Lahiri speaks about words, writing and a sense of belonging

by Kaina Chen | 5/17/16 5:01pm

Monday afternoon in Filene Auditorium, audience members filled the seats and aisles to hear acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri speak about her work and answer questions from the audience. Her books include “Interpreter of Maladies,” “The Namesake,” “Unaccustomed Earth” and “The Lowland.” She received a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her literary debut, “Interpreter of Maladies.” She has also been awarded the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for “Unaccustomed Earth” and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for “The Lowland.”

Lahiri began the 90-minute session with an introduction about how her upbringing has influenced much of her work. She was born in London to Bengali immigrant parents, but moved to the United States at a very young age. Lahiri spoke Bengali with her parents and spoke English outside of the home.

She did not truly feel at home in her physical home, but rather in the public library. Lahiri said that the shelves of books there gave her “possibility and a sense of belonging.”

This sense of displacement that largely stems from immigration is a prominent theme in “Interpreter of Maladies,” a collection of short stories that narrates the triumphs and tribulations of Indian immigrants.

Even though she is no longer the child who found solace in a library amongst books, Lahiri’s sense of not quite having one particular place to call home has remained.

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t return anywhere,” Lahiri writes in her most recent work, “In altre parole” (In Other Words). “I wander the world, even as I wrote at my desk.”

An audience memberintroduced the idea of “words and empty space” as expressed by Lahiri, which focused the discussion on “In altre parole” which was originally written in Italian. Lahiri, who had always been fascinated by Italian, decided to move to Italy in 2012 and fully immerse herself in the language and culture, writing in Italian in a diary that eventually became the book.

Lahiri specifically tackled the relationship between words and empty space by filling blank notebooks with multiple lists of words during the lengthy process of learning a new language. This process paralleled Lahiri’s perspective on creative spaces. For her, a creative space can begin with the kind of emptiness that is willing to be filled.

“It’s really when I started putting words on paper that I started to feel present and alive,” Lahiri said.

The idea of the permanence of words complemented her sense of feeling adrift.

“[Words] seem to represent me in a more concrete way than I myself felt,” Lahiri said.

Commenting on why she chose to learn another language even though she has been very successful with work written in English, Lahiri remarked that she chose Italian precisely because it was unexpected.

“It’s not filtered or mediated by either my family’s vast set of expectations or by the world in which I was raised,” Lahiri said.

Yet, Lahiri’s expanding language capabilities highlight her sense of exile. Lahiri noted a sense of her alienation from each of the three languages as they are components of very different parts of her life. Lahiri feels “more affectionate” in Italian, while she feels it is “wrong to speak to a child in English,” because it was not the language she grew up surrounded by.

Furthermore, Lahiri felt that language was very much a limiting factor. She found the experience of living in Europe where different languages are spoken so closely together “humbling.” Yet, as limiting as they can be, she acknowledges that “the wonderful thing about languages is that they can be learned.”

“They’re kind of beautiful that way,” Lahiri said.

“In altre parole” was translated into English by Ann Goldstein, under the title “In Other Words.” Lahiri did not translate the novel herself because she wanted to spend her remaining time in Italy fully immersed in the language.

“I didn’t want to risk creating a more polished version of what I had made in Italian”, Lahiri said. “I felt that a translator with objectivity would be the right person to do that.”

Audience member Sai Mupparaju ’18 related to Lahiri’s sense of displacement.

“I understood what she meant about not really belonging to a singular language,” Mupparaju said.

Beyond her work as an author, Lahiri is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University and was appointed by President Barack Obama onto the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

This event is part of the Leslie Center for the Humanities speaker series.


Correction appended (May 18, 2016):

The original version of this article incorrectly quoted Nisha Kommattam, a postdoctoral fellow for the Leslie Center for the Humanities, and Lahiri. Kommattam's quote has been removed and Lahiri's quote, "Those who don't belong to any specific place can't return anywhere. I wander the world, even as I wrote at my desk" has been changed to a direct citation from Lahiri's novel "In Other Words," which she read during her talk.