Grocery Shopping: Assimilation through Juxtaposition in The Namesake

I’m going to be honest. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake for class in high school, and my strongest memory of that unit was everyone complaining about having to read it at all. For context, I went to a fairly white and mostly assimilated high school in the suburbs eastern Massachusetts, so you would think that the parallels between our town and the town the Gangulis occupy would have been a bit more obvious than they actually were. But at the time, no one seemed to notice just how present the novel’s depiction of assimilation was directly around us.

Regardless of my high school’s opinion on The Namesake, the novel outlines clear tensions within the Ganguli family’s assimilation to American culture, particurally within the generational gap. Lahiri juxtaposes these generations while speaking of the adaptations Ashoke andboar bristle shaving brushAshima make through the years. She writes that “Ashoke, accustomed to wearing tailor-made pants and shirts all his life, learns to buy ready-made. He trades in fountain pens for ballpoints, Wilkinson blades and his boar-bristled shaving brush for Bic razors brought six to a pack” (Lahiri 65). Lahiri identifiesBic RazorsAshoke’s material habits to fall into one of two opposing categories: American convention and Indian convention. By setting tailor-made clothing, fountain pens, and a shaving brush against ready-made clothes, ballpoints, and Bic razors, Lahiri juxtaposes the material elements of Ashoke’s life. She emphasizes the replacement of Indian lifestyle conventions with American ones, identifying the swapping out of possessions as a marker of the family’s assimilation and adaptation of American life.

In contrast to Lahiri’s description of Ashoke’s switching from Indian conventions to American conventions, she only refers to the American conventions when speaking of Gogol. She writes that “In the supermarket they let Gogol fill the cart with items that he and Sonia, but not they, consume: individually wrapped slices of cheese, mayonnaise, tuna fish, hot dogs. For Gogol’s lunches they stand at the deli to buy cold cuts, and in the mornings Ashima makes sandwiches with bologna or roast beef. At his insistence, she concedes and makes him and American dinner once a week as a treat, Shake ‘n Bake or Hamburger Helper prepared with"american food aisle" at a british grocery storeground lamb” (Lahiri 65). In the lists of American food that she identifies as staples of Gogol’s diet and tastes, Lahiri never compares them to the Indian alternative which they substitute in for. Instead, she presents without alternative the American conventions which Gogol prefers. Lahiri’s description of Gogol and American food directly juxtaposes with Ashoke and American objects, as for Gogol, the younger generation, she does not note on the alternative, which lingers for Ashoke, the elder generation.

Through juxtaposition, Lahiri reflects on the generational perspective between immigrants and their children as they assimilate. With the descriptions of food and materials in their lives, Lahiri suggests the separate nature of assimilation. For an elder generation, American assimilation comes more with a sense of substitution and replacement. However, for the younger generation, being raised in America, gravitate toward American cultural norms and do not experience that sense of replacing their heritage.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

She Cries, She Cries, She Cries: Repetition and Juxtaposition of Action Verbs in The Namesake 

Homesickness. We all know the feeling. The empty pit in your stomach. The feeling of longing that you just can’t quite put at ease. And then just like that, something familiar comes along and there is a brief sense of relief. In The Namesake, Ashima’s homesickness is almost tangible. However, with the birth of her son, Gogol, there is a short lived relief. Lahiri uses the repetition and juxtaposition of action verbs to show this brief, but positive change.

Figure walking through emptiness.

From her first years in the United States to the birth of her son, all Ashima thinks about is going home. Every day she goes through the same routine, barely moving, barely living. Lahiri’s use of repetition emphasizes the monotony of Ashima’s everyday routine.

“She cries as she feeds him and as she pats him to sleep, and he cries between sleeping and feeding. She cries after the mailman’s visit because there are no letters from Calcutta. She cries when she calls Ashoke at his department and he does not answer” (Lahiri 34).

Not only does the repetition of “cries” make clear how unhappy Ashima is with life in the United States, it also emphasizes how boring and colorless each of her days is. Every activity that Ashima performs takes place within her house and there is no interaction with anyone but the mailman. However, all of this changes once she starts to take agency in her life, due to the birth of her son. In taking care of Gogol, Ashima develops new patterns that make her life much more eventful and the verbs Lahiri uses to describe her actions begin to change too.Mother and child's hands

“She discovers,” “she gives,” “she sings,” “she drinks,” (Lahiri 35).

Just as before, the word “she” is repeated over and over, and yet each time it is accompanied by something new. Though to cry is an action verb, the verbs that accompany “she” here show much more physical movement and, along with that, happiness. In juxtaposition with the words from just a page earlier, it is as though Ashima has finally begun to live her life.

B5.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2003.

Ethnic Lit: A Hot Topic & License to Bore

It’s hot. It’s important. It focuses too much on exotic food. It’s a bore. It’s a mean of exploitation.

All of these phrases are used to describe one thing in Nam Le’s “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”: ethnic literature. In this short story, protagonist Nam struggles with reconnecting with his abusive father and with writing & submitting a story in three days. Because Nam and his father are refugees of the Vietnam War, Nam is torn over whether or not he should write a story about his personal experiences and background. While Nam understands the importance of telling a personal story, he does not want to confront his family’s past or fall into the expected category of “ethnic writers.” As Nam mulls over these problems, thoughts of contrasting perspectives and various pieces of advice from literary agents, colleagues, and friends fill his head, highlighting the juxtaposition of ethnic literature’s roles in the story.

Though Nam’s thoughts are fictional, his issues with ethnic literature, identity, and categorization are grounded in reality. Vietnamese American authors, like Nam, have struggled with separating their writings from the Vietnam War. As noted by Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen in “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Vietnamese Americans “express deep ambivalence about writing a literature that is marked so indelibly by war, colonialism, racism, and the experiences of being exiles, refugees, and immigrants…Vietnamese Americans tend to be visible so long as they speak of [the war] and invisible when they speak of other matters” (Kim & Nguyen 66 – 67). Thus, Vietnamese American writers find it difficult to assert their own independence in the writing world since most people expect (and perhaps wish) for their pieces to be about their Vietnamese backgrounds and experiences with the war and refugee crisis that followed.

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The categorization of Vietnamese American authors as a race of people whose works are only worthy if they write about the war creates an identity that Nam greatly dislikes. This racial categorization is represented in the story when two literary agents talk to Nam: “‘You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?’ She tagteamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as through intoning a mantra, ‘Your background and life experience‘” (Le 9). The fact that the words “background” and “life experience” are italicized demonstrates how much these terms stand out to Nam and how the two literary agents like to emphasize them. Additionally, the choice to use the word “mantra” implies how often the literary agents have pitched this idea to potential ethnic writers, highlighting the racial categorization present in Le’s story.

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But not all of the people in Nam’s life implore him to focus on his racial identity when writing. A drunk friend rants about how “it’s a license to bore” (Le 9) because people of a certain culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are constantly writing about their own background, creating predictable stories filled with characters who are “always flat, generic” (Le 9). Although the very same friend later encourages Nam to “totally exploit the Vietnamese thing” (Le 10), his argument on categorization and predictability bring attention to the juxtaposition of ethnic literature. The comparing and contrasting of the perspectives, pros, and cons of ethnic literature help paint a larger picture: we are able to see how ethnic literature is important because it helps shed light on the experiences of minority communities but at the same time, puts ethnic people in a box of assumptions, such as Vietnamese Americans being expected to write about the Vietnam War. Thus, the juxtaposition of ethnic literature highlights the assumptions that Vietnamese American writers must combat and makes us readers take into consideration how a person’s culture, race, or nationality does not automatically guarantee the production of a story based on these factors.

B4

Works Cited

Kim, Daniel Y. and Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.” The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Crystal Parikh and Daniel Y. Kim, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 66 – 67.

Le, Nam. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” The Boat, Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.