After several novels and short story collections about South Asian immigrants to the United States, Jhumpa Lahiri rose to prominence for her beautiful and award-winning writing. While race is crucial to the identity of her characters, it is not their only attribute. Their world view and thought processes are colored by immigrant experiences but not the only thing that make their identity. Their beautiful poignancy and illustrative settings rang true to the experience I had as a South Asian immigrant. I remember reading Lahiri’s work and believing that someone sat down and wrote a novel that was tuned to my heart and soul. I loved “Harry Potter” and “Pride and Prejudice” but no one had better expressed the love and longing that being an Indian- American gave to my life. Thus, I was reluctant to read, if not resentful, of her work when she pivoted to a different artistic expression.
Lahiri’s most recent books are written in Italian, although they have both been translated into English, though not by Lahiri herself. As opposed to her previous publications, they are nonfiction memoirs. This new artistic pursuit was the primary topic of her talk at the Newhouse Center this past Monday, structured as a conversation with Carlos Ramos, a Wellesley Professor of Spanish. The talk was structured more as a conversation than a lecture.
Ramos and Lahiri’s long friendship— they first met at a small seminar they both attended as graduate students at Boston University—was apparent in their conversation. The two had a familiarity that can only come from a decades-long relationship between intellectuals. Lahiri and Ramos would alternate reading and subsequently reflecting upon sections of Lahiri’s work, discussing the content and the process behind it.
Primarily, Lahiri focused on what she referred to as the “pain of separation”.
“The job of the writer is not to belong,” she stated at the end, emphasizing that feeling of separation. She reflected that the “familiar isn’t healthy for the artist” and there is an inherent need for artists to remove themselves from their comfort zones in order to truly create art. She provided example such as Marvis Gallant, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, who left Ireland for France and chronicled this need in his masterpiece “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. The feeling of separation from one’s homeland is pervasive and compelling theme throughout Lahiri’s work. This detachment extended to her writing process. She described her desire to live life but then shut herself off from it in order to create. “You have to live your whole life,” she said, “but then you have to step completely outside it when you write”.
This same separation extended to her desire to work in Italian where she was separated from her language of control, English. The concept of language was a central topic in this short talk, mostly revolving around a Fernando Pessoa quote: “My homeland is the Portuguese language.” Pessoa was the topic of the seminar Ramos and Lahiri attended in graduate school.
However, Lahiri’s experience often contradicts this sentiment of a language being one’s homeland. She expressed her observation that she was alienated from her mother tongue, Bengali. “My development is arrested,” she said of her ability to speak Bengali. She described how despite the fact that she grew up speaking Bengali, her mother tongue is not the language in which she is most intellectually developed.
The more humorous parts of the evening were when she evasively described her fraught relationship with her book covers. “It’s like a part of your body you don’t like but learn to accept,” she said, describing the jacket of her first short story collection, “Interpreter of Maladies.”
On a more personal note, this talk resulted in a very complex reaction within me. My relationship with Lahiri’s work is deeply intimate. However, having the actual artist in front of me caused me to realize that she is an artist with her own creative desires and pursuits. Although reading her work makes me feel like she had my specific experience and soul in mind, this talk reminded me that this is not the case. Reading, and the consumption of media, can be inherently personal and intimate, but when Lahiri reflected upon her desire to write in Italian it helped remind me that the artists often create without the audience in mind. “People tell me that they don’t like what I’m doing and that I should stop,” Lahiri said, “that I should be ‘Jhumpa Lahiri’ again. And I won’t do it.”
That simple exclamation from one of my favorite authors made me reflect on my own resentment regarding the new genre and themes of her work. It is clear that the reasons I loved Lahiri’s work went beyond simply the fact that her characters were also South Asian. I loved her work for its expressive thoughtfulness, its command of prose and its poignancy, and those attributes are still prominent in her new phase of work.