Author, teacher, and translator Jhumpa Lahiri joins Tyler for a conversation on identity, Rhode Island, writing as problem-solving, reading across languages, the badness of book covers, Elena Ferrante, Bengali culture, the magic of Kolkata, Italian authors, Indian classical music, architectural influences, and much more.
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TYLER COWEN: Thank you for coming. You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.
LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.
First of all, thank you all very much for coming and for your warm welcome.
It is true that I lived there. Let’s see, how long did I live there? From the age of 3 to 18.
LAHIRI: So, 15 years?
COWEN: And you went to Barnard at 18, right?
LAHIRI: I did.
So I lived for as long in New York as I did in Rhode Island. But, of course, one’s childhood is one’s childhood and is formative in a way that later experiences are not. So yes, it is a part of who I am, absolutely. But I’ve always had a very uneasy relationship with the place.
You [earlier] mentioned the essay in State by State, one of these books that have been kindly assembled here. Such a lovely display. Really, I’m so touched. I was asked to write about Rhode Island in this anthology called State by State, which invited a number of authors to write about their home state or a state that they had some sort of connection to. And so I chose Rhode Island. I mean, I was asked to write about Rhode Island and I said yes. But partly it was to get over this sense of discomfort about your very opening.
COWEN: Did it work? [laughs]
LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.
It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.
On early influences
COWEN: We’ll get to your most recent work, but one of the things I like most about everything you’ve done is, I always get the sense you’re trying to work out some problem for yourself and also for us. I’d like to survey your whole writing life and start with the question: When you were young, when you were, say, 15 years old, what was your favorite novel, and why?
LAHIRI: Well, I think I had started reading Russian literature around that age. I had some friends, my family had friends. They had three daughters: one of them was a little bit older. She was already in college. When I would visit them, I would see these big volumes of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy on her desk, these Norton Critical Editions, and they were really appealing to me. So I tried to rise to another level of reading. That’s probably what I was reading a lot of.
I loved Hawthorne even then. I was in 10th grade when I was 15. I read The Great Gatsby that year. And the following year I was introduced to Hardy, who has become so important to me as well. So it was in high school that I encountered, fortunately, certain authors who have stayed with me for all of this time, and who continue to inspire me.
COWEN: One of the things I’ve liked about comments you’ve dropped, is the way you read, say, Scarlet Letter, as actually a novel of immigrants. That maybe the characters wouldn’t have behaved that way in a “home” country.
Even a lot of Hardy, especially Tess, a favorite of yours, you can read as a kind of immigrant novel. Coming from the countryside, moving somewhere quite strange — to use that as a lens for interpreting what otherwise might seem like strange character behaviors. Reading them through you is actually very rewarding, through your eyes, through your fiction. Does that make sense to you at all?
LAHIRI: Yes. I think what I’m responding to is the sense of displacement in those authors, in almost any author. Even Willa Cather you can read this way; Homer you can read this way. So many authors you can read this way. Some years ago I was asked this question by the New York Times Book Review about what was my problem with immigrant literature, and I made a maybe cheeky remark about how I didn’t believe in it. But it wasn’t being cheeky. It was just saying what I felt was true, which is that this is something I’ve responded to in literature from the very beginning.
If I didn’t have this response to literature, then these writers wouldn’t have fed and inspired me the way they did because there would’ve been a “barrier” between their experiences and their times and mine, and that shouldn’t be the case. That’s not what literature does. Literature does the opposite. It allows us to cross over those boundaries in a beautiful way, in a magical way.
On Ashapoorna Devi
COWEN: If I can trust the Internet, you have three master’s degrees in creative writing, comparative literature, and English, and for one of your degrees, you translated six Bengali short stories by Ashapoorna Devi, who’s a Bengali writer, maybe the most famous woman writer or even most famous writer in Bengal for much of the 20th century. What connects you to her and what problem were you trying to solve by engaging in her work?
LAHIRI: I knew about her through my mother, who’s a devoted reader of Ashapoorna Devi’s work and talked about her a lot.
It’s interesting. My mother read a lot, but she didn’t really read in English very much at all. She read in Bengali. And I remember the effort of going to Kolkata, ordering the books. My mother . . . the list she would give my uncle, who had the connections with all the booksellers on College Street in Kolkata, which is the book district. The drama of this — going and ordering all the books from the publishers and waiting, and bringing them back in the rickshaw, piling them, the whole thing, and then bringing them back to the United States.
I saw what it meant to her, and I saw, as with everything, with trying to get the right ingredients. I could see that those books simply weren’t available here, and they were, in some sense, her lifeline.
Anyway, she would talk about the work of this particular author, among others, and I was struck by the things she described. A very prolific author of short stories and novels, of some very incisive short stories about domestic life and classified — unfairly, I think — as a writer for women, which I don’t think she is at all. I think she has a much more universal power and vision.
In graduate school, I was taking this translation workshop, and at some point, I was asked to translate something and I thought, “Well, what can I do here?” I had studied Latin and ancient Greek a little bit, and I had some French, and then I had Bengali as my first language.
COWEN: But you didn’t read Bengali and Bengali characters?
LAHIRI: But I couldn’t read it and I still really can’t, and I couldn’t write in it, either, and I still really can’t. Yet I worked around this obvious obstacle. I asked my mother to read a number of these stories out loud, and I taped her. Then I listened to them and kept playing them back, playing them back, and I translated in this way. I can read enough, painstakingly, slowly, but it’s not completely incomprehensible to me. I could then go back; in addition to the tapes, I could also look at the text and see how things were structured, where the breaks were, etc., etc.
I even caught my mother a couple of times — she skipped a paragraph here and there, and I would call her up and say, “What about this part where she’s describing . . . ?” So it was a really interesting project. But that’s how it started.
COWEN: There’s something about how she sets her stories in architectural space always that reminds me of your writings. When you have a scene, you describe a home very often or the place in advance, and that’s imposing a structure on the scene and that’s in her. Do you get that from her?
LAHIRI: In the commentary I wrote to the thesis, if I’m not mistaken (this was a lifetime ago), I think that was part of the lens I brought to my critical reading of the stories — that she was a writer very attuned to space, to physical space. I must have been affected by this in some sense.
My doctoral dissertation built on this in that I wrote about Jacobean English drama and where it was set specifically, often in a corrupt Italian palazzo, and what that meant. So I think as a reader of literature when I was a student of literature I was very attuned to where things were set and why, and what it meant to have that literal architecture being an element of narrative.
On architecture and physical settings
COWEN: We’re at George Mason University and George Mason, the man, lived in a place called Gunston Hall. That’s one of the best-known examples of Palladian architecture in Virginia, even on the whole Atlantic seaboard. You did a PhD dissertation on Renaissance studies. What is it about Palladianism and palladia that drew your attention? What’s the magnet there for you?
LAHIRI: Now that you ask me, I’m thinking, “OK, what led me to this?”
One of the classes that I was taking as a graduate student was a broad seminar with lots of different professors. There was one professor named Roger Scruton, who writes a lot about architecture.
COWEN: Sure, I know him. I had a debate with him once on the nature of friendship.
LAHIRI: Yes, he’s very . . .
COWEN: I won.
Yeah, he’s a very well-spoken man with a broad range of interests: aesthetics, philosophy, architecture. He taught part of this class and talked about the language of architecture, Italian architecture in particular. I was really struck by the class, the idea of it, looking at space so carefully. These beautiful spaces, what they meant, the vocabulary implicit in architecture.
So that was step one, and then I went to Florence in this time. I went to Italy for the first time. Not only did it lead to this whole other phase of my life, writing in Italian, but I toured the architecture, looking at the places that I was seeing in slides as a grad student in Boston and connecting to them. Really experiencing those spaces for the first time.
Then when I was reading these plays, I was always interested in where Shakespeare set his plays. I was interested in his use of Italy as a setting, and that got me thinking about what was the relationship in Renaissance England. What was it all about and what did Italy represent to England and to English artists and dramatists? What was this choice all about? Why were they setting clearly English political drama on foreign soil, and what that meant.
COWEN: They’re also afraid of Italy, right? It’s a symbol of corruption and . . .
LAHIRI: It’s a sort of love-horror, love-hate, attraction-repulsion, contradictory attitude, which I tried to unpack a little bit in the course of the dissertation.
COWEN: So, it’s still working through some set of related problems, in a way.
LAHIRI: Yeah, and I think one thing that’s always in there is this idea of translation and bringing back and crossing over. One thing that was happening in the Renaissance was that these people were literally traveling to Venice, to Florence, to Rome, and seeing this architecture, which is born from that place, and then bringing those ideas back. Translating the works of Vitruvius or [Leon Battista] Alberti or whomever, and then using those ideas literally to build buildings in England, and from there we have things here in the United States. So that also interested me.
On the most intimate form of reading
COWEN: To continue the whirlwind tour of your career — in preparing for this, I reread Interpreter of Maladies, and this was the sense I had this time around: that one of your characters, Mr. Kapasi, who is the interpreter of maladies — so if people come to the doctor and they only speak Gujarati, he’s able to translate that for the doctor and explain what the symptoms are — that in a sense, in the book you view yourself, the author, as the interpreter of maladies. People are disconnected in different ways, and you’re the one doing the interpreting; and he’s at the center of the book, and he’s a stand-in for you. Is that just my imagination?
LAHIRI: Probably not, but I don’t think I was aware of it at the time.
Just yesterday, I was talking in Princeton at a place called Dorothea’s House, which is dedicated to Italian-American culture and so on, talking about the most recent book. At one point I was talking about this idea, in antiquity: in Latin, the word for translator is interpreter. I teach translation now, and I talk a lot to my students about translation being the most intimate form of reading and how there was the time when translating and interpreting and analyzing were all one thing.
Now there are translators, and there are people who look at books and analyze them, and there are scholars, etc. It’s not necessarily the same activity. So I wrote Interpreter of Maladies; that was my first book. I called it that — I heard the title in this strange flash.
Now years have gone by, and I’m now just setting out on a new phase of my creative life as a translator. And so I think it’s all one continuum. But one can’t realize these things in the moment. It’s only looking back that you see certain patterns.
On Elena Ferrante and becoming darker
COWEN: Another thing that struck me about this book was how much it had in common with Elena Ferrante in some ways. And of course, this is at a time when you wouldn’t have read her yet. But this notion of both feeling a need to set everything right for so many different people and being unable to, and that carrying a kind of sadness. And then interjected into the story, always, are books. Books in both have this immense power. Everyone’s reading them; everyone’s looking to them for answers.
Yet at the same time, books are somehow impotent because they don’t actually allow anyone to set everything right, for parents or other sets of people. She has a bit of that, and you have a bit of that, and of course it’s completely independent. But your later fascination with her seems, already, to be in Interpreter of Maladies in some ways. Does that make sense to you?
LAHIRI: I certainly recognized that in her work when I read her, and I wrote to her. I wrote two letters to her, that were sort of public letters that I read in Rome some years ago in public. And maybe she was there or maybe she wasn’t. In any case, she did write back to me. And I talked precisely about this.
I talked about how books are characters in her work, and I think her work, in some sense, is about reading and about language and literature and what it means on a very deep level, a very sophisticated level. I don’t think my work is doing that at all, but I think about it a lot. And so I was very struck by that element of her work and this focus on characters who write, characters who become writers, how books shape and form us on the one hand, and how they betray us on the other hand and can’t really contain what life is — this contradiction at heart.
COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?
LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?
LAHIRI: That’s my sense. Though I really try not to read a lot about what people say about my work, I also don’t live in a vacuum in outer space. So I sense reactions to certain things. As the years have gone by and the books have evolved, the vision has become a little less forgiving, less tolerant; a little less bittersweet and more just bitter. And that’s fine.
I remember, even with The Lowland — and I don’t think my editor would mind if I shared this with you — but at one point she said, “Well, it’s just really grim sometimes, what goes on.” We share a love of Hardy, and I said, “Would you really have said that to Hardy?”
LAHIRI: She didn’t say anything else. So I published the book I wanted to publish, but a lot of people have said to me, “I just couldn’t read the book. It was just too heavy, too dark, too whatever.” They miss I think the bittersweet quality of, say, a novel like The Namesake.
COWEN: You bring up Lowland. I’d like to ask you a few questions about Bengal. If someone’s visiting India, and they ask me for advice, I say, “You simply, absolutely must go to Kolkata.” To the extent you feel the same way, how would you articulate why it is people ought to go visit Kolkata?
LAHIRI: Because it’s one of the most fascinating places on earth. It’s a city that is like no other, with a life, a cultural life, a history utterly its own, and hard, and beautiful. Its beauty is not conventional. People say, “Is it a beautiful city?” Well, no. I mean yes, parts of it can be. Yes, of course, but not in that conventional sense, and it’s challenging on a whole host of levels.
Of course I don’t know it as a tourist because my family’s from there, and I’ve never known it in any other way other than — when I was very young — where my grandparents lived, and then my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and so forth. So I have my own relationship to it. But it’s like not knowing New York City in the American context. It’s just its own thing, and it’s so strong in its flavor, and its power, and its energy. So it has to be reckoned with, I think.
COWEN: If I think of Indian economists, two of the best known would be Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee, and they’re both Bengali, of course. Why does it seem that so much of the Indian intelligentsia comes from Kolkata or Bengal? What is in the water, so to speak?