Jhumpa Lahiri | Limited series

Posted on February 2, 2023 at 1:59 pmUpdated February 2. 2023 at 2:01 PM

Why did you decide to write in Italian and settle in Rome?

Metamorphosis, that might be the perfect word to start your answer. I am working on a new Latin to English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I read parts of this poem in Latin class in college and it has always stuck in my head. As I went through my own series of changes—language change, creative change, life change, coming to Rome and deciding to shift my center of gravity there—I thought of Ovid again. Sometimes he describes transformation as saving you from your previous state.

Why was makeup necessary?

I wanted to settle something, that’s for sure. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for, but that’s what slowly, mysteriously drew me to Rome, to the Italian language. This uncertainty, which attracted me here, prompted me to begin writing a book that was gradually taking shape, In altre parole (in other words).

Writers such as Milan Kundera or Vladimir Nabokov adopted another language in exile after persecution in their home countries. This is not your situation?

No, I would place myself in the line of Samuel Beckett, who grew up in Ireland, learned French and Italian, moved to Paris, and then adopted French as his primary language, not because he was persecuted, but because he needed it. Or Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian writer who fell in love with Portuguese literature and wrote an important novel in Portuguese called Requiem.

Isn’t it a risky bet to start from scratch in another when you excel in one?

I never felt like I excelled at anything. If you tell me that you don’t understand why the writer changed the language for no reason, I will tell you: I needed it. Tabucchi explains what I did, he says: “I needed another language: a language that would be a place of love and reflection. »

Even if you can write very well in another language, can you really adapt it?

No language is my language. English is not my language, never has been. Bengali was also not my language as I cannot read or write.

Did you have to find a new language because you didn’t feel like you were Indian or American?

I’ve always been interested in someone else because I’ve always had a sense of being someone else. I have no reference point in terms of identity, culture or language. I have always been in the middle. Because of my education, training, and many years of living in English, the language that is most embedded in my mind is English, and it was in English that I became a writer, but it is not my mother tongue. When I speak English, there is a void because I spent my entire childhood in a bubble of another language. None of my parents’ friends spoke English. It was rare for people to come to our house who spoke English. My parents, far away from their country, chose their friends from the Bengali expatriate community. They were not themselves when they spoke English. For me, it was as if they became someone else.

Do you feel at home when you go to India?

No, but it is very familiar. I have made countless trips to Calcutta, visited distant relatives for long periods of time, looked into the world of my mother and father, but I do not feel at home there. . My parents felt right at home as soon as they stepped off the plane.

Why did you write about Calcutta?

I was trying to figure out who I was, what my family was, and where they came from. I grew up in the US, a country where we didn’t have family at all. Later I had a much younger sister, but my formative years were spent on an island of three. This experience of deep isolation shaped who I am.

What inspired you to move to Italy? Were you trying to leave something behind?

Throughout my childhood in the United States, I had a strong sense of failure. This became very clear to me when I finally moved to Rome. In a country like Italy where it’s literally impossible to be Italian, it’s even more liberating because I realize I’ll always be a foreigner.

Have you experienced discrimination in America?

Yes, I grew up in a very provincial, very segregated environment. My parents and I were clearly strangers and acted like it. When I was a kid, walking into a store was a terrifying experience.

Do you want America?

I don’t blame anyone. The United States is a beautiful country in many ways that has brought extraordinary things to civilization. Sociologically, it’s a fascinating place.

President Barack Obama presents the 2014 National Humanities Medal to Chumpa Lahiri during a ceremony at the White House in September 2015 in Washington, DC.© Photo12/Alamy/UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Your work has been very well received in America, you have received awards there.

But this is not my whole life. When I’m in the hospital waiting room while my mom is being treated in the ER, I’m not wearing my Pulitzer Prize winning badge. I don’t walk around with a resume.

Is there a red thread in Racconti Romani, do you know about Rome?

The common denominator is that no one feels out of place. Rome is a city where it’s easy to feel out of place because it’s constantly changing, but at the same time it stays the same. Even in our daily wanderings, we are constantly pulled back into the dizzying flow of time. Today, when we came to my house, we watched the flight of starlings from my terrace. In Caesar’s time, people in Gaul looked at the same bird shapes to read what would happen the next day. I am part of this continuum of history and time.

Where did you live before Rome?

I lived in New York. Before New York, I was in Boston. I studied in New York before Boston, and even before that in Rhode Island, where I grew up. I studied Italian for a long time before coming to Rome, but I fell in love with ancient Rome as a child.

Longing for another place?

No, I feel nostalgic, but in a very limited sense, within my family. I long for the past, but not for a place. I guess I can feel nostalgic for places where I’ve been happy, but they’re not places I feel particularly connected to. The only place I miss deeply when I’m not there is Rome. It’s the only place I find my place. I feel at home there, even though I know it isn’t.

What is so charming about the Italian language?

I love that it’s a relatively new, hybrid language, stemming from the many regional dialects it still co-exists with, plus it’s in its own language. In Italy, there are many writers who grew up in one language and wrote in another language, like Pasolini or Dante, who adopted Latin literature, French and Arabic poetic traditions to create the Italian language, wrote the “Divine Comedy”, and invented their own poetry from all this. create a new language. Often Italian writers – Ovid, Dante, Pasolini, to name but three – speak of alienation and exile throughout their works.

Do you find Italian more difficult than English?

This is something else. It is for me to find a piece of myself or to understand new aspects of myself and therefore to understand life through the lens of a new language. There are things in Italian that make more sense to me than in English. When my mother was dying and I was talking about what was happening with my Italian friends, it felt more real than when I was talking about it in English. It is very strong.

Chumpa Lahiri, who are you?

I am a writer who writes in Italian. I am a writer who writes in English. I am a writer who speaks Bengali, a bit of French and Spanish and a few other languages, but there is no direct connection between who I am and a particular language and therefore culture. As Primo Levi said, we are centaurs, hybrids. These pieces of language I have – Italian, English, Bengali – are constantly spreading.

Translated from the English by Héloïse Esquié.

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