Unaccustomed Earth

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Unaccustomed Earth. I love the sound of that title, the drawl of the vowels on my tongue. The words themselves come from Nathaniel Hawthorne, more specifically from The Custom-House, the introduction to The Scarlet Letter. Lahiri chose the following section as the epigraph to her book:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

In a piece for The Guardian book club, Lahiri explains how she came to make that choice:

The phrase “Unaccustomed Earth” comes from the preface to The Scarlet Letter, which I’d first read in high school. Rereading it at nearly 40, I was both startled and unspeakably reassured. I felt that a writer who represents everything that I seemed not to be while growing up – an American, a New Englander, whose work is set in the very terrain in which I was raised and from which I felt always estranged – had articulated, almost two centuries ago, the journey and experience of my family, and had also expressed my project as a writer. The sense of recognition, of connection across space and time, was profound. It was the crossing of a fault line, a handshake in a darkened room.

Whether it’s the particular view of migration, or just the mention of potatoes, but Hawthorne’s lines have always felt particularly resonant to this Irish soul.


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