Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, known for her lyrical fiction about the Indian American experience, has published her first nonfiction work, a love letter to the Italian language. First infatuated after college, Lahiri — who has been teaching courses in writing fiction and translation in Princeton’s creative writing program since September — studied Italian for nearly two decades before moving to Rome with her family in 2012. Lahiri wrote In Other Words — a collection of autobiographical pieces that includes two short stories — in Italian (it was translated into English by Ann Goldstein). PAW spoke to Lahiri about the sense of freedom she feels working in her adopted language, teaching works in translation, and writing fiction.
This book is a departure for you. It’s nonfiction, and the language — the short, simple sentences — feels very different from your fiction.
My Italian sounds different, but what I’m mainly aware of is the thought process. The way of seeing things is very different because of my relationship to the language as an acquired language. I have a certain sense of freedom I have never felt before as a writer, and that’s very exciting to me. I think writing in Italian helped me to reacquaint myself with what I really love about writing, which is that sense of working with words — the shape of them, the feel of them — and really focusing on that and very little else.
The other part is that my writing in Italian is fully a product of my reading in Italian, and learning to read in another language reminds me of my original passion for reading. It’s sort of like being given a second life and a second chance to do all of this in another language — writing in a way that I think I did as a child, when I was just learning to express myself in English. I came back to that feeling.
I do think my writing in Italian is in some sense more mature, though perhaps not in its technical capacity. Italian is a language that I choose for myself. It represents my adulthood in some sense, having some distance from my childhood languages, English and Bengali.
While in Rome, you didn’t read in English for three years, and you wrote exclusively in Italian for two years. Have you returned to English now that you are at Princeton?
I started reading in English again for my students. We read Italian literature in translation all semester, which was kind of a nice compromise, and then I started reading my students’ work, so the English part of my brain has been reactivated. It was exciting to introduce them to some of the writers who have meant so much to me.
Are you writing fiction?
I’ve been writing quite a bit of fiction in Italian as well as a number of nonfiction pieces. I also have a translation project in mind, from Italian to English. That’s probably the first thing I will write formally in English.
Do you see yourself returning to writing in English?
I really don’t know. I feel right now I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. Right now when I wake up and I think about writing, I think about my writing projects in Italian.
Interview conducted and condensed by Jennifer Altmann