A Conversation With Jhumpa Lahiri

The Pulitzer-winning writer on working with Elena Ferrante’s translator, giving up reading in English, and her love affair with Italian.

Jhumpa Lahiri.
Jhumpa Lahiri in 2014.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, is usually heralded for the clarity and elegance of her prose. Her two collections of short stories—Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—and her first novel, The Namesake, evoked the lives of both Indian immigrants coming to the West, and their children and grandchildren born here. Her most recent novel, The Lowland, focused on the immigrant experience, but also circled back in time to 1960s Bengal, and that state’s Maoist movements.

Her most recent book, however, is more than a slight departure. Lahiri decided to immerse herself in Italian. She moved her family to Italy (which she first visited two decades ago) for several years, and she made the decision to write exclusively in the language. The result is In Other Words, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, who’s also translated Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. Lahiri told me that she doesn’t think the book should be called a memoir. But however one identifies it, In Other Words is a slim, strange, autobiographical work about Lahiri’s relationship to Italian. It also marks, quite consciously, Lahiri’s desire to escape from writing English—and the burdens she felt the language placed on her.

Lahiri has a not entirely undeserved reputation as shy and reserved, but she is also a careful listener and engaging conversationalist. We spoke last week about criticism of her work, the difference between literary life in Italy and America, and why she may never write in English again. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: Did you ever think about writing in Bengali or Hindi or another Indian language, or was this book an escape from those languages as well as from English?

Jhumpa Lahiri: Well, my relationship to Bengali is very different from my relationship to Italian, right? Bengali is the language of my upbringing and the language of my parents and their world, that rootedness they feel in the world. I did do a translation project at one point when I was a graduate student. I translated the work of a Bengali short story writer for a master’s thesis, and it was a very particular process in that, because I don’t read the language with any kind of ease—it’s a really very intense labor for me to read in Bengali, even prose that’s fairly simple—I asked my mother to read it aloud, and I tape recorded her, and I listened to her readings, and I translated based on that.

I did think about working a little bit more closely, in a literary way, with that language, with Bengali, at a certain point. But no, Italian is, for me, the third way, and it’s totally a language of my choosing. It’s totally different from English and from Bengali. It’s a path that nobody expected me to be on, and that I put myself on.

It’s interesting that you say, “the path nobody expected me to be on.” One of the critiques of your work is that your stories can feel like they are about similar characters from similar Indian-American or Indian worlds. Was this book a conscious attempt to respond to that criticism?

Well, it’s not conscious at all because I read very little of what’s written about me at this point. I think it’s a ludicrous critique, if you want to know the truth. I mean, is that the critique we make of Chekhov, of John Updike, of any other writer I can possibly think of?

Well, people do make that critique of Updike, although that doesn’t mean the critique is any more or less silly.

It is kind of crazy. It just seems crazy. It’s an absurd point to bring up. I can’t really think of any writer who doesn’t fall into that category in some basic sense.

When you said earlier that people never would have expected you to do this, was that part of the appeal of it?

No, I don’t really write for anybody else, you know? I never have, and I never will. I don’t believe in that. I feel my writing comes from a desire to … well, it’s motivated by many things, but it’s inherently a contradiction in that I’m writing for myself, and it’s a very interior journey. On the other hand, I feel that writers do make that interior journey out of a desire to connect. It’s that sort of unbearable solitude that writers feel that I have felt, that I feel in my life, that has sort of marked me, that drives me to express myself, and drives me to express myself in the form of, say, a diary that never leaves the confines of my study.

How have your preferences as a reader changed in the last couple of years with this journey you’ve been on with Italian?

Well, I only read in Italian.

I was going to learn Italian for this interview, but that seemed like too much research to do.

[Laughs] Yeah.

I mean, I tend to read mostly fiction in Italian. I tend to read mostly 20th-century fiction, 20th-, 21st-century fiction in Italian. Perhaps I read a little bit more contemporary fiction in Italian. I read writers who write in other languages. I read more European literature in translation in Italian. The focus is sort of shifted, in that sense. When I’m in Italy, I find shorter novels, I find different approaches to things that interest me. I find texts that are autobiographical.

It’s interesting for me to publish this book here right now. Everyone calls it a memoir. It’s not. I’ve never thought of it as a memoir. It’s a very different piece of writing. It came from a very different place. I was never, ever thinking of the book in those terms. I never even thought that it would be a book. When it was published in Italy last year, when it was published in Holland, in Sweden and France and other places, nobody has referred to it as a memoir.

Have you noticed any other differences in how it’s been received compared to your other work?

Well, again, given that I tend to expose myself relatively little to what is being said about the book, but given that I’ve talked to some people and I’ve done some interviews and so on, I do feel that the focus here and also in the United Kingdom, and also a bit in India—the three countries where the book is now going to be published in English—the focus is predominantly on the personal dimension, and not so much about the language issue. That strikes me, because I think, certainly in Italy, obviously, the Italians have a certain connection to this book or relationship to this book, given that it’s a book that talks about their language.

When the book was published last year, I found myself talking in depth and at length about the language question. … The [question of whether] this is a transgressive act or not, and what it means, and the repercussions of this. There is, I think, a sort of philosophical aspect to the book, if you will. I feel that in all of the interviews I’ve done so far for the English edition, that has been skimmed if not totally ignored, and rather, it’s more about, “What did your kids feel about going to Italy? What did your parents feel about your going to Italy? What was it like?” These more personal elements. I repeat, I don’t feel that it is a memoir. It is an autobiographical work with two short stories in it as well, so it’s a kind of weird mixed genre or out-of-genre kind of work.

I promise my next question is actually about language, not about your kids. You say in the book that you aren’t as good a writer in Italian. Was that scary?

Well, it’s also thrilling and it’s new and it’s raw. As a writer, I’m not looking to be in control, and I’m not looking to be in a state of … I don’t know. The focus for me is a certain purity and a certain truth, and a certain clarity. Even if that is rendered in a less perfect way, that is what interests me more. What interests me more is writing really what I have to say, and to not be afraid. I think I am less afraid in Italian, perhaps because I have this sense of being masked, and it all seems kind of unreal, in a way, when I express myself in Italian, because of the way I came to the language, the way I acquired it so painfully, in a way, word-for-word, but also with a great deal of joy and satisfaction, and that sense of choice and freedom driving my learning of the language from the very beginning.

I think if you speak to any creative person, there’s something so powerful, so intoxicating, if you will, about discovering another voice, another instrument, another way of looking at things, another way of perceiving things. This is very exciting for me right now. Yes, I work hard to make sure it is coherent, I work hard to make sure it is correct, but I also feel that, if it’s more simple, if it’s more crude, that’s the way it is.

How did it feel to read someone’s translation of your own work? Was it at all like reading your work after an editor sends it back?

It was fascinating to hear myself in English, to hear those thoughts that I hadn’t articulated in English, that didn’t exist in English until that moment. It was remarkable to realize that the Italian had made that journey, thanks to Anne and to her efforts. It was interesting. That’s a horrible word. It was more than interesting. It was extraordinary, in that sense, to see what had happened, and the fact that I didn’t do it, that someone else did all of that work. My relationship to English will always be different from my relationship to Italian. So many more years, so many more miles we’ve traveled together, English and I.

This is not a criticism at all of the translation, but it was also profoundly alienating, in that I didn’t write the book in English. In the beginning, I was reluctant to read it. I almost felt like, “I don’t know if I even want to see this in English, it’s so strange.” I mean, if I open up the German edition of one of my books, not that I know German, but let’s say the French edition, in another language I can kind of read, I think, “Wow! This is something. This is a different creature.”

You seem like a pretty private person. Is bringing such a personally momentous experience to an audience ever something that is hard for you?

With this book, it was born in a different way. It was a series of articles I was writing in Italian for a weekly newsmagazine. The idea of the book was secondary, but it just started out as a column, basically. I am, for lack of a better definition, an American writer, and I wrote a book, I published a series of articles and I wrote a book in another language, in another country. I’ve written many other things since then in Italian that have been published. It’s interesting to come back here and to watch this book go out into the world, because basically everything I was doing over there existed in a vacuum, in the context of here, because nobody knew what I was doing. It was on nobody’s radar at all.

It’s amazing, right? How connected the world is, and yet—

And yet, not. It is. It is, very. It struck me. I didn’t really care, but I thought, “Is anyone going to figure this out or be curious about this or comment on this or pick up on this somehow?” Absolutely nobody did. Not one person.

What did you draw from that?

I feel that Italy’s a country that’s constantly looking out and constantly following what’s happening in other cultural centers. What is being written in America, what is being published in England, what is being published in France. It’s a culture that’s always wanting to absorb and inform itself of other works, other writers, etc., etc. The United States is different in that way.

I was going to say they have Berlusconi and we don’t, but now that we have our own Berlusconi figure I can’t even make that joke.

Indeed. To answer your question, I suppose, yes, the pieces are quite, some of them, are quite personal. I just felt more comfortable, in some sense, publishing these pieces there, and again, I was also struck that I was able to write these pieces without anybody commenting or caring about anything that I was doing. That was wonderful, in a way, you know? It took me back to starting out as a writer and that sense of possibility and freedom that I felt at that time. I still feel that right now, writing in Italian. I still feel like the stuff that I’m writing now, I share with, I don’t know, six people. Nobody else knows.

I interviewed you about eight years ago, I don’t know if you remember this, but I came to your apartment in Brooklyn, and when I was leaving, I saw a copy of A Suitable Boy, my favorite book, on your shelf, and I begged you to read it. You said you would, so I was just wondering if you did.

I didn’t read it.

Oh my God.

I did not read it. I’m sorry.

No, it’s OK. Maybe there’s an Italian translation.

I’m sure there is.