The Namesake [2004]

I have been trying to write an essay on Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Thing is, I know what I want to say, I’m just paralyzed about how to say it. Thus this post. Hoping it’ll get things flowing. It’s an essay on The Namesake, which I ranted about but lately. I wrote 1500 odd words of random tangential speculation, and now struggle to replicate that feat on a set topic with the clock ticking.

So, what is the question?

In a recent Newsweek interview, Lahiri pointed out that the older she gets, the more aware she is that she has “inherited a sense of exile” from her parents even if she is much more “American” than they are. How is this “sense of exile” conveyed in The Namesake? To what extent can it be reconciled with a sense of American identity?

I mean, this cuts right to the heart of the matter, and deals with my own sense of recognition with the feeling of dislocation in the central character.

So, in what ways is the character in exile? Immediately I recognise a problem: I keep substituting in my mind “isolated” for “exiled”. Clearly wrong. The character was born in the USA, so in a technical sense cannot be an exile while living there. What is meant by exile is a segregation from the culture which is yours by right, but also I think it’s quite a natural interpretation of the word to be taken as being cut off from the culture which surrounds you. Immigrants, like Lepers, often keep to themselves. A sense of not belonging to the new world, but of having left your old.

Like so many traits, this is inherited from his parents. They are themselves genuinely exiled. Except… while not being a necessary part of the dictionary definition, exile always implies a sense of the involuntary to me. His parents aren’t exiles: their separation is by choice. They make exiles of their children by not carrying their choice through to its completion: total cultural conversion. This is, I think, the central objection to the growing Islamic population in France – they have chosen to go to France and yet not become French. Not in the way that a Frenchman might see himself. They create a colony insulated from it’s surrounds. Yet… I wonder whether immigrants really have the choice to integrate fully. There are ingrained and lifelong habits to consider, a whole philosophy and circumstance-history not easily abandonned.

Which doesn’t really bring me closer to how to respond to the topic.

Lahiri does convey a sense of Gogol, the main character, existing in two modes: Bengali and American. She also shows his isolation from his piers because of his odd name. Which is the governing factor? Both his heritage and his name are conferred by his parents, so perhaps the question is not relevant; yet it is an interpretive tension. I think that as he grows up, he becomes aware of these two different modes. In the earlier parts of his life he wishes to exist in a purely American mode, but as he grows older he comes to appreciate the value of his dual heritage.

The main risk for this essay is that you can go through the novel and spot each time when he feels cut off from something and discuss this in terms of “exile”. A risk exacerbated by my tendancy to think of the word “isolated” instead. Summarised:

1. His name is unique, and comes with the difficulty of having to always spell it, to correct pronunciation, etc
2. The question of marriage is overriding – his family frowns on liasons with american girls
3. He comes into contact with a circle of academic friends and isn’t really part of their intelligentsia

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2 Responses to The Namesake [2004]

  1. My advice:
    Cut and paste the first your rambling discussion into the body of your essay, formalise the language, expand it a bit, throw in some quotes (always goes down well with markers) and call it done.
    Mark out your territory at the beginning of the essay with a discussion of terms, like all that stuff with what exactly does being an exile mean to you. To me, exile can be voluntary – a tax exile, or a “I love this place but I can’t live in it” exile, but as you’ve explained, fairly eloquently here, it can mean different things to different people.

    But seriously, I’ve sometimes found that just pasting my loose notes straight into the essay and then tidying them up for polite company helps break writer’s block.

    You could talk about immigration and assimilation – for instance, the Dutch immigrants to NZ just after WWII were advised by the Govt of Holland to assimilate as far as possible, speaking English in their homes as much as possible. Now they’re not very recognisable as a separate ethnic group here. Maybe that made their life easier, although I wonder if they lost something in the process.

    Good luck with it. (Hey, at least you’re not missing class right now. ;-))


    PS: “piers” should be “peers”

  2. mashugenah says:

    Finished up the essay today with about 45 minutes spare. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written, but it is miles better than anything I’ve done for POLS. 🙂

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