Reading with Jhumpa Lahiri

by Milan Reynolds

I had the privilege of attending a talk with Jhumpa Lahiri on October 3rd, with Professor Andrea Baldi gracefully moderating the event. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Lahiri spoke with those gathered about the recently published Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. As the editor of the collection and translator of several of the stories, Lahiri described her experience and the methodology behind curating and gathering the texts. For those who might be unfamiliar with Lahiri’s projects, she is known for her creative output as a novelist (The Namesake, The Lowland), short story writer (The Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth), and essayist, as well as her autobiographical work In altre parole (In Other Words), which details her experience learning Italian. Currently, she is working on translating her most recent book, Dove mi trovo, into English while teaching creative writing at Princeton University. For me, Lahiri’s choice to adopt Italian as a literary language is incredibly brave and troubles the implicit assumption of monolingual authorship. It also pushes the question of translation to the foreground of writing, and at the same time affirms it as an indispensable part of life.

Much of the discussion was in fact devoted to the multilingual identities of many of the Italian authors included in the collection. Italy as a country is relatively recent (the Risorgimento, or unification, began in the 19th century) and as such, retains a strong sense of localities, dialects, and cultural specificity. Lahiri talked about her choice of authors in relation to their many registers of language, their attention to place and environment, and their engagement with translation as a reciprocal practice necessary to writing. She imposed two interlocking constraints to focus her task: the authors chosen were primarily from the past century, and none of them were living. She described sifting through libraries, combing tables of contents, and consulting the advice of many friends. Without having a specific theme in mind, Lahiri allowed the collection to develop as an organic substance; her own interests certainly surfaced but she also admitted to being surprised by the encounter as well.

The attention to female authors in the collection is particularly important as a challenge to the canonization of Italian male voices. Lahiri also spoke at length about the role of writing and translating functioning as a political act, particularly during fascist rule. If authoritarianism is based on the idea of a singular truth, translation works to decentralize meaning at the level of the word (and in some cases, alphabet) itself. The stories are arranged by author, but in reverse alphabetical order.

There was also some time devoted to encompassing the audience in the discussion through the form of written questions collected beforehand. One particularly interesting theme was the role of names within Lahiri’s creative work. The discussion was based on the idea that The Namesake, Lahiri’s earlier novel turns on the concept of naming, while her most recent work’s narrator in Dove mi trovo, lacks a proper name altogether. This suggestion was eloquently encircled by Lahiri’s thoughts on identity, metamorphosis, and the potentiality of redefinition.

I also had the opportunity to attend an informal talk in Italian with Lahiri and several graduate students in the Italian and Comparative Literature departments. We got to hear a little about the companion volume to the Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories that was also recently published: Racconti Italiani.

 

Readers may find excerpts of Lahiri’s work here:

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/602664/the-penguin-book-of-italian-short-stories-by-edited-by-jhumpa-lahiri/

https://www.guanda.it/libri/jhumpa-lahiri-racconti-italiani-scelti-e-introdotti-da-jhumpa-lahiri-9788823523173/

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