Interpreter of Charities?

John McNally takes Jhumpa Lahiri to task for applying for a $20,000 NEA grant designed to help writers at a critical point in their career. McNally notes that Lahiri received a $4 million deal for her next two books.

Lahiri applied for an NEA fellowship after her financial success. Her name is listed here, among the “Literature Fellowships in Prose” fellowship winners. Amazingly, Lahiri has the temerity to write in her NEA acceptance blurb:

The fellowship is a gift in two ways. First, it will allow me to finance childcare, making it logistically possible for me to write. Second, in a period when my creative life often threatens to vanish behind the responsibilities of motherhood, my grant will remind me that I am also a writer, and that as compromised as the hours at the desk may be, they are necessary and vital.

You mean to fucking tell me that after the $10,000 she received for the Pulitzer, the $7,500 she received for the PEN/Hemingway award, the who knows what kind of high five to low six-figure sum she received for selling the Namesake film rights to Mira Nair, and the 200,000 copies of The Namesake sold (and that’s just in the States) that Jhumpa’s hurting for fucking cash? (And let’s not forget that her husband is the Executive Editor of El Diario La Pensa, the nation’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper, who can’t be doing too shabby.)

What a crock of shit. Even if Jhumpa does live in Brooklyn.

So what are Alberto and Jhumpa doing? Blowing all their money on Twinkies?

Okay. So let’s give Jhumpa the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she hasn’t cashed all the checks yet. Maybe the pair’s just really bad with money. Maybe they’re cash poor or the money’s “tied up in investments,” as the old saying goes. A 2003 San Francisco Chronicle interview reveals this little tidbit:

Before the Pulitzer, my husband and I were sharing a small one-bedroom, and I was writing in the corner of the bedroom. Now it’s a little larger, but with our son, I still don’t have a room to write in. It hasn’t catapulted us into some sort of surreal existence. I still do my own laundry. We have a modest two-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood; I have a woman looking after my son for three hours a day. We ride the subway. We go to the grocery store.

You do your own laundry? You do your own shopping and ride the subway? You don’t have a room to write in? Cry me a fucking river, Jhumpa. About 90% of the fucking human population lives this kind of life and they don’t complain.

And you have the fucking temerity to apply for a $20,000 fellowship? A sum which, for another writer, is the difference between working a full-time job and a part-time job? The difference between having additional energy to write a novel over a year and popping Benzedrine. They too have families.

If Jhumpa Lahiri had any sense of decency, she’d do what Jonathan Safran Foer did (and tried to do with quiet nobility before he responded here) and give back the money to NEA. But I suspect that she won’t. After all, there’s a launderer and a professional shopper to pay.

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5 Comments

  1. I have to disagree with you guys on this one, on several counts. I see why you’re so irate, and I sympathize, but there are a number of factors you’re not taking into account:

    1. I highly doubt whether Lahiri really received a $4 million book deal.

    2. I agree with you that Lahiri doesn’t strictly speaking need the money in the way that many other applicants do, but the way of the world (or at least of upper-middle-class New York) is that even professionals earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year will find an extra $20,000 comes in handy. Annoying but true.

    3. Writers ‘need’ to receive prestigious grants for reasons other than money. One reason is the kind that Lahiri gestures to–if you’re the mother of young children and work at home as a writer or other kind of artist, it is indeed difficult to hold onto your professional identity, and this kind of professional validation (and yes, I know she’s had tons of validation, but validation is addictive and makes us want more of it!) might well be genuinely important to someone already very well-known. Another reason concerns, say, teaching jobs: if you wanted to be a tenured professor at NYU or Columbia, you had better have a lot of stuff like this on your CV. (Again, I don’t say that this is a good thing, just that it’s the world we live in.) And when you think about it, and especially when you think about how the figures reported for advances are usually quite inflated, that’s actually a much more financially secure existence than even a million-dollar advance.

    4. The website blurb definitely sounds annoying, but she was probably required to write a formal acceptance of the grant in which she explained how she planned to use the money. This is a standard requirement in such cases. And that rather smug and grateful tone is the one that for better and for worse we tend to adopt in such circumstances.

    All I’m saying is don’t rush to judgment!

  2. It makes me sick to think that some one as successful as Lahiri would have the gall to apply for a NEA grant when she has no need for the cash, but really just wants yet another line on her resume. Even worse, why would the NEA even offer her the grant in the first place. You can’t tell me that they have never heard of her work and wanted to help out an aspiring author.

    While I was slogging away in academia (before my life as a full time freelance writer) I noticed that the people who already had a sucessful track record with grants were the ones who kept getting them. It was sort of a catch-22, in order to be a successful grant writer, you already had to have gotten grants. Sick really. Thankfully I had a decent record, but there were a lot of people who had to pile their debts high just to pay tuition. And then there were the Lahiri style hot shots who got everything they applied for and made everyone else want to strangle them.

    If there was any justice in the world (not saying that there is) then granting agencies should put a little less emphasis on past sucesses and try to foster up and coming artists/scientists/whatever.

  3. Scott
    Isn’t it possible that past success isn’t the factor that is taken into account?
    Couldn’t past successes be birthed from more talent/work put in?
    At one time, the grant writer/anything with past successes had no past successes…he’she had to win the first grant.

    The NEA reads the submissions blindly, this “granting agenc[y]” had no idea of the applicant’s past success.

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