The Italian Riveter: JHUMPA LAHIRI interviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

Jhumpa, if you and I were meeting in person, not on Zoom, we might be sitting together having a coffee or a prosecco. Where would you like to be?

I’m in my house in Rome right now, which I love. I’ve been spending a lot of time here because of the whole Omicron situation. And it’s been really lovely, I’m very fortunate.

One of the things I associate with Italy is being out amongst people. Is that difficult now, in the pandemic?

I’ve been socialising outside every day. I take long walks with friends. And we just sit in the sun wherever it is – we sort of follow it. There’s less indoor socialising – needless to say – but Rome is such an amazing place to just walk.

At the moment my Italian is incredibly rusty because I’m not in Italy. Do you find that the pandemic has had an impact on your language?

Not really. I have a completely bilingual brain at this point. I write in Italian every day. I’m constantly speaking and writing in Italian – whether I’m in Rome, whether I’m in Princeton. That has really been a big shift in my life since moving back to the United States in 2015, which was when I wrote the ‘Why Italian?’ essay.

That essay is one of a series written over several years in your new book with Princeton University Press called Translating Myself and Others. Is that question, Why Italian?, still relevant for you?

It has receded. I think people will continue to ask it – certainly people who don’t know me, who have never heard of me, those people who may know me from another phase, in another linguistic reality. But it’s been such a long time now that I’ve been working in Italian. I’ve produced so much in this new language that it’s now in a completely different phase.

What would you say that new phase of your Italian is? Not just your linguistic skills, but what Italian has enabled you to do?

I feel that it’s completely transformed me. It’s circulating inside of me in a way that I no longer question it. That’s not to say there’s not an ongoing form of discovery, and every time I come to Rome I discover new ways of saying things, new words – that happens more when I’m here, because there’s more Italian just circulating. In the United States, I have a very robust Italian life in that I now have a lot of Italian friends, I teach in Italian, I teach Italian, I have Italian colleagues. That too has been fortifying, but not in the same way. It’s here in Rome where my Italian always gets another layer, and another and another. That continues, it never plateaus, but it’s totally different. That’s why I put the essays in my new book in chronological order to reflect that. I’ve also written a book of short stories in Italian, out this fall in Italy, and the next fall, in English. I’ve now written three books in Italian. But my main project right now is translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses out of Latin. So that is a further sign to me that my Italian, it’s there, it’s not going anywhere. And if anything, I can now really lean on it, to go back to yet another language I learnt that has been lying dormant for several decades since my college days. It’s Italian that’s leading me back to Ovid, leading me back to Latin.

The surprise – which you describe in your ‘Why Italian?’ essay – for so many of your readers, who, like me, had read The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, was that here was a Pulitzer Prizewinning author we’d never associated with Italian, who suddenly declared that she was only going to write in Italian! Was it sudden, or was it a growing love affair?

It was very sudden for a reader, I can understand, but if you look at [my first book in Italian in 2015] In altre parole (‘In Other Words’) it was a slow growth and process, which goes back to my studying Latin in college, then my dissertation work and learning to read Italian for that, and then coming to Italy . . . But that happened so long ago. It was the realisation that without the language, I would not be living a full life, as crazy as that sounds. It was that feeling or that intuition that led me into the language, and then the culture and the people.

At the time some people did wonder, were you abandoning English, that language that had given you the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, that language that you had grown up with? Did you feel that you were abandoning English, or your other roots – your Indian roots – in taking up Italian?

No, I didn’t. I felt that I was trying to move away from something and explore something in a different way. I think ‘abandonment’ is a very loaded word, a very dramatic word. There is no growth without loss. If we stay still, we don’t explore anything, nothing happens and nothing changes. So my moving into Italian was a very emphatic decision and process and state of mind and dedication.

So you were quite strict with yourself?

I was. Because I knew that there was no other way that I was going to be able to get the Italian really inside of my brain and inside of my heart otherwise. So I limited the English that was coming in. I did this to dedicate myself to a new language, to get it to a place where I needed it to be, to gain fluency, to gain comprehension – deep comprehension – to be able to think and write in a new language which is a language I did not grow up with, didn’t have in my family, didn’t have in any kind of relationships, anything – just coming out of a desire to learn and to complicate the linguistic panorama, and to stabilise it somehow.

Do you sometimes pinch yourself and say ‘this is extraordinary’?

It occurs to me that I was a totally different person ten years ago – that occurs to me. So if I say, OK, it’s 2022, ten years ago I moved to Rome with my family, and I was still essentially sort of scratching the surface of Italian and the Italian language, and had studied it and wanted to get better at it, but basically it was still something I really had to reach toward. So when I think about how different my life is right now, I’m struck. […] But in terms of what happened linguistically, the linguistic shift, I’ve always followed models of people who have done analogous things, and for the better part of my life, I’ve had people like Beckett and Nabokov and others in my mind, people who live and work across languages. Then, when I started thinking about Italian writers, I recognised how many Italian writers were also working in two or more languages, and dialect, and in formal Italian, and reading across languages. And the more I do this, the more I realise that most of literature is actually born from people who did exactly this, for whatever reason, because they sought it out or because they happened to find themselves in these linguistic situations or because they were curious about them. There are so many examples of writers who have shifted languages and felt the need to express themselves in languages that they have gone out of their way to learn.

Could you talk more about your relationship with Italian in terms of literature and the empathy you have for Italian writers? You have translated three novels by one of the greatest living Italian writers, Domenico Starnone, and with The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which you edited and partly translated, you brought some incredible writers to English. Was that your campaigning way to get more Italian writers into English?

Well, the reason I started writing, the reason I started reading Italian was because I wanted to learn Italian, and I wanted to know the literary language as well as a more conversational language. And that reading of Italian turned me into an Italian writer in my own right. So the more I wrote in Italian, the more I needed to read in Italian, because my writing in Italian is basically a reaction to what I’m reading in Italian, just as my writing in English has always been a reaction to what I’ve read in English. Then eventually, because I started to think about translation and because I began teaching at Princeton and I was working with Italian writers, I wanted to share some of the Italian writers that I was excited about and looking for good translations of. That sort of led to the whole Penguin project. It was exciting to gather together a group of writers, some of whom had crossed over into English, and others who hadn’t or had been forgotten or never translated at all. It’s been very gratifying to hear reactions to these writers – ‘Oh, I had never … !’ And then one realises how crucial the act of translation is – because it is only the translator who can open up these points of closure between languages, between cultures, between literatures.

Of the names from The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, who did you discover through reading Italian?

All of them. I knew very few of them before I moved to Italy. A handful – Moravia, Pavese, Morante . . . Maybe that was it. I hadn’t really read any of them because I hadn’t read them in Italian. So it’s really only when I started reading them in Italian that I had a full relationship with them, and started reading each of them and their work more deeply and discovering their whole body of work. But most of the writers in that Penguin anthology I discovered because I was living here and befriending writers and talking to them. One would lead me to another, and to another.

Now you’ve a much better overview of Italian literature, do you think it is neglected in English? Do you think there is still a lot to be translated?

Potentially, yes. There’s been a lot more attention in recent years, due to various things. There’s been more attention on translated literature in general these days, which is wonderful. And of course today we have the example of writers like Domenico Starnone, Elena Ferrante, new versions of Anna Maria Ortese, or this Penguin book of short stories being commissioned. This is a moment Italian literature is enjoying – a moment of relative attention, which has been lovely. It sort of dovetails with where I am right now, and what I am doing, in some form, is also part of this whole ecosystem of what’s going on in terms of Italian literature within the Anglosphere.

Read The Italian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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