Jhumpa Lahiri had requested no photographs, so you will just have to imagine the scene last night: Two lovely, intense women, both with long dark hair and wearing skirts and boots, seated side-by-side in comfortable armchairs in the front of the beautiful old sanctuary of St. Pau l's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, a wooden table between them, set with mugs of water. A table lamp cast a warm glow.
The two women were powers of American letters: Louise Erdrich, winner of the 2012 National Book Award (and many other significant awards), in conversation with visiting writer Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and currently in the running for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize for her new book, "The Lowland." (Strib review here.)
No photos, no video, the talk would be "old school," Erdrich said. "Hard-cover books. An event in present-time. You, us, and this wonderful book--graceful, full of heart."
Lahiri, who reportedly is not fond of book tours, has not only forbidden photographs but has canceled all interview requests for the rest of her tour. "Thank you, Louise, for talking to me and sitting with me tonight," she said. "I think it will be just what I need on this long road, this long march of mine."
She read an early passage of "The Lowland," a powerful section in which the two brothers in the book--Subhash and Udayan--are still young and are caught trespassing in the exclusive Tolly Club and are caught by a policeman, who steals from the boys, beats one of them, threatens both.
"Where did this place come from for you?" Erdrich asked. "It's so powerful."
The place is real, Lahiri said.The Lowland is "the area of Calcutta where my own father was raised, a neighborhood I have come to know quite well. Tolly Land was built by the British, a place for them to retreat and ride horses and play golf and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city."
In her research ("In spite of the fact that I know it well and can conjure it," she still needed to find out the history of the area), Lahiri learned that the area had once been a flood plain, later drained by the English. "That gave me some sort of working metaphor for the story," she said.
The story itself also sprang from memories of her childhood. Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, but her family traveled back to India every other year to visit relatives. And during those visits, she became aware of the Naxalite Movement, a sometimes-violent rebellion that one of the brothers in her novel becomes involved in.
"There was a family who lived very close to my grandparents," she said, "that had two boys who became involved in the movement." One evening when the police raided the neighborhood, the boys ran and took refuge in the lowland. But they were captured and were executed in front of their family.
"That was the most upsetting thing," she said. "It just shook me. I found it bewildering and confusing that something like that could happen in the neighborhood where I passed time reading books, visiting friends and family. That triggered something in me. I didn't know what to do with it, but when I began writing seriously, the idea would float in and out, and I became aware of the desire to shape this and do something with it."
It was years before she wrote down that scene, but even then it remained just a scene for a long time. "I coudln't do anything more with it. I set it aside for a decade," and finally went back to it in 2008.
Erdrich asked her about the origin on the main characters, and Lahiri replied that she was interested in understanding what leads people to violence. In the case of political movements, "It's often what they see as the greater good," she said. "They did believe in violence as a way to achieve these means.
"I really wanted to examine violence in many forms--not just physical, but emotional. So much of writing begins with these questions, with wanting to understand." And Erdrich, whose latest novel, "The Round House," also involved an examination of violence, nodded in agreement.
Lahiri took no questions from the audience, but at the end of the hour agreed to sign books for the sell-out crowd of 350 people. As Erdrich noted in her opening remarks, the book is on the long list for the National Book Award (the short list will be announced next week) and on the short list for the "extremely prestigious" Man Booker Prize. She hoped, she said, that Lahiri wins both, and that "you can use the same acceptance speech for both of them."