Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian American author who writes her books in Italian, debates with Stefano Albertini, Director of Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò on NYU

Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book In Other Words
is a memoir in Italian

Why abandon the English language that made her famous and move with her family to Rome? Because she was in love: “When you’re in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar feeling in me. I don’t want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity.”  -Jhumpa Lahiri

On October 5th, 2015, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri visited Montclair State University to give a public lecture on her personal experience with learning Italian, an experience that has recently led her to the publication of "In altre parole", her first work in this language.

"I choose Rome. A city that has fascinated me since I was a child, that conquered me immediately. The first time I was there, in 2003, I felt a sense of rapture, and, affinity. I seemed to know it already. After only a few days, I was sure that I was fated to live there. I'm going in order there to change course, and to reach the Italian language. In Rome, Italian can be with me every day, every minute."

" . . . . Whenever I can - in my study, on the subway, in bed before going to sleep - I immerse myself in Italian. I enter another land, unexplored, murky. A kind of voluntary exile. Although I'm still in America, I already feel elsewhere. "

My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.

Jhumpa Lahiri Q&A

Globally, Italian isn’t very useful – it is spoken almost exclusively in Italy. Why did you choose to dedicate yourself to this language in particular?
As I describe in the book, I fell in love with Italian. It was a calling, a desire. Desires, generally speaking, are seldom motivated by utility. Their origins are not rational. But Italian is useful to me, in that it is the language in which I feel absolutely happy, inspired, free.

How did your family react to the idea of moving to Italy?
My husband and children have been very supportive. They understand how much this new life in Italy, in Italian, means to me. And now, as a result, we feel at home in two parts of the world.

How did you find living in Italy compared with the States?
I prefer living in Italy, I am more relaxed and centred there. I find that the pace is more human, that there is a less frenzied relationship to time and that life is more spontaneous. People are not defined by their work, their careers, in the same way.

Is it mainly the language you’re interested in or other aspects of Italy as well?
The language is the key that opens the door to the rest of the culture, to people, to the particulars of another reality and way of thinking and being. Without the language, you cannot enter, cannot comprehend or participate fully.

As a writer, how was it to give up your main language? How did the limitations of your Italian influence your writing?
My break with English stunned me at first but it also intrigued me. I wanted to understand the impulse, the source of it. Expressing myself in Italian was, and remains, a continuous challenge. I find that my writing is more essential and that my thoughts are less inhibited.

When was the moment you felt proudest of your Italian?
The moment I describe in the book, in Capri, when I heard my spoken Italian translated back into English. At that moment, I realised I had crossed over to the other side.

In the book, you compare your passion for Italian to a romantic relationship. If it were a marriage at what stage would it be now?
It is still a very passionate affair. There is always something transgressive about it.

Did you publish the book with an Italian-speaking or an anglophone market in mind? If someone only speaks English how can they use the Italian parts in the dual language book?
The book was born as a series of notes to myself. I never thought they would be read by anyone else. But then the pieces were published in an Italian weekly magazine, Internazionale, so I had to make sure they were comprehensible and coherent for an Italian reader. Italian and English are closely related languages in the scheme of things. The alphabet is the same and they share many words with Latin roots. So the Italian text is a way to better appreciate the connection between the two languages and also to respect their differences.



The famous Italian write on the Recovery of the Italian Language