Chamber pieces in literature: Jhumpa Lahiri in conversation at the Italian Institute for Culture

Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winning author, graced the Italian Institute for Culture in Dublin on Friday, 8th March. She was in conversation with Professor Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, former Head of the Department of Italian in Trinity College Dublin, at the launch of The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, an anthology compiled by Lahiri. The book contains stories by forty Italian writers, some well-known and some Lahiri’s discoveries, translated into English. The careful curation of the loved stories was discussed at the event, with Lahiri elaborating on the process, starting from her own love of Italian as an adopted third language and the delightful discoveries of some of the stories that are found in the collection.

The translated stories in the book have been derived from translations old and new, and this in itself is a beautiful feature of the collection, which showcases the works of Italo Calvino, Elsa Morante and Cesare Pavese, among others. Another fascinating facet of the anthology is the reverse alphabetical order of writers, a quirk adopted by Lahiri because, as she puts it, “why not?”

The elegant author refers to short stories as the “chamber pieces” of literature, with portrayals of just one or two or three characters coupled with intense story-telling, “a whole life in eight pages. Incredible.” The author notes in her conversation that, even as she is fluent in Italian, there are limitations to her Italian in the sense that she will not be able to write independently in Italian as she does in English. This dependence on another person to create writings in an adopted language speaks multitudes about how important cultural capital is to a writer who takes up writing in a tongue other than their primary one. Lahiri resides in Rome with her Italian husband, but even with this whole immersion in the culture, this notion of holding back persists in her works.

“'A whole other world opens up with a language. You can live a whole other life through a language'”

On being asked why she picked Italian, she replies that she once went to Florence and, walking about the city, got an urge to understand what people around her were saying, and wanting to be able to reply. This made her start learning Italian,which she added is a continuous learning process, as one learns every language. “A whole other world opens up with a language. You can live a whole other life through a language,” she says. An attendee of the talk asked whether she felt like her writing career in English is on hold because of Italian. Lahiri responded that “translation is creation purely with the language,” and she is quite content with the creative process granted through translating Italian works into English.

The writer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her first book, a collection of short stories titled An Interpreter of Maladies. She has penned immensely successful works of fiction, including The Namesake, and The Lowland, along with In Other Words, on Lahiri’s own delving into Italian. Her works constantly explore themes of loneliness, belonging and lack thereof, and of complex yet natural human experiences and emotions. When asked about her process of writing, she said, “I should’ve known this about the world and I only know now. That’s how stories start,” and she shared her habit of writing diaries. Lahiri has also verbalized being inspired by Irish writers, particularly Seamus Heaney and James Joyce, and feels at home in Dublin due to these literary favourites.

Upon the conclusion of the formal talk, I went up to her to chat briefly. The author, quiet but intimidating, resolutely answered my nervous inquiry about whether taking on Italian was more an act of learning or for fulfilling a desire to belong by saying that “it’s all about pushing the boundaries of self. Making more of the self.” Being an intermittent learner of Italian, I took this statement to heart and decided to dive more ardently into the language, if only to be able to talk to Jhumpa Lahiri in Italian the next time.