“Both Free and Situated”: The Measured Amount of Markedness in Lahiri’s Short Story

22 December 2017

“Both Free and Situated”: The Measured Amount of Markedness in Lahiri’s Short Story

There are several different types of cultural work that authors can achieve through their writing, some more explicit or intentional than others. According to Carl Phillips, all it takes is to be a writer of color to execute cultural work; he believes that if an African American writes a poem about a flower, it is an African American poem. Toni Morrison seems to agree with Phillips: “Whatever the forays of my imagination, the keeper, whose keys tinkled always within earshot, was race.” Morrison feels a burden is placed on many writers, the burden of representing that writer’s entire race, not just their own thoughts and ideas, in whatever work they create. I believe Phillips and Morrison’s claim, but I don’t think this burden of representation should restrict writers to writing only a certain type of content. Just because a poem is marked doesn’t mean the poet should feel confined to explore the theme of race and nothing else. Jane Tompkins has her own definition of cultural work, which Nina Baym criticizes in her essay: “Tompkins instructs us to read these novels in the light of an authorial intention that yields up better explanations than modernist formal analysis … But, as I say, we cannot properly talk about the way in which texts work in the world unless we talk about the world” (Baym 98). Baym emphasizes the importance of the outside influences of a work, or audience reception, as opposed to only considering the author’s intention.

Some critics believe Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters offer nothing in the way of cultural work because they constitute a model minority in Asian Americans. In the words of Lavina Dhingra, they are “not too spicy” or don’t perform their culture in a way that pushes back against American norms. Later in her essay, Morrison asks, “How to be both free and situated … How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” She wonders how to achieve a balance of marking one’s work with race without only writing about this one theme. Perhaps Lahiri writes about what she knows, having grown up in New England in an Indian American home like the characters of her short story, “A Temporary Matter.” Perhaps this perspective provides just as much cultural work as those works that more explicitly deal with race and its intersections with Western culture. An author doesn’t have complete control when it comes to the meaning of a work, and perhaps to achieve Morrison’s goal, it is up to the reader to be the judge. The author has a hold on only so many elements of their work to direct the reader to a certain conclusion, perhaps the same conclusion the author comes to as they finish the work, but this does not guarantee that the readers will not walk away with an entirely different conclusion. Rick Millington’s definition of cultural work is training one’s readers to read differently, or teaching readers to know the world in a different way through one’s writing. A reader can learn much more from this broader definition than Tompkins’ definition which is restricted to just the author’s intent. Through Millington’s lens, Lahiri’s short story is quite successful.

Several passages in “A Temporary Matter” obviously explore the characters’ feelings in relation to their culture, which some may say are the most conspicuous attempts at cultural work. Reflecting on Shoba’s closeness to her culture, Shukumar notes that he “hadn’t spent as much time in India as Shoba had. … As a teenager he preferred sailing camp or scooping ice cream during his summers to going to Calcutta. … He wished now that he had his own childhood story of India” (Lahiri 12). This passage is very obviously marked: it depicts Shukumar’s innermost feelings about his relationship with India and his culture, and how he wishes he was more in touch with his heritage the way his wife seems to be. This passage does cultural work in that it explores a character of color’s specific ideas about his ethnicity, how it has shaped who he is, and how it is different from another character of color’s ideas and relationship on the same subject. Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel: No Normal is so marked that the plot revolves around Kamala’s acceptance of her heritage, which performs a different, much more explicit form of cultural work: a critical multiculturalism approach to diversity and representation. However, this is not the only goal Lahiri wishes to achieve with her story. Coming to terms with one’s culture is not her whole point, it is only one point, an additional detail within a story mainly about a family’s grief and its effects on their relationship.

Shoba’s mother’s relationship with Shukumar adds another character of color’s perspective on the grief plot. Shukumar remarks on her behavior when she lives with them for a time after the baby dies:

She was a religious woman. She set up a small shrine, a framed picture of a lavender-faced goddess and a plate of marigold petals, on the bedside table in the guest room, and prayed twice a day for healthy grandchildren in the future. She was polite to Shukumar without being friendly. … She never talked to him about Shoba; once, when he mentioned the baby’s death, she looked up from her knitting, and said, “But you weren’t even there,” (Lahiri 9).

Shoba’s mother’s expressions of grief are quite marked but are also simultaneously universal. Her “small shrine” with the “picture of a lavender-faced goddess and a plate of marigold petals” is clearly a religious offering probably taught to her by her own ancestors. It is her treatment of Shukumar that I find most universal. Perhaps this too relates subtly to a cultural norm, like any detail in this story could or could not, but the coldness of a mother-in-law to her son-in-law can be found in any culture, in any family. Her politeness “without being friendly” recalls so many mothers I have read about in literature as well as those I have known in real life. Her biting remark, “‘But you weren’t even there,’” is another expression of her grief, an outlet for her anger and strife; it is not overtly hostile, but undermining. This passage includes cultural references and markings, but to me, the most important takeaway within the context of the story is the interaction between family members in a difficult emotional time.

By writing about these universal themes with characters of color, Lahiri still performs a type of cultural work. Perhaps to her, cultural work is not made up entirely of cultural differences, but of similarities to other families and individuals, as well. The reader can never really assume what an author’s intention might be. Formalist criticism, when the reader ignores all social, historical, or biographical context of a work, is a bit rigid and I don’t think very helpful in deriving meaning from a work, but criticism where one takes these outside forces into account without being swayed by the author’s supposed meaning is the most advantageous way to interpret a work. This way, hopefully, works will be interpreted differently by each reader, which will bring about more diverse ideas.

This method becomes especially important with ambiguous passages, such as moments in “A Temporary Matter” that make the reader contemplate whether they are marked or not. This takes place when Shukumar notes the difference in Shoba’s food preparation habits: “Her labeled mason jars lined the shelves of the kitchen, in endless sealed pyramids, enough, they’d agreed, to last for their grandchildren to taste. They’d eaten it all by now,” (Lahiri 7). This passage in itself is quite unmarked, but when read in the context of the story and its characters, one realizes that it could be marked, that almost every passage could be subtly marked. “Her labeled mason jars” contain marinated peppers and homemade chutneys, which could or could not be recipes she learned from her family in India, or they could just as easily be Italian recipes she learned in America. Shoba and Shukumar had agreed that they would always have enough jars of prepared food in their cupboard “for their grandchildren to taste,” which could be a cultural idea as well. Perhaps this is the way Shoba was raised — to always be prepared to entertain guests and to stock up for emergencies. Yet, we learn just how different Shoba is from Shukumar’s mother, so perhaps it is not a comprehensive Indian matriarch trait, just a trait of Shoba’s. This passage is one of the most striking moments in the entire story for me, but in a way that is unrelated to how it might be marked. “They’d eaten it all by now” is a whiplash of change and loss for the couple, who used to plan everything so meticulously, who now haven’t bothered to save any food for guests or grandchildren. These few words allude to their shifted relationship, to the trauma that caused their marriage to wither after their loss. If it is marked at all, it is only a subtle piece of the universal theme of grief.

Perhaps the answer to Morrison’s question, how to be “both free and situated,” is to write what one knows as an author of color, and no matter what, it will perform cultural work. Each author of color has their own ideas and experiences about what it means to be a POC, and none of these conclusions are wrong — they are specific to each individual. In the same way, each individual reader can derive a different meaning from these works. Some may believe a work does not properly represent a race, and thus fails at producing cultural work, but I disagree. Even if a work does poorly represent a group of people, the author may or may not have intended it to be so, and the reader’s reception of the writing is what can spark the cultural work. The burden of representation is inevitably impressed upon writers of color. It is definitely something they should be aware of, but it is not something for which they should change themselves. They should feel free to write about whatever speaks to them, and in doing so, will situate their writing in their cultural beliefs, thus, as Phillips believes, creating cultural work. Lyn Hejinian says that “to make sense [of a poem] is not only to find it but also to create it.” I appreciate the power this gives readers and I believe that the same goes for cultural work; what is cultural work to one may not be to another. Where there is nothing for one, there may be something inspiring or sparking for another. Literature exists to be interpreted.


Works Cited

Baym, Nina. “Nineteenth-Century Literature.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, 1986, pp. 97–100. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3045057.

Hejinian, Lyn. “Stages of Encounter with a Difficult Text.” Poetry and Pedagogy. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “A Temporary Matter.” Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1999.

Morrison, Toni. “Home.” The House that Race Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon Books. 1997.

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