Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is first Indian origin author to be conferred with the top US award
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, September 10, 2015 – At a sparkling ceremony in the White House, President Obama awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal to celebrated Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri. First Lady Michelle Obama and some 200 illustrious guests in the fields of arts and humanities attended the event in the ornate East Room.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri is the first Indian origin author to be conferred with this top US award. She was duly recognized with the 2014 National Humanities Medal “for enlarging the human story. In her works of fiction, Dr. Lahiri has illuminated the Indian-American experience in beautifully wrought narratives of estrangement and belonging”, read the citation which was rendered at the ceremony by a uniformed military aide.
President Obama, in a grey suit and violet tie, presented both the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal to “truly extraordinary artists and innovators and thinkers”, amid much applause from an attentive audience. He declared at the outset, “love this event”. Welcoming the gathering together with the First Lady, he said, it is “one of our favorite events of the year”!
Among the honorees at the White House ceremony were artists, actors, writers, musicians, historians, a landscape architect and a chef – spanning “mediums and methods”, noted Obama. “Without them, there would be no Edible Schoolyard, no Jhumpa Lahiri novels, no really scary things like Carrie and Misery”, he said, evoking laughter.
Continuing to laud the recipients, Obama pointed out, “They are versatile – poets and opera singers who were also master teachers at liberal arts colleges and Detroit public schools; philosophers who wrote novels. They are visual artists who work filling pages that spilled over to screens, three-dimensional gallery floors, and most of a New York City block”, he said.
“And they all have one thing in common: They do what they do because of some urgent inner force, some need to express the truth that they experience, that ‘rare truth’. And as a result, they help us understand ourselves in ways that we might not otherwise recognize. They deepen and broaden our great American story and the human story”.
The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. The National Medal of Arts is awarded to individuals or groups for their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.
At the White House ceremony, the arts medal was conferred upon Hollywood actress Sally Field and science fiction, horror and dark fantasy author Stephen King, among eleven recipients. In all, there were eighteen individuals and three organizations who were presented either a National Medal of Arts or a National Humanities Medal, the highest honor in both fields.
President Obama recalled that fifty years ago, President Johnson signed the Arts and Humanities Bill into law at the White House and created the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities). Quoting President Johnson, he said, “In countless American towns, there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset”.
President Obama told the gathering, “Half a century later – because of their raw talent, their passion, their need to create, but also because our country invests in the arts and the humanities as great national assets – some of those once obscure and unknown talents are rightly being recognized. That’s what we celebrate here today – our fellow citizens, from all walks of life, who share their gifts with all of us, who make our lives and our world more beautiful, and richer, and fuller, and I think most importantly, help us understand each other a little bit better. They help us connect”.
Clearly enjoying the ceremony from start to finish, Obama revealed, “I always do good with writers and scientists. Those are my crew”. Unlike the political class.
Quoting the American poet Emily Dickinson who said, “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it”, the President took a dig at the political establishment. “The truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it – and that’s especially true in Washington”, he said, to much laughter from the audience.
At the White House ceremony, Lahiri cut a pretty picture in a black dress, accompanied by family members.
Interestingly, her novel, ‘The Lowland’, was among the books that President Obama took with him while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, earlier this summer. The story is about two brothers who grow up in Calcutta in the 1950s and ‘60s. After the death of one sibling, the other marries his pregnant wife, now an unwelcome daughter-in-law, and migrates to America.
In 2000, Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her collection of short stories, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. Among her other notable works are ‘The Namesake’ and ‘Unaccustomed Earth’.