To Professor Jhumpa Lahiri, “language is everything.” Winning a Pulitzer Prize for her very first book, a collection of stories published in 1999 entitled Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s work centers on identity and its relation to cultural and personal metamorphoses. On May 18, Lahiri came to speak to the senior class and select sophomores and juniors. Joining the staff of Princeton University as a creative writing professor in September of 2015, her awards are among the most prestigious in American and global fiction. Her latest book, In Other Words, is a memoir about her recent foray into the Italian language. She now reads and writes solely in Italian. “In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile,” she wrote in “Teach Yourself Italian,” published in The New Yorker in December 2015. Using a foreign language, however, is not a foreign concept to Lahiri. Growing up speaking English at school and Bengali in her home, she considered her mother tongue foreign. “[I am] a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language,” she writes in the article.
The exploration of both translation and cultural rifts, however, are not new topics in Lahiri’s work: They have always been the subjects at the core of her work. She examines stories of identity, belonging, the relationship between culture, and individual families and change through characters that are often Bengali immigrants to England or America. Seniors in English IV read parts of The Namesake, Lahiri’s first novel, from which she read excerpts during her visit to the high school. The story follows a boy named Gogol, the son of Bengali immigrants who lives in Massachusetts and struggles to come to terms with his status as an outsider due to both his name and his ethnicity. “I think the book is about … someone who is trying to accept who he is,” Lahiri said.
Central to the story is the relationship between first generation immigrants with their parents and peers, an experience that shaped Lahiri’s childhood and life. When she took questions from the audience, it was evident many PHS students could empathize with the experience; many brought up their own parents and experiences, and raised questions for Lahiri about the change in the immigrant’s experience with new technology, and the ways that people caught in the rift between two cultures often deny parts of themselves in an attempt to please one over another.
“Like [Gogol], I felt … and as an adult sometimes, still, so … at war with myself, so confused by a conflicting sense of expectations. Wanting so badly to kind of be one thing and not both things, and sort of hide discreetly other parts of myself that were living and breathing as well. This is very hard, because languages, cultures … are very different realities. There is not a lot of overlap. There is a lot of room for misunderstanding. There is a lot of room for intolerance. There’s a lot of room for judgement when there are different expectations in the room,” Lahiri said. “[one of the hardest things] is to find that balance between not denying who you are, on the one hand, and neither being fatalistically bound to who you are expected to be.”
She calls her short story writing the “mining of archeological matter in [my] life.” The name Gogol, she explained, came from one of her cousin’s friends. “The Third and Final Continent,” the last of the stories in Interpreter of Maladies, was based on the story of her father’s immigration from India. An encounter with her parents’ friends’ loss of a child at a young age led to the topics of loss in “A Temporary Matter.” In an answer to a question about her writing process, she said that at its core, her writing is an attempt to make sense of the world around her, or “seeing by writing.” “Writing is a way for me to decode,” she said.
Despite this seemingly very intimate relationship between her own life and the evidence of inspiration from her experiences as a Bengali-American, Lahiri insists that her writing requires her to step back from her own life. “Writing requires great distance and objectivity, especially when you’re writing about things that are painful,” she said. The root of all of her own writing, and even all of canonized literature, she suggested, was not personal experience, but rather being aware of three things: “Things don’t always happen the way they should. Life isn’t fair. People suffer … Writers are people who make it their job to absorb [these things]. And there are moments when that absorption yields a short story, or novel, or poem.”