Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing, Translation, and Crossing Between Cultures (Ep. 17 — Live at Mason)
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Author, teacher, and translator Jhumpa Lahiri joins Tyler for a conversation on identity, Rhode Island, writing as problem solving, reading across languages, the badness of book covers, Elena Ferrante, Bengali culture, the magic of Kolkata, Italian authors, Indian classical music, architectural influences, and much more.
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TYLER COWEN: Thank you for coming. You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.
LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.
First of all, thank you all very much for coming and for your warm welcome.
It is true that I lived there. Let’s see, how long did I live there? From the age of 3 to 18.
LAHIRI: So, 15 years?
COWEN: And you went to Barnard at 18, right?
LAHIRI: I did.
So I lived for as long in New York as I did in Rhode Island. But, of course, one’s childhood is one’s childhood and is formative in a way that later experiences are not. So yes, it is a part of who I am, absolutely. But I’ve always had a very uneasy relationship with the place.
You [earlier] mentioned the essay in State by State, one of these books that have been kindly assembled here. Such a lovely display. Really, I’m so touched. I was asked to write about Rhode Island in this anthology called State by State, which invited a number of authors to write about their home state or a state that they had some sort of connection to. And so I chose Rhode Island. I mean, I was asked to write about Rhode Island and I said yes. But partly it was to get over this sense of discomfort about your very opening.
COWEN: Did it work? [laughs]
LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.
It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.
On early influences
COWEN: We’ll get to your most recent work, but one of the things I like most about everything you’ve done is, I always get the sense you’re trying to work out some problem for yourself and also for us. I’d like to survey your whole writing life and start with the question: When you were young, when you were, say, 15 years old, what was your favorite novel, and why?
LAHIRI: Well, I think I had started reading Russian literature around that age. I had some friends, my family had friends. They had three daughters: one of them was a little bit older. She was already in college. When I would visit them, I would see these big volumes of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy on her desk, these Norton Critical Editions, and they were really appealing to me. So I tried to rise to another level of reading. That’s probably what I was reading a lot of.
I loved Hawthorne even then. I was in 10th grade when I was 15. I read The Great Gatsby that year. And the following year I was introduced to Hardy, who has become so important to me as well. So it was in high school that I encountered, fortunately, certain authors who have stayed with me for all of this time, and who continue to inspire me.
COWEN: One of the things I’ve liked about comments you’ve dropped, is the way you read, say, Scarlet Letter, as actually a novel of immigrants. That maybe the characters wouldn’t have behaved that way in a “home” country.
Even a lot of Hardy, especially Tess, a favorite of yours, you can read as a kind of immigrant novel. Coming from the countryside, moving somewhere quite strange — to use that as a lens for interpreting what otherwise might seem like strange character behaviors. Reading them through you is actually very rewarding, through your eyes, through your fiction. Does that make sense to you at all?
LAHIRI: Yes. I think what I’m responding to is the sense of displacement in those authors, in almost any author. Even Willa Cather you can read this way; Homer you can read this way. So many authors you can read this way. Some years ago I was asked this question by the New York Times Book Review about what was my problem with immigrant literature, and I made a maybe cheeky remark about how I didn’t believe in it. But it wasn’t being cheeky. It was just saying what I felt was true, which is that this is something I’ve responded to in literature from the very beginning.
If I didn’t have this response to literature, then these writers wouldn’t have fed and inspired me the way they did because there would’ve been a “barrier” between their experiences and their times and mine, and that shouldn’t be the case. That’s not what literature does. Literature does the opposite. It allows us to cross over those boundaries in a beautiful way, in a magical way.
On Ashapoorna Devi
COWEN: If I can trust the Internet, you have three master’s degrees in creative writing, comparative literature, and English, and for one of your degrees, you translated six Bengali short stories by Ashapoorna Devi, who’s a Bengali writer, maybe the most famous woman writer or even most famous writer in Bengal for much of the 20th century. What connects you to her and what problem were you trying to solve by engaging in her work?
LAHIRI: I knew about her through my mother, who’s a devoted reader of Ashapoorna Devi’s work and talked about her a lot.
It’s interesting. My mother read a lot, but she didn’t really read in English very much at all. She read in Bengali. And I remember the effort of going to Kolkata, ordering the books. My mother . . . the list she would give my uncle, who had the connections with all the booksellers on College Street in Kolkata, which is the book district. The drama of this — going and ordering all the books from the publishers and waiting, and bringing them back in the rickshaw, piling them, the whole thing, and then bringing them back to the United States.
I saw what it meant to her, and I saw, as with everything, with trying to get the right ingredients. I could see that those books simply weren’t available here, and they were, in some sense, her lifeline.
Anyway, she would talk about the work of this particular author, among others, and I was struck by the things she described. A very prolific author of short stories and novels, of some very incisive short stories about domestic life and classified — unfairly, I think — as a writer for women, which I don’t think she is at all. I think she has a much more universal power and vision.
In graduate school, I was taking this translation workshop, and at some point, I was asked to translate something and I thought, “Well, what can I do here?” I had studied Latin and ancient Greek a little bit, and I had some French, and then I had Bengali as my first language.
COWEN: But you didn’t read Bengali and Bengali characters?
LAHIRI: But I couldn’t read it and I still really can’t, and I couldn’t write in it, either, and I still really can’t. Yet I worked around this obvious obstacle. I asked my mother to read a number of these stories out loud, and I taped her. Then I listened to them and kept playing them back, playing them back, and I translated in this way. I can read enough, painstakingly, slowly, but it’s not completely incomprehensible to me. I could then go back; in addition to the tapes, I could also look at the text and see how things were structured, where the breaks were, etc., etc.
I even caught my mother a couple of times — she skipped a paragraph here and there, and I would call her up and say, “What about this part where she’s describing . . . ?” So it was a really interesting project. But that’s how it started.
COWEN: There’s something about how she sets her stories in architectural space always that reminds me of your writings. When you have a scene, you describe a home very often or the place in advance, and that’s imposing a structure on the scene and that’s in her. Do you get that from her?
LAHIRI: In the commentary I wrote to the thesis, if I’m not mistaken (this was a lifetime ago), I think that was part of the lens I brought to my critical reading of the stories — that she was a writer very attuned to space, to physical space. I must have been affected by this in some sense.
My doctoral dissertation built on this in that I wrote about Jacobean English drama and where it was set specifically, often in a corrupt Italian palazzo, and what that meant. So I think as a reader of literature when I was a student of literature I was very attuned to where things were set and why, and what it meant to have that literal architecture being an element of narrative.
On architecture and physical settings
COWEN: We’re at George Mason University and George Mason, the man, lived in a place called Gunston Hall. That’s one of the best-known examples of Palladian architecture in Virginia, even on the whole Atlantic seaboard. You did a PhD dissertation on Renaissance studies. What is it about Palladianism and palladia that drew your attention? What’s the magnet there for you?
LAHIRI: Now that you ask me, I’m thinking, “OK, what led me to this?”
One of the classes that I was taking as a graduate student was a broad seminar with lots of different professors. There was one professor named Roger Scruton, who writes a lot about architecture.
COWEN: Sure, I know him. I had a debate with him once on the nature of friendship.
LAHIRI: Yes, he’s very . . .
COWEN: I won.
Yeah, he’s a very well-spoken man with a broad range of interests: aesthetics, philosophy, architecture. He taught part of this class and talked about the language of architecture, Italian architecture in particular. I was really struck by the class, the idea of it, looking at space so carefully. These beautiful spaces, what they meant, the vocabulary implicit in architecture.
So that was step one, and then I went to Florence in this time. I went to Italy for the first time. Not only did it lead to this whole other phase of my life, writing in Italian, but I toured the architecture, looking at the places that I was seeing in slides as a grad student in Boston and connecting to them. Really experiencing those spaces for the first time.
Then when I was reading these plays, I was always interested in where Shakespeare set his plays. I was interested in his use of Italy as a setting, and that got me thinking about what was the relationship in Renaissance England. What was it all about and what did Italy represent to England and to English artists and dramatists? What was this choice all about? Why were they setting clearly English political drama on foreign soil, and what that meant.
COWEN: They’re also afraid of Italy, right? It’s a symbol of corruption and . . .
LAHIRI: It’s a sort of love-horror, love-hate, attraction-repulsion, contradictory attitude, which I tried to unpack a little bit in the course of the dissertation.
COWEN: So, it’s still working through some set of related problems, in a way.
LAHIRI: Yeah, and I think one thing that’s always in there is this idea of translation and bringing back and crossing over. One thing that was happening in the Renaissance was that these people were literally traveling to Venice, to Florence, to Rome, and seeing this architecture, which is born from that place, and then bringing those ideas back. Translating the works of Vitruvius or [Leon Battista] Alberti or whomever, and then using those ideas literally to build buildings in England, and from there we have things here in the United States. So that also interested me.
On the most intimate form of reading
COWEN: To continue the whirlwind tour of your career — in preparing for this, I reread Interpreter of Maladies, and this was the sense I had this time around: that one of your characters, Mr. Kapasi, who is the interpreter of maladies — so if people come to the doctor and they only speak Gujarati, he’s able to translate that for the doctor and explain what the symptoms are — that in a sense, in the book you view yourself, the author, as the interpreter of maladies. People are disconnected in different ways, and you’re the one doing the interpreting; and he’s at the center of the book, and he’s a stand-in for you. Is that just my imagination?
LAHIRI: Probably not, but I don’t think I was aware of it at the time.
Just yesterday, I was talking in Princeton at a place called Dorothea’s House, which is dedicated to Italian-American culture and so on, talking about the most recent book. At one point I was talking about this idea, in antiquity: in Latin, the word for translator is interpreter. I teach translation now, and I talk a lot to my students about translation being the most intimate form of reading and how there was the time when translating and interpreting and analyzing were all one thing.
Now there are translators, and there are people who look at books and analyze them, and there are scholars, etc. It’s not necessarily the same activity. So I wrote Interpreter of Maladies; that was my first book. I called it that — I heard the title in this strange flash.
Now years have gone by, and I’m now just setting out on a new phase of my creative life as a translator. And so I think it’s all one continuum. But one can’t realize these things in the moment. It’s only looking back that you see certain patterns.
On Elena Ferrante and becoming darker
COWEN: Another thing that struck me about this book was how much it had in common with Elena Ferrante in some ways. And of course, this is at a time when you wouldn’t have read her yet. But this notion of both feeling a need to set everything right for so many different people and being unable to, and that carrying a kind of sadness. And then interjected into the story, always, are books. Books in both have this immense power. Everyone’s reading them; everyone’s looking to them for answers.
Yet at the same time, books are somehow impotent because they don’t actually allow anyone to set everything right, for parents or other sets of people. She has a bit of that, and you have a bit of that, and of course it’s completely independent. But your later fascination with her seems, already, to be in Interpreter of Maladies in some ways. Does that make sense to you?
LAHIRI: I certainly recognized that in her work when I read her, and I wrote to her. I wrote two letters to her, that were sort of public letters that I read in Rome some years ago in public. And maybe she was there or maybe she wasn’t. In any case, she did write back to me. And I talked precisely about this.
I talked about how books are characters in her work, and I think her work, in some sense, is about reading and about language and literature and what it means on a very deep level, a very sophisticated level. I don’t think my work is doing that at all, but I think about it a lot. And so I was very struck by that element of her work and this focus on characters who write, characters who become writers, how books shape and form us on the one hand, and how they betray us on the other hand and can’t really contain what life is — this contradiction at heart.
COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?
LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?
LAHIRI: That’s my sense. Though I really try not to read a lot about what people say about my work, I also don’t live in a vacuum in outer space. So I sense reactions to certain things. As the years have gone by and the books have evolved, the vision has become a little less forgiving, less tolerant; a little less bittersweet and more just bitter. And that’s fine.
I remember, even with The Lowland — and I don’t think my editor would mind if I shared this with you — but at one point she said, “Well, it’s just really grim sometimes, what goes on.” We share a love of Hardy, and I said, “Would you really have said that to Hardy?”
LAHIRI: She didn’t say anything else. So I published the book I wanted to publish, but a lot of people have said to me, “I just couldn’t read the book. It was just too heavy, too dark, too whatever.” They miss I think the bittersweet quality of, say, a novel like The Namesake.
COWEN: You bring up Lowland. I’d like to ask you a few questions about Bengal. If someone’s visiting India, and they ask me for advice, I say, “You simply, absolutely must go to Kolkata.” To the extent you feel the same way, how would you articulate why it is people ought to go visit Kolkata?
LAHIRI: Because it’s one of the most fascinating places on earth. It’s a city that is like no other, with a life, a cultural life, a history utterly its own, and hard, and beautiful. Its beauty is not conventional. People say, “Is it a beautiful city?” Well, no. I mean yes, parts of it can be. Yes, of course, but not in that conventional sense, and it’s challenging on a whole host of levels.
Of course I don’t know it as a tourist because my family’s from there, and I’ve never known it in any other way other than — when I was very young — where my grandparents lived, and then my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and so forth. So I have my own relationship to it. But it’s like not knowing New York City in the American context. It’s just its own thing, and it’s so strong in its flavor, and its power, and its energy. So it has to be reckoned with, I think.
COWEN: If I think of Indian economists, two of the best known would be Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee, and they’re both Bengali, of course. Why does it seem that so much of the Indian intelligentsia comes from Kolkata or Bengal? What is in the water, so to speak?
[Kolkata] believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.
LAHIRI: I don’t know. I hate to make these kind of sweeping generalized comments. I don’t believe in them.
But it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.
COWEN: If I were to take a superficial reading of Indian history, earlier Kolkata is the central capital for the British Empire in India. You could argue that, as the British left India since World War II, Kolkata has become significantly less central in some ways. Delhi and Mumbai seem to become more important. (a) Do you think that’s true? And (b) if it is true, do you think that, in part, accounts for why Kolkata has stayed so interesting? That loss of centrality or existing on the margins? You even have a nice Italian word for this.
LAHIRI: Well, I think it’s retained a certain character, that the other big cities have a more Western overlay at this point. Kolkata is not far behind, and it’s changed radically from the city I knew when I was a young girl. With developments, globalization, what have you, you have lots of development. All the five-star hotels you could ever want, and all the companies and banks and things and fancy roads, all of that stuff that back in the ’70s, Kolkata didn’t have. Then the airport was distinctly not glamorous, and all of these things.
So you felt, “OK, this is a different kind of experience.” Not designed for the tourists, not designed for the important person, shall we say. So that has already changed, and that distance is smaller, significantly smaller. But in some sense, yes, I think it still retains its own particular flavor and energy because of this, maybe.
COWEN: How emotionally tied do you feel to the earlier history? In 1905, [George] Curzon partitions what is now West Bengal from what is now Bangladesh, and you can easily imagine some alternate history where that hadn’t happened, and the way the national borders would have been divvied up would be quite different from what we see.
Is that just abstract history to you, the way I might read about the English Renaissance? Or is that something that has emotional oomph in your mind, in your heart, and you feel somehow torn as a Bengali, that you’ve been separated from other Bengalis in some way? Or is it just not part of your connection to West Bengal?
LAHIRI: Well, it’s interesting. My relationship with Indian history is in these two categories: In some sense, I didn’t study any of it because I was raised here, so India just wasn’t on any map anywhere ever. There was a sort of formal separation as a child growing up in this country. On the other hand, I come from my family. And because we would go back to Kolkata quite often, and because my family and their friends talked a lot about their country, their city, history, events, I was always aware at the same time, of these incredibly traumatic events in Indian history and the Partition — most of all, what that meant, particularly for my father’s family, the neighborhood that my father grew up in, which I describe in The Lowland a little bit.
I asked my parents when I was a young girl . . . one of the stories in Interpreter of Maladies is called “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” It comes from a vague memory of a man from Bangladesh, a scholar who was living in Rhode Island in the 1970s during that civil war, and my curiosity about who he was and why he was there, and stories my parents told me.
Then, as I grew older, as I became more of a conscious person, a teenager, wondering about things, going back to India — I was slowly starting to fill in pieces. Like, “OK, so this is what happened and it happened at this time, and then this and this. This meant this wave of people came and all of these people lived this thing.”
But on top of that there’s the residue. There’s emotional residue of what it’s meant for certain people, either in my family or people that my family knows, who remain deeply scarred by those events. Not only deeply scarred, but actively hostile, resentful — toward, for the case of my family, East Bengal and Muslims, for example. So this was something that I took in, and I still take in. That uneasy relationship between Hindus and Muslims in Bengali culture is still very alive today.
My daughter: her name is Noor, which is a Persian name. But there were people in my family who commented on that choice of name, thinking, “Well, what does she think she’s doing?”
COWEN: Because it’s Persian?
LAHIRI: Because it’s associated with Muslims, etc., etc. This kind of hatred, intolerance, prejudice that is still very much in my family’s kitchen, at their dinner table. My parents are not like that at all, and they taught me to be free of these kinds of attitudes.
Perhaps that’s easier for me to say because I didn’t experience the trauma of my family losing their ancestral property, for example, which some of their friends experienced and therefore, even now, in 2016, they’re still saying, “Oh, but this horrible thing happened and we’re still upset about it.”
COWEN: What’s your literary or maybe also emotional relationship with the works of [Rabindranath] Tagore? He’s a towering giant in Bengali intellectual history. In your stories every now and then, someone’s reading his poems. There are a lot of themes from him that are in your work, like The Home and the World, this odd mix of tensions between the cosmopolitan and the particular. He was even interested in book design. He was a kind of polymath. He studied many things, worked in different forms. Is that just parallel or an influence or . . .
LAHIRI: Well, if you’re Bengali, he’s like a member of your family in some sense. He’s a god; he’s in this pantheon-like place — he’s not a god, he’s a person.
LAHIRI: My parents aren’t religious people, so they didn’t give us a religious education, but they certainly taught us to respect the great minds and the great visionaries, and Tagore is one of those, right? And the fact that he happens to be Bengali and won the Nobel Prize, well, details . . .
LAHIRI: My grandfather was a painter. My uncle was a painter. I grew up with portraits of Tagore all over our house. I have a portrait of him in my house, a watercolor by my uncle. I have a beautiful photograph my mother dug up recently. My grandfather’s brother was a press photographer, and he took a picture of Tagore the last time he spoke in public. So I have this photograph that’s next to me when I’m writing. I feel this constant presence, shall we say.
Again, my limitation in not really being a fluent reader of Bengali creates a situation. It does: I’ve read him mostly in translation. I’ve read fiction. I’ve read poetry. I grew up hearing all of the songs, 24 hours a day, in my house. But I’m not aware of any conscious influence, if that’s what you’re asking.
But again, what’s conscious, what’s unconscious?
On lesser-known influences
COWEN: Let’s move to maybe my favorite book of yours, In Other Words, which I take to be your memoir of learning to engage with reading Italian, dealing with Italian culture, and — most of all — writing in Italian, a remarkably brave thing to do. It comes off extremely well. I’m going toss out the names of a few Italian writers, the lesser-known ones, and if you have a connection to them, tell us why you think they’re interesting or how they’ve shaped you in some way. Feel free to pass on any one, of course.
LAHIRI: I had never heard of her until I was living in Rome. I was reading the paper one day and read an article about her, and it was interesting. I took note of the name, and I went to the bookshop, and I said, “I’d like to read this author,” and they said, “Oh yeah, she’s sort of hard to find, not that well distributed.” Anyway, I ordered some books. In fact, because it was so hard to find the books, I went through the person who wrote . . .
This is Italy, right? Everybody knows everybody. The person who wrote the article, I knew. So I said, “How do I get these books?” And he said, “Well, you need to write to her husband, who has all the books.”
LAHIRI: He has a warehouse in their house. I said OK. I wrote the husband, and there was some back and forth, and then he sent me a packet of books from Milan, and they never made it to Rome. It happens.
COWEN: They’re still on a train, somewhere.
LAHIRI: Yes, so I waited. I waited for these books and they weren’t coming. Then I said, “Listen, these books . . . I know you kindly sent them, but . . .” Then one thing led to another, and I found myself in Milan and, again, I reignited this interest, and he said, “Why don’t you come over?” And I went to her house.
I saw her house, where she used to live, and we had a very interesting conversation. I saw her desk. I saw her things. I saw her paintings, and he gave me all of her books, like a cart full of her books. And that was really exciting. I started reading her with great interest.
She’s an incredibly modernist writer. Her language is incredible, essential in its quality. She wrote an extraordinarily powerful book that, if life is long enough and there’s time, I would like to translate, called Nei mari estremi. It’s a two-part memoir of losing her husband. You know, there’re so many books now about grief and the loss of a loved one and what that means. But this was written a long time ago, before all of these books became part of our culture. So that’s an amazing book of hers. She wrote a lot of very interesting novels.
COWEN: She wrote about homecomings to places that don’t exist anymore, also.
LAHIRI: She did. One of the things that also really struck me was, at the end of her life, she was almost blind. And still the drive to write was so intense and constant. So her husband, her second husband, the one who survives her, was explaining that when she was in the final phase of her life and could barely see, she had these enormous pieces of paper and would just write a couple of words, a sentence or two, a day. The words were just burning with life and with her need to express herself in spite of the disability.
These writings were collected in a book called The Last Diary, which I read. They’re almost like little fragments, epigrams, some of these little entries. And one of them says, “La mia quasi cecità = un punto di vista,” which means “My blindness is a point of view.”
I really marveled at that because I felt it explained, at least to me, the purpose of writing in Italian. Because, of course, she wasn’t totally blind; she was partially blind. And I’m not totally blind in Italian either, but I feel partially blind. I don’t want to compare myself to her because she had actually a physical issue with her eyesight. She didn’t choose that for herself, and she suffered for it. Whereas my project is something that comes from me and it’s voluntary. But it is this kind of voluntary blindness, right?
COWEN: But it’s richer for you to read in Italian, and maybe even sometimes to write in Italian now because the partial blindness gives you a new lens on all these problems you’ve been trying to come to terms with —
LAHIRI: Well, it makes you look harder.
Another writer, Cesare Pavese.
LAHIRI: Pavese’s huge. He translated Moby-Dick. We were in Sicily a couple of years ago. We were sailing around the Aeolian Islands, and we had this long conversation one day with our skipper about how, according to him, Pavese’s translation of Moby-Dick surpasses the work of Melville.
COWEN: And does it?
LAHIRI: Well, I actually haven’t read it yet. I would like to. I keep meaning to pick it up when I’m over there. But he was a colossal writer from Turin, that great literary city, where you have Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Einaudi (the publishing house), all concentrated in this part of Italy in the north over toward France.
Pavese wrote very much in the autobiographical vein and did things that, again, I think now, “Oh, it’s fashionable when the writer becomes a character,” and “Oh, we all write about ourselves,” and there’re a lot of memoirs. But these are things that he was doing after World War II. He had a tragic life. He suffered deeply. He committed suicide. He left behind an incredible writer’s notebook that is an extraordinarily powerful work; very, very dark; very, very true. And wrote lots of short stories as well as a series of slim novels, and he worked really hard as a translator — not only his own translations of many American authors, had a very rich relationship with the English language — but also oversaw a lot of translation projects.
COWEN: He writes like an American writer in some ways.
LAHIRI: Well, he was influenced. This is what’s interesting: he was influenced by reading and translating Melville, among others, and his Italian has a different energy as a result of that translation.
Those translations and his relationship with English — this is what’s missing in American literature right now, with the exception of poets, American poets who have devoted time and energy to other literatures, to translation. Whether it’s Ezra Pound or other poets, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand — you have examples of people who translate and make that part of their creative work, but relatively few fiction writers stop to think about it or engage with it.
Those translations and his relationship with English — this is what’s missing in American literature right now, with the exception of poets, American poets who have devoted time and energy to other literatures, to translation. Whether it’s Ezra Pound or other poets, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand — you have examples of people who translate and make that part of their creative work, but relatively few fiction writers stop to think about it or engage with it.
I think my knowledge of Italian writers has opened up something. I just finished translating my first novel from Italian and it has been such a formative experience for me, powerful, and it deepened my awareness of what words are and literature and language and all of that. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long, but I’m excited. Someone like Pavese blazed the way.
COWEN: One of my wishes is that you someday give us a book on Italian fiction.
Now here’s a writer, not Italian, but writing in another language not the mother tongue: Agota Kristof.
LAHIRI: Yes, amazing.
COWEN: What’s important?
LAHIRI: You have her book there.
COWEN: Yes. And that’s a trilogy, right?
LAHIRI: Yeah, she wrote this trilogy and she wrote some other books too.
She was Hungarian and left during the invasion, fled to Switzerland with her small kids, her husband, and her dictionaries. And writes about this in an amazing little book called The Illiterate, “La analfabeta.” I read it in Italian; it must be called something else in French: “L’analphabete.” But she taught herself how to write in French and all of her literary work is in French. I came to her in Italian. So I came to her in translation but not in an English translation, in Italian translation, and my life was never the same after reading her.
She’s one of those writers — you just remain forever altered. Extraordinarily powerful, a deep, profound, profound writer. Dark but very human and the kind of stuff that you don’t find very easily.
She is inspiring to me, deeply, because of this incredible effort she made her whole life to try to express herself in a learned language. Of course the difference between her and myself is that she always had an antagonistic relationship with French, even though she went out of her way to learn it and to express herself in it because she was living in Switzerland, and she felt that she couldn’t really function as a writer without expressing herself in French. Whereas I’ve gone out of my way to do this crazy thing that everyone discourages me from doing, which is writing in Italian.
COWEN: And you were fascinated with Italy way back when, right? For a long time.
LAHIRI: Well, yeah. In a growing way, yeah.
On book covers and blurbs
COWEN: Your most recent book, The Clothing of Books: it’s about book covers.
I once had a hypothesis about book covers. I thought I would go to Borders bookstore (when it still existed) and look at everything on the front table, and try to ignore all other information I had about the book, and simply buy the one whose cover appealed to me the most. I wanted to see whether the publishing trade actually would do a good job of designing a cover so that it would match what I was looking for in a book. I ended up buying Kate Christensen’s The Great Man, which I thought was quite a good novel. I only did that once, but I considered the experiment to be a success.
COWEN: Do you think, based on your study of book covers — your own books aside — are book covers assigned to books efficiently, or is there something in the process that’s gone wrong?
LAHIRI: Well, I’ve never tried this experiment. I will, maybe.
COWEN: It’s hard to block out all the other information because you recognize names, publishing houses, where they put it on the table; but still, you can approximate it.
LAHIRI: Yeah, I talk a little bit in this little essay about being drawn to certain books just because there’s some allure, appeal, something I’m projecting, something the book is projecting, something I’m projecting onto the book, some relationship I want to have with the book because it’s — I don’t know — some landscape I want to find myself in someday, or I don’t know.
If you think of a book as a mirror, and if you think, “That’s how I would like to look if I were a tree, or if I were a whatever,” some image. But the essay is really about the disconnect between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside often, and what that feels like from a writer’s point of view because it’s both a disconnect and a source of — can be at least for me — a source of real anguish because you can’t really disconnect yourself from what you look like. You can try, but you can’t really.
COWEN: Like, when I read Unaccustomed Earth, and I try to think of it as a kind of song cycle. I try to put the cover out of my mind because I know how the covers are done and assigned. I figure the cover will mislead me because you didn’t do it, but I find I can’t put it out of my mind, even being aware of the entire process. And there’s something about the floating tiara, or crown, or whatever it is: it leaves an imprint on my impression of the book. Even though I know it’s not by you.
LAHIRI: Uh-huh. It’s this. [gesturing to her bracelet]
COWEN: It’s that? Oh, you have it on.
LAHIRI: Yeah. I think that’s what they had literally designed it after.
COWEN: Yeah, so it’s a very pretty cover, but maybe it’s too pretty?
LAHIRI: I think . . . I’m not going to get into any trouble.
LAHIRI: Any more trouble than I’m already in.
COWEN: How do you feel about blurbs?
LAHIRI: Well, I say what I feel about blurbs in the essay. Some of my publishers have been a little uncomfortable about publishing that sentence in my book, actually, because I just say what I feel. I think this is one of the things about writing in Italian that people aren’t prepared for: that I don’t pretend anymore. And I’m not concerned about making everybody happy.
One of the things I say in the book, in this essay, is that these books don’t even — as much as I appreciate, truly, this lovely display that you made — but this isn’t my book anymore. Once the cover is on it, it’s not my book. And again, having lived in Italy, and having Italian writer friends, so many examples of novels there have covers chosen by the author. Imagine that.
I think this is one of the things about writing in Italian that people aren’t prepared for: that I don’t pretend anymore. And I’m not concerned about making everybody happy.
LAHIRI: But suddenly, you have a whole. You have the inside, you have the words, you have the pages that the author created, and you actually have an image that the author felt that they wanted, he or she wanted, to represent visually what the book is saying. If I had that freedom, if I had that ability, I would be such a happy — it would make going to museums even more exciting because I would always be thinking, “Oh well, maybe this, maybe that.” Who knows? Maybe an image could even inspire a book, in that sense. If one had that ability to say, “Oh, you know what? I went to this show, this gallery the other day, and I saw this image and it was so beautiful, and I was thinking about it, and this whole novel grew out of it,” or this whole collection of stories, or whatever. These things can happen. They just don’t happen here as much as I wish they did.
COWEN: I brought a copy of a German book; it’s by Rilke. The publisher is Reclam. The cover is plain; it’s just a color. If you go to German bookstores, at least parts of them are actually organized by publishers. You probably know other countries in Europe sometimes . . .
LAHIRI: Like in Italy, too, and France, yeah.
COWEN: And the books, more or less, all look the same. How do you feel about this system?
LAHIRI: I love them.
COWEN: So you would opt into this system for all of your books?
LAHIRI: Yeah, I talk about that in the book. The whole piece is a kind of meditation on the idea of wearing a uniform and dressing yourself, and these contradictory approaches to presenting oneself — what they mean.
COWEN: It’s like you have to make a statement about where you’ve decided to rest on the identity question. And a cover forces your hand when you’d rather be hovering in this ambiguity.
LAHIRI: Yeah, I prefer this kind of cover because to me, there’s a protective quality to the lack of specificity, and the belonging to the series, which is what Europe . . .
In the US, you have certain series, as well. I wrote the essay when I was in Rome, and I was far away from my American library and my books and things. But now that I’m back here and I unpacked a lot of my books . . . there’re certain presses here that have that aesthetic philosophy. City Lights books makes those beautiful little books, like my copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, etc. These are beautiful books, American books, that all looked the same, similar dimensions, have a kind of sober quality, a lot of emphasis on type.
So I won’t say that it doesn’t happen here, but for the average writer and the average publisher, it’s a very different dialogue that’s happening when it comes to putting a cover onto a book. If I had to choose, I would choose the safety of the uniform because, of course, the whole piece, the whole little essay begins with the memory of being a child and being traumatized by having to dress myself. Because it just churned up so many problems and was a source of true anguish for me, as a child, to have to choose clothes and put them on — and this has economic ramifications, this has cultural ramifications, this has all sorts of ramifications, because clothes are things we buy in stores, etc., etc.
I had this crazy envy, admiration, obsession with my cousins’ school uniforms in Kolkata because they were all the same. They just put on what they had to wear to school every day and it was the same thing. And I dreamed about that. I dreamed of being able to wake up in the United States and just put on my blue skirt and my white shirt and my black shoes, and going to school, and nobody commenting on what I was wearing. I was always so terrified because people were always commenting on what I was wearing. And they were teasing me or whatever.
Where do you stand between wanting to express yourself and be free and being afraid of that freedom, being actually vulnerable to that freedom? I think America represents Freedom with a big capital F. And it always has, and we hope it always will for the good. But there’s also the danger of that, even as a young girl in the ’70s, as a kid, a child of immigrants, I knew what it meant to shop in one store versus another store.
I think there’s this: Where do you stand between wanting to express yourself and be free and being afraid of that freedom, being actually vulnerable to that freedom? I think America represents Freedom with a big capital F. And it always has, and we hope it always will for the good. But there’s also the danger of that, even as a young girl in the ’70s, as a kid, a child of immigrants, I knew what it meant to shop in one store versus another store.
I saw what the girls in my class were wearing: the kinds of shoes, the kinds of purses. I knew that my parents weren’t taking me to those stores, that they thought that was a waste of money and that we’re not going to pay $40 for Nike sneakers, or whatever it is, because it’s a waste and you’re going to grow out of them in six months. Whereas my schoolmates had these things, and suddenly there was the gap between me and them, reinforced by these things. For a child, at least for me, these things were traumatizing. And I imagine for others as well.
On Indian classical music
COWEN: Two last questions before we get to Q&A. I’ll give them to you together. First, what do you love most in Indian classical music? And second, what are you working on next?
LAHIRI: Again, from my mother I inherited, received, learned to appreciate Indian classical music. Most of all, sitar music, which she’s always been passionate about. And my family, all my uncles, my great-uncles, my cousins — I come from a broad extended family, passionate enthusiasts of the sarod mostly, the instrument of Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan. So I grew up my whole life listening to this very complex, beautiful music that really has spoken to me.
Just the other day I was in the Princeton [University] Art Museum. There’s a beautiful exhibit there right now. It’s not that far; I really do recommend it. A big collection of miniatures, two big rooms of extraordinary works. And one of the chambers of this exhibit is dedicated to miniatures that are basically inspired by the raga cycles. There were headphones, and I put them on and was listening to one of them. That music is a part of me. It’s part of my formation. I think it’s extraordinary.
COWEN: And your next work?
LAHIRI: Well, my next work . . . I have two things that are happening. One, I just translated this novel called Ties in English. “Lacci” is the Italian title, by Domenico Starnone, who is my friend and whom I consider the finest Italian living author. And I just translated this novel. I’m at the final stages, and it will be out in March. I think it’s an amazing novel. I read it two years ago when it was first published. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have brought it into English. I’m really excited about it.
And then on the other side I am slowly, quietly writing some very short stories in Italian.
COWEN: Jhumpa Lahiri, Thank you very much.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned that you really like Elena Ferrante and we all do too, at least most of us. I wanted to hear your take on this anonymity situation, whether you think right now is it considered, in Italy, that everybody really knows who she is after all these articles which came out? Or is it still a mystery? What’s your take on the whole situation?
LAHIRI: I think the whole situation is completely blown out of proportion and ridiculous. I know personally the person who has been accused of being Elena Ferrante. She’s actually the wife of Domenico Starnone, who has also been “accused,” whatever the word is. It is like a trial, and this is the absurd thing because whoever wrote those books did nothing wrong. It’s been treated almost as if it were a crime, and the nature of the article, the very violent article, inappropriate article, that was published a couple of months ago, the language of that was very disturbing and offensive to me.
Whoever wrote those books, the world is no better off knowing who the actual person is. I think we’ve all completely lost perspective. So many beautiful things have been created by mankind that we still go to look at and marvel at or read or whatever the case may be, and nobody’s hung up on who exactly the person was and what their name was and what their birthday is. This whole cult of the individual and the individual’s hand and signature behind what’s being done. These are recent concepts if you think about them.
People in Italy just don’t care about this. They have other things to think about and worry about at this point. So this whole Ferrante thing, the article came out, I exchanged some messages with my friends, saying, “This is just disgusting. And why? And so unnecessary.” And then everybody moved on.
Whereas here, in America, it’s just ongoing and it’s just not dying. People aren’t saying, “Let’s either read the books or not read the books.” If someone goes out of their way to say “I would like to write in anonymity,” why that can’t be respected in our culture is really kind of mystifying to me, and also distressing. And the projection people have onto the idea of who the writer might be, and the reasons, and all of this speculation, it could be a very simple thing. But it’s become contorted, I feel, at least in the United States, maybe in England. I don’t know. But it’s not the same in Italy. People aren’t really talking about it in the same way.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello, Miss Lahiri. I admire your writing, so thank you for all your books. I grew up in Poland, actually, and my first degree is from Gdańsk University. I’m bilingual, but I teach English here and I write in English. I’m a fiction writer.
When I think about being bilingual, I feel like I’m inhabiting two different types of personality. When I am in Polish I’m a different person than when I am in English. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about being bilingual and writing in Italian now. Do you feel like you are one person who inhabits two different worlds or do you feel yourself splitting apart and feeling that you are, depending on the language, a totally different sort of person?
LAHIRI: I think anybody who is fortunate enough to have more than one language recognizes that. Some people go so far as to say, “If you know more than one language, you have more than one soul.” That’s a very thoughtful way of thinking about it.
But I think language represents a very specific but vast universe, and each language represents that. Even before I learned Italian, I grew up with two languages side by side. And maybe I didn’t know them with the same level of proficiency, but they were both incredibly strong influences on who I was. So I always was divided in that sense, so I think that’s true.
For the Italian project, as I was saying, this new point of view that comes from a new language, and in addition, the sense of freedom that a learned language might provide you to set to the side certain baggage that the long distance you traverse in another language might be holding you back from saying what you really need to say. For example, I would never have written In Other Words in English. I would never have written The Clothing of Books essay in English. So this is why the Italian is valuable to me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi Jhumpa. One thing I found really interesting about The Namesake was how you describe Gogol as olive-toned and being able to pass as Mediterranean sometimes. I think that’s really interesting, especially given the obvious tension between his Indian identity and assimilating into American culture. Was this a conscious decision to make him able to pass as white, and if so, can you speak to how this relates to your own experiences of colorism in passing?
LAHIRI: Well, I wasn’t really thinking about those things. I’m now recalling, maybe, there’s a moment in the book where someone says to him, “Oh, you could be Spanish,” or something, but I think that’s more about projecting. Not about who he is but maybe how we project, how we like to project sameness onto other people to make them more comfortable to us and to dilute the sense of difference. Maybe that’s what it’s really about.
To go back to this book-covers piece, there’s a certain part of the essay in which I talk about the intolerance of my foreign publishers for the various book covers. I remember showing one of my publishers, I’m not going to specify anybody here, but I’ll just say this: I was in Rome and the Italian cover of In Other Words — “In altre parole” — had come out. One of my other publishers was visiting and I showed it to this person, and I remember the expression, and it was like, “. . . Interesting.”
LAHIRI: And I think that is really what is at the heart of the matter. It’s just that refusal to recognize ourselves in the other.
So if you have someone who has features that can be perceived as this or perceived as that . . . depending on where I go in the world I’m mistaken for lots of things. If I’m in Latin America, if I’m in India, if I’m in some other places. And sometimes I’m immediately identified as the other, but I think it’s more based on the context and not on the person. But I wasn’t really thinking very deeply about it, to be honest with you. I think it was just one of those small details about other people’s desire to render the same people who are actually different.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: One thing that I find so powerful about your work is that you not only understand the viewpoint of being a child of immigrants, but also your parents’ viewpoint as well. If you feel comfortable sharing, I’m wondering, to what extent have you spoken to your parents about the joys and challenges of the immigrant experience? Or was that something that you more inferred from your own observations?
LAHIRI: You’re asking if I asked my parents what it was like to be an immigrant?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Uh-huh. Did you ever have those deep, meaningful conversations about that experience, or did you feel it was more something that you observed?
LAHIRI: I was living that experience. That was my whole experience. That was my whole life. There was no moment where I wasn’t aware that my parents came from a place that was very far away, where people spoke a different language, and ate different food, and wore different clothes, and thought about the world in different ways, and that they were not there. And that’s my life. That’s my whole life, and there’s no part of my life that was anything else.
Every relationship I had, that I made, that I created, that I forged outside of my family base, was informed by that awareness — that these were the parents that had brought me into the world and this is what their experience was.
So no, I never sat down and asked them what it was like because I was living it every single day, and I saw the effects of what it means to live your life away from your point of reference. This goes so deep, and so vast, and so specific, and so minute-by-minute. And that constant back and forth in one’s being to make sense . . . it’s like, again, the interpreter; it’s like being a simultaneous interpreter all the time.
Of course, it’s not ironic that my book is called The Interpreter of Maladies and involves this character who is literally interpreting simultaneously for people. But that’s not what I was necessarily doing for my parents, it was what I was doing for myself.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you — firstly my compliments to both of you for such wonderful conversation. My question is related to the journey of an author. Do you think, compared to when you began writing, do you feel more inhibited or uninhibited as an author now? And what brings that about?
LAHIRI: Well, writing always scares me and intimidates me. I’ve always felt that, and if I ever stopped feeling that, I probably shouldn’t write anymore. Now there’s a formal challenge of writing in a language that I don’t have full control of. So that’s intimidating and very daunting.
I was talking to a group of students before this larger conversation about how even in English I started out with that same trepidation. And I don’t want to lose touch with that unease, because I think that’s important. It’s important to approach in that way, at least for me, to not feel totally comfortable, and certainly not to feel confident because it’s really more about an investigation, an experiment, a challenge.
These things cannot be undertaken in the spirit of, “Sure, I can do that.” You have to question it at every step, and you have to question what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it. I believe that that’s very important.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, I want to start off by thanking you for Gogol’s character because there are very few authors that truly understand the Indian-American immigrant narrative as well as you do. My question is, of all the characters you’ve penned, which one do you see yourself most in, or is there one, and why? Thank you.
LAHIRI: There are pieces of me in various things I’ve written, aspects, concealed or jumbled together, rearranged. So various characters, if I had to say, they’re shadings that I feel close to literally. But as I say in the afterword to In Other Words, the most explicitly autobiographical story I’ve ever written is the first story I wrote in Italian, which is called “The Exchange” [published in In Other Words], which is a very weird, abstract story.
But that came literally from an experience I had, and I wrote this story very quickly afterward, based on that experience. It was just lifted from something that had happened to me, so I feel very close to that character, needless to say, because I shared what happened. Though there are certain invented details in that story as well, because it’s fiction; it’s not the truth.
Agota Kristof: if you really want to talk about this stuff and think about it, read Agota Kristof because she’s a genius. She’s like the oracle of all of this stuff. She really knows what it means to create out of life, and that incredibly fluid, mysterious boundary between real life and art. Her work investigates it head on in a way that’s unforgettably powerful.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a couple of quick nuts-and-bolts questions about writing and your process. Your prose is very much characterized by restraint and economy, and I’m curious what kind of writer you are. Are you a linear writer who gets each sentence right before you move on to the next, or do you overwrite and cut back mercilessly?
And my other question is, you write often of nostalgia and longing, and I’m curious how you avoid sentimentality.
LAHIRI: Well, that’s nice to hear.
LAHIRI: I’m glad that that’s the case in your opinion. I think I write about loss. I write less about nostalgia. It’s connected, of course, but everything I’ve written has that at its core, the idea of loss. And as for how I write, I don’t know how I write. But I go through a million drafts and I’m constantly reworking everything. So the idea of writing a sentence that’s all set to go and then moving on to the next one, it’s the opposite. Whatever the opposite of that is . . .
LAHIRI: That’s how I work.
COWEN: Jhumpa, thank you very much.
LAHIRI: Thank you.
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