Friday, April 25, 2008

Taking Names

Last night, a friend and I went to an author event at the Free Library of Philadelphia and heard Jhumpa Lahiri read from her new book, Unaccustomed Earth.

During the Q+A, Jhumpa talked about the subject of her characters' names. I was struck by how she said that she keeps lists of names, "I need them," she said, noting that she pores over lists of names for any that speak to her.

I knew someone in college who kept a list naming everyone she knew or had ever met. At least as far as she could remember when she began documenting them. I thought this was an odd practice, the cataloging of people from your life.

But I suppose a name can also trigger memories: of a long-forgotten event, a personality trait, a funny story.

In Jhumpa's case, names help shape a character's history. A birthplace as indicated by a geographically popular moniker. The struggle with being saddled with what others mock as a "strange name" throughout a childhood in America.

I first read Jhumpa Lahiri's other two books while taking a train to work every day, where I collaborated with colleagues thousands of miles away in India. There was something about the summer heat and the words on the page that made me feel a greater appreciation for India's many cultures and its people.

I am looking forward to seeing what Unaccustomed Earth has in store.


fishwithoutbicycle said...

I recently came across my degree certificate which included names of everyone on my course. I was amazed at how many people I'd forgotten!!

Kitty said...

it's neat to hear about someone else's process. How interesting that inspiration can come from a name?

Spandrel Studios said...

Hi, Fish. Perhaps my college chum was onto something with those lists? Keeping such a list makes me think of that Simple Minds song from The Breakfast Club, "Don't You Forget About Me."

Hey, Kitty. It always feels like I'm being let in on a secret to hear where people get their inspiration. When talking about her writing, Jhumpa Lahiri is very deliberate and thoughtful, which I guess is why she's such a successful writer. She talked of growing up in New England and how many of the region's authors - like Hawthorne and Thoreau - inspired her, too.