I'm reading the book Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, a book I've been interested for over a year because I was so touched by her last book, The Namesake. Lahiri has a beautiful way of weaving stories between generations and across cultures, identifying and then eloquently writing about her characters thoughts and their often mismatched actions. Her characters are flawed in serious ways, making them so real that after a few pages, we think they are our neighbors, our family members, our friends.
The title "Unaccustomed Earth" intrigues me. Before picking up the book, I thought Lahiri was talking about new and uncharted waters that her characters would take on. This true, with the added twist that the uncharted waters are new challenges taken on by new generations while their hearts, minds, traditions, and families remain firmly rooted in the past. Her main focus in this book is the conflict that arises in a family as the world, physical and emotional, quickly transforms and changes from one generation to the next.
In my home town, people rarely leave. 99% of families are Italian and Catholic, like mine. There are roads named after prominent families in town who have made their homes there for generations. Generations of families live side-by-side, childhood friends remain friends forever, having the same conversations day in and day out. There, time stands still.
My family is a transplant there - neither my mom nor my dad grew up there. My brother is there thought my sister, Weez, and I left as soon as we headed off for college and never looked back. This was an unfamiliar practice - most people who went to college went locally or at least within the state. My sister and I never even considered sticking around. We were off for greener pastures, the same way my mom and dad were when they were young. Maybe finding our own way in the world, away from everything and everyone we knew as kids, is somehow rooted in our genes.
While my mom always wanted us to make our own way, it's fair to say that she wishes we were all always around, all the time. It must be a hard process to watch someone you brought into the world head out into the unknown to see what they can find. Lahiri's stories boil down to a common theme: the unknown is frightening, and it's especially frightening for older generations who watch younger ones take flight in foreign spaces. I imagine it's the same for my mom - while she wants so much for us to have adventures, she also worries about Weez and I being safe and happy and healthy in a way that she doesn't worry about my brother.
Lahiri begins her book with a quote that puts her stories in perspective. "Human nature will not flourish...for too long a series of generations in the same worn-out soil. My children...shall strike their roots in unaccustomed earth. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne." While the stories mostly talk about conflict between generations, with Hawthorne's quote she acknowledges that future generations must put down their roots in foreign soil in order for us to move forward, evolve, and lead productive lives. It's that process of making the unfamiliar familiar that is so critical to our development, and the development of humanity. Adapt and change are the only two things we ever really have to do.