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Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing, Translation, and Crossing Between Cultures (Ep. 17 — Live at Mason)

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Mercatus Center
Jan 11, 2017 · 43 min read
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Tyler’s research stack for Jhumpa

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?

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?

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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?

Tyler’s debate with Roger Scruton

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?

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.

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On Bengal

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?

[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.

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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.

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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.

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On book covers and blurbs

COWEN: Your most recent book, The Clothing of Books: it’s about book covers.

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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.


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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.

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?

Q&A

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?


Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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