brooklyn (BoBi) award, Jhumpa Lahiri delivered the following remarks.

One does not remember the hours spent writing. The hours are too many. When I try to remember myself in the act of writing, only scattered images come to mind. The process is so interior that I don’t see my hands on a keyboard, or holding a sheaf of papers. I don’t see words or paragraphs on a screen. Rather, I have a vague, voyeuristic sense of myself, as if I were another person, standing for a moment in the doorway.

Photo by Rodrigo Cid.

What persists, what remains vivid, are the spaces, the rooms in which I’ve worked. And in my case, with the exception of the first, my books have been made in Brooklyn.

The Namesake arrived, in preliminary form, a few months after September 11, when I was a few months pregnant, in my first apartment on Prospect Park West. At the time I was struggling with another project. One day I pulled a binder off a shelf and looked at some abandoned chapters inside. In the quiet of that apartment, which had felt so immense when we first moved in that my husband and I used to amuse ourselves, speaking to one another from different rooms and not hearing what one another said, I began to see the future of a book I thought was not meant to be, and to resurrect an idea I thought had died, printing out a slender but complete draft by winter. The desk at which I sat, the only real desk that, all these years later, I continue to own, was salvaged from the basement of that apartment. Like the manuscript itself, it was something cast aside, something neglected, which I felt compelled to put to use.

Most of Unaccustomed Earth was written when my son was small and I was pregnant for the second time. After my daughter was born in 2004, and the formerly enormous two-bedroom apartment began shrinking, I decided to rent a studio on the border of Crown Heights, along one side of the Botanic Garden. My landlords were a coalition of labor union activists. Their landlord was a painter, who owned the building and lived on the top floor with his family and his canvases. I was worried at first about how long it would take me to get there—15 minutes there and back, which used up one-sixth of my three-hour window. But without that daily walk to and fro through the garden, which I had most mornings, season after season, all to myself, I would not have written those particular stories. For they were preoccupied, in the end, with cycles of growth and deterioration, with the formation of roots, and the predicament of their absence.

The room I rented was spacious enough to set up a baby swing, when my daughter was so small that even three hours was too much for us to be separated. A large window overlooked the tracks of the Franklin Avenue shuttle. The gritty starkness was bracing in contrast to the mood of our cluttered prewar apartment. My diminutive, salvaged desk looked lost, so I furnished the room with an old dining table, a bookcase, even an antiquated leather dictionary on a stand. Eventually, because the labor activists needed more room, I switched to what felt like a walk-in closet, lacking a window. The stories were alive in me then, so that I did not notice what was missing.

In 2005 we bought a house in Fort Greene. I let go of the studio and acquired, for the first time in my life, a room to call my own, with a door to shut, and serving no other purpose. A single window, the only window of the house that faces south, looks out at the clock tower of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. I have to stand up to see it. But it is there, a symbol and centerpiece of the borough, marking the hours of work I will not recall.

Boston is the city where I became a writer, but in Brooklyn I took on a far more daunting challenge, and that is to be a writer and a parent at the same time. Literary biographies and memoirs tell us that until recently, people tended to be one thing, not both. That the conflicting demands of each enterprise—one a self-centered, solitary vocation, the other inherently giving, in which the priorities of the self recede—could not coexist. But here in Brooklyn the exception seems to be the rule, because I am surrounded by, inspired by writers of all stripes, men and women alike, who are equally dedicated, though the equation is never a perfect one, to both the writing of books and the raising of children. You will find them attending birthday parties more often than book parties. You will find them, after a day of writing, not mixing a martini but preparing macaroni and cheese. You will find them rushing home from teaching writing classes at Princeton or Hunter College, in time to read to their children before bed. You will find them attending a friend’s reading with a newborn in a sling, being supportive to the friend, stepping onto the sidewalk when the baby needs comforting.

Something about Brooklyn accommodates both these callings, both drives. There are days when the prospect feels impossible, days when a school holiday means no writing gets done, or days when we choose to sit at our desks instead of accompany a field trip with our child’s class. There are months, even years, when our creative work may be put on hold.

In Brooklyn, versions of these choices are always being made, because examples of such writers are everywhere. It is heartening to think of rearing a generation of children who, in the course of visiting their neighborhood bookstore for story hour, may also see books by their mother or father, or by the parents of their friends, displayed in the window. It makes writers feel real and accessible to them. It makes the possibility of writing books, of telling stories for a living, a reasonable thing to do. It makes them understand that artists and art are a part of everyday life, instead of existing in a rarified realm.

My own childhood was nothing like this. Authors were names on book covers. I was 22 years old the first time I set foot in a writer’s home. But Brooklyn is home for my children; it is the fertile ground they do not question, the flourishing atmosphere that shapes them, the reality that they know.

©Jhumpa Lahiri 2011


Jhumpa Lahiri


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues