NEA Big Read

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow Jhumpa Lahiri is known publicly by her nickname because her kindergarten teacher deemed it easier to pronounce than her proper name, Nilanjana Sudeshna. Born to Bengali émigré parents and newly arrived in the United States from London, she had to grapple early with questions of identity, and the impact of this is palpable in The Namesake. In this 2003 bestseller by the Pulitzer-prize-winning author, two generations of a Bengali-American family in Massachusetts struggle between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the future and longing for the past. This is “a story of guilt and liberation; it speaks to the universal struggle to extricate ourselves from … family and obligation and the curse of history” (Boston Globe). The novel “beautifully conveys the émigré’s disorientation, nostalgia, and yearning for tastes, smells, and customs left behind” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Lahiri can be seen in a cameo as “Aunt Jhumpa” in the 2006 film adaptation. Read more here >

Introduction to the Book:

A father and mother, a son and daughter: two generations of a typical Bengali–American family, poised uneasily atop the complex and confounding fault lines common to the immigrant experience. Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake deftly demonstrates how the familiar struggles between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the future and longing for the past, play out in one particular set of foreign-born parents and their American-born children.

In the novel's opening pages, Ashima Ganguli, who left India to join her husband Ashoke in America, is about to deliver their first child, a son. Following Bengali custom, the child is to have two names—a pet name, for use only by family and close friends, and a "good" name, to be used everywhere else. Almost by mistake, the boy comes to be known as Gogol, named for his father's favorite Russian author. In a harrowing flashback, the reason for Ashoke's attachment to the Russian writer is revealed.

Gogol's father embraces their new life, while his mother longs for her homeland. As Gogol enters school, they attempt to convert his unusual name to a more typical one, but the boy stolidly rejects the transition, refusing to become, as he thinks of it, "someone he doesn't know." Soon he regrets his choice, as the name he's held onto seems increasingly out of place.

The novel's finely wrought descriptions of Bengali food, language, family customs, and Hindu rituals draw us deep inside the culture that Gogol's parents treasure while highlighting his alienation from it. Gogol finishes school, becomes an architect, falls in love more than once, and eventually marries, without ever fully embracing his heritage. His decades-long unease with his name is a perfect distillation of the multiple dislocations—cultural, historic, and familial—experienced by first-generation Americans. At the novel's climax, when loss compounds loss and Gogol's family structure is forever changed, he begins to understand, at least in part, his parents' longing for the past, and the sacrifices they made to help him be what he is—truly American.