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Amber Paulen

Jhumpa Lahiri: Conversations (& Reading) in Rome

For the last month I’ve been reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s book and stories, and last night I went to see her talk at John Cabot in Trastevere in Rome. I began my reading with her short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, because it was at the library. Then I sandwiched between its pages The Namesake, Lahiri’s only novel. For a while all I read was Jhumpa Lahiri, and it was a great experience to be immersed so fully into her world.

Her favourite themes stand out brightly even after a couple stories: displacement, the lives between places, outsiders, rootlessness, identity. She usually writes about Bengali immigrants who move to the States whose children are stuck between the India of their parents, and the US where they were born. But that doesn’t mean her stories are repetitions. Each of them glow with their own characters, uniquely hewn out of what from the outside appear to be similar experiences. Lahiri’s stories are a wealth of detail, and her nearness to her characters is felt by the intimacy through which she portrays them.

My interest in her writings started one day in the early spring when as I was walking out of the American library, a woman walked in. “Jhumpa Lahiri was here.” Mathew told me later. “Who?” I asked. “Jhumpa Lahiri. She’s all over the book world.” Of course I knew that name, Jhumpa Lahiri. Who could have avoided it when in 2000 she won the Pulitzer and The Interpreter of Maladies was everywhere? And then I saw the movie made after The Namesake some years ago with my dad in Michigan. But, how could that be her? She looked like a study abroad student. She looked sure of herself, but certainly not as sure as a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author would look.

But it was Jhumpa Lahiri and I began to search out her books when I learned she would be talking at John Cabot. I went last Monday when she introduced her friend and writer Francesca Marciano; I went yesterday to the conversation between Lahiri, Marciano, and George Minot; and I’ll go tonight when hopefully she’ll be reading from her new novel coming out in September, The Lowland (excerpted in The New Yorker).

Even in front of an audience Lahiri is quietly confident. Her expression almost serious, unchanging. Her face is not a mirror, and at times I thought she wasn’t even listening. But she was listening, very carefully. Last night’s conversation was about language, writing in or speaking another language and how that affects identity. Jhumpa Lahiri knew Italian pretty well before moving to Rome but has since thrown herself into the language completely, even writing in Italian in her diary. While Francesca Marciano is Italian and writes her books in English. They talked about how working in another language gave them a freedom in their writing, and how the restrictions of having less tools is a limitation and an adventure. Jhumpa Lahiri said that she likes writing in Italian because “nothing I’ve accomplished matters.”

Moving to another country, speaking another language can forge a new identity. It’s important to always keep challenging anything that feels too strongly set, challenging your limits so that when you look at something you’re not seeing down a tunnel but into an open space. It’s uncomfortable to learn another language, to always be making mistakes, to say stupid things that don’t even make sense. Those looks you get sometimes, the lift of the eyebrow and a squint to the eye and you know you’ve said something completely wrong and stupid. Discomfort leads to growth and surprises.

Jhumpa Lahiri has written so much about immigration, but until she moved to Rome last year she had lived in the country where she was raised. Moving to Rome has changed the way she thinks about immigration, and she said she could never write about it in the same way. That’s just one way living in Rome, living Italian, has changed her. I’m excited to read whatever she writes while she lives here. I’m excited for her new book. But I’m most excited to go listen to her tonight in the Forum.


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