University Lecture

Jhumpa Lahiri talks about how her past influences her writing during University Lecture

Kiran Ramsey | Senior Design Editor

Author Jhumpa Lahiri uses past as driving force in current writings during a University Lecture Tuesday night.

A woman who worked as a translator had everything she needed in life. She was fortunate, and she knew it. The only thing that troubled her was what distinguished her from others. And because of that, she considered herself imperfect.

That woman was the main character of “The Exchange,” a short story within Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book “In Other Words.” Lahiri read an excerpt from “The Exchange” to the Syracuse University community on Tuesday night as part of the University Lecture Series. She was the series’ first speaker for the spring semester.

Lahiri, who had studied Italian for many years, decided to take the leap and write the book in Italian to grapple with her connection to language and its powerful tie to her identity. It was later translated into English.

Lahiri was born in the United States to immigrant Indian parents. Her first language was Bengali, which she said she can still speak, but cannot read or write in. This upbringing has influenced her writing, she said.

“English is what I was educated in and became a writer in,” Lahiri said. “But I felt that when I spoke English I was no longer my parent’s daughter.”

This split in linguistics, she said, is common among children of immigrants. But because of her profession, her attachment to language is closely tied to the only identity she said she has: being a writer.

She said reading was the first love of her life, but because it happened in English, she always felt an element of betrayal.

“I knew my heart was turning in another direction,” she said.

Lahiri compared her relationship with her parents to the one she has with her children. Lahiri said both she and her mother were avid readers, but the books they read were different. When she would bring a book home from school, many times her parents hadn’t read it or even heard of it.

This is different from her relationship with her own children. Lahiri said she can recall the books they are reading from her days in school, which allows for a different kind of relationship.

She remembers this disconnect from her parents and said that while there is a generational divide, the connective tissue between her parents is lost because it wasn’t in the same language.

She said that in her novels she is trying to heal something not only for herself but also for her parents.

Lahiri said her “Italian project” was about going back to a certain point of origin. The project led her and her family to move to Rome for four years to immerse themselves in the culture there. In doing so, she said she became more comfortable with the rhythm of the language.

With her book written in Italian, some critics told her she was losing the writer that she was, she said. But Lahiri used those comments to fuel her thought processes on human nature and reactions.

She said identity, belonging and possession are still issues that she works with and explores in her books.

Lahiri also said that common themes such as the lack of a specific place, a specific language and a specific culture that was her upbringing, are just as present “In Other Words” as they are in her others.

“There’s always been, for me, that fundamental tension, a desire to conform and be accepted and that not being who I am,” she said.

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