An Evening with Jhumpa Lahiri

My husband and I were deeply affected by Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. We could see echoes of our own selves in the characters of the book. We understood why Ashok and Ashima acted the way they did. And we understood why Gogol reacted the way he did. It was a book that we had many discussions about and so when we found out that Lahiri was going to kick-start the New York Public Library’s Live sessions for Spring 2016 we had to be there!

Some time ago Lahiri decided that she would only write in Italian. Her new book, In Other Words is also in Italian. The session started with the host asking Lahiri if her decision to write in Italian was some sort of a mid-life crisis to which Lahiri responded with the words that an intimate relationship with a language is the best sort of mid-life crisis to have. It quickly became clear that to Lahiri language is more than just a tool. It is an instrument that she uses to define who she is. Her seven-word biography was apropos of this: “without a mother tongue, rooted by words.”

English for Lahiri seems to be the language of her past. It is the language through which she tried to understand her parents, a motif, which according to her, is what her last four books have been all about. Italian, on the other hand, afforded her a chance to break off with all known reference points—a thing that she found incredibly liberating. In her words, she is trying to graft onto Italian because she is trying to grow in a new direction. I loved her use of “graft” in this context, of mixing things up, of introducing a new element into the base of who she is.

Of all the things that she said I found her declaration that she finally feels that she can write the books that she wants the most interesting. Perhaps she had to write the books she did to reach this point. It did make me wonder though if there are other authors out there who write what they do because they feel that that is what they should write rather than writing what they want to write. I don’t know if one is necessarily better than the other but I’m always a little wary of “should”s.

It got me thinking about genre fiction and literary fiction and wondering if the latter is more populated by the should-s. That is not to say that genre fiction doesn’t have its share of should-s or that literary fiction doesn’t have writers doing what they want to do but I just found it a bit puzzling that it took Lahiri the time it did to get to this point. Then again, I guess it might be difficult for any established author (irrespective of the genre they write in) to switch to something new.

Here’s the link to the NYPL website in case you’re interested in seeing the whole thing.

Quote of the Evening: Every change necessitates a betrayal.

6 thoughts on “An Evening with Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. Thank you for writing this blog, Juhi. I haven’t read Lahiri, but I am a bit sad to learn that she will write only in Italian. I am reminding myself to read a book of Lahiri’s this year.

    And, the quote shook me. So moving, and profound!

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  2. This is so interesting! I’m so glad you shared this. I was wondering about Lahiri’s motivations for writing in Italian and this illuminates her choice so much better for me. Thanks!

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  3. Did she talk about how the people in her life responded to this particular change? It’s so drastic — which part of me loves, and part of me thinks must be rather sad for the people around her. I don’t know that I’d have said “betrayal” about it, if it were me, but maybe that’s how her friends-and-relations really reacted to it.

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    • Interesting you mention this. I thought of it in less dramatic terms—as in any new choice basically involves a letting go of the old. I didn’t think of it in terms of actually betraying anyone per se but perhaps she was referring to that as well. . .

      To answer your question, no she didn’t really talk about how her near and dear ones took to the news other than pointing out that she did meet with some criticism which I took to mean criticism by the press and literati.

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