I waited fourteen years for this day. It was five o’clock on a Monday night when my friend and I sat in Logan Square admiring the water fountain in front of us. The Free Library of Philadelphia was across from the square. Jhumpa Lahiri was doing an interview there promoting her newest acclaimed creation, The Lowland. I took out her three previous books. They were in perfect condition. I showed my friend exactly which pages I wanted signed.
Interpreter of Maladies, her Pulitzer Prize winning short stories, was the first book my father bought me. Like Lahiri, I am a first generation Indian American who was raised by parents who emigrated from India to the United States. I believe my father gave me the book because they weren’t comfortable talking to me about being forced to leave their home country for work in an unknown land with opportunity. Lahiri’s fictional characters dealt with this feeling of displacement. The loneliness, a deep sense of remorse, and emotional isolation Lahiri’s words conveyed on the page resonated with me. It made me sympathize and respect my parents more for the hardships they overcome to give my brother and me a better life.
As I took out the tickets, my friend adjusted the settings on his camera. I wanted to be sure the moment I met Lahiri was captured. After hearing Lahiri read a full chapter from her new book, the interviewer asked her why she goes by a pet name, instead of her full name. Lahiri responded, “I always felt so embarrassed by my name. You feel like you’re causing someone pain just by being who you are. It was easier for teachers to use my pet name, instead of my proper name.” This caught my attention because most of my teachers mispronounced my name and it took me years to embrace it as part of my identity. It was assuring someone famous felt the same way.
However as the interview went along, I could not help but feel as if my real life was inadequate and inauthentic compared to hers. She described how the popularity of her books allowed her to speak worldwide and live in Rome. I yearned to see myself in her to reduce this dissonance.
When the interviewer was quoting favorite passages from her books, she asked Lahiri how she was able to write with so much confidence and strength. Lahiri mentioned, “When I write it doesn’t come from place of confidence, it comes from something deep within. When you write you encounter failure every day.”
I was confused. If one of the great contemporary American fiction writers of my time isn’t confident when she writes, what chances do I have? Why do people write at all? Is she sincere about this or adding to the mystery behind her talent?
Hustling to the front of the line for the book signing, I noticed there were about 60 people in the room. I was the youngest one in the crowd and the only one with all of her books.
The usher called my name. I handed over my books as my heart raced. My breath fell short up close to a master. I mumbled, “I am a big fan of yours and based a college essay on one of your characters.” Her green eyes were hypnotic. My shaking finger pointed to where I liked her to sign. I felt only her ring when we shook hands. She gave a half smile and didn’t say a word.
Disappointed with the few seconds I spent with her, my friend pushed me out of the line. No picture was taken because it wasn’t permitted. I looked at my first edition hardcover signed copy of Interpreter of Maladies and felt the value of it dissipating from my hands. I didn’t feel she appreciated the hours I spent with it. I hoped for magic to transfer when she touched the book. But this was a lie I told myself.
I walked back to the bench to recollect my thoughts. I bought into the illusion I had an intimate relation with her and the characters she wrote about. Frustrated, I didn’t see her as an idol I sought to be like anymore. I didn’t care if I was a fan anymore. The lessons and strong emotions I felt reading her books were all I needed to remember.
A homeless person walked by me. He sat on the lawn behind the bench looking at the stars. Seeing a stack of books in his bag, I handed him my signed book. I told him it helped me a lot with my troubles and he should add it to his collection. Giving a firm handshake, he said this was the nicest thing that has ever happened to him since his family abandoned him.
I walked out of the square and never looked back.