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  • Miska Lewis and Becky Miller

Jhumpa Lahiri

On origins, Ovid, and Italy.

By Miska Lewis and Becky Miller


Illustration by Seline Ho

When Jhumpa Lahiri, BC ’89, came to Barnard as a freshman, she visited her pre-major advisor in Barnard Hall. The door was slightly ajar, and the desk was nestled in the back right corner of the high-ceilinged office. Advisor and student reviewed the regular trials of first-year scheduling, and a young Lahiri descended from the steps. Fast-forward 38 years, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author now has her name on the door of the same office she once visited, an apt placement that demonstrates just how far away she went before returning to this very home. Her children now both attend Barnard and Columbia, and Lahiri sits as the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Barnard. 

Illustration by Seline Ho

Lahiri’s work has been infused with questions of home, migration, language, and identity since her first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). Through her subsequent essays, novels, short stories, and poetry, she gathers the entire world onto each page, bringing us closer to characters from across the globe. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Lahiri was born in London, grew up in Rhode Island, and has spent the last decade living between New York and Rome. She considers herself “rootless, nomadic, a palimpsest type of human being.” 

 

Lahiri’s return is as compelling for her as it is for the college; students raced to sign up for her two classes this semester, Exophonic Women and Fiction & Personal Narrative. We are two of the lucky 32 to occupy desks in Exophonic Women, where we read female writers in translation who write in languages other than their “mother tongue,” either for political or personal reasons. Lahiri shares this experience with the authors we study. She published her first book in Italian, Dove mi trovo (“Whereabouts”), in 2018. Most recently, she wrote her brand-new short story collection, Roman Stories (2023), in Italian and then translated it back into English. We sat down with her in her Barnard Hall office under the watchful eyes of Shakespeare and Ovid to discuss Barnard’s ethos, her translation work, and what constitutes a Roman story.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

 

The Blue & White: How are you finding Barnard upon your return?

 

Jhumpa Lahiri: So lovely. I’m really happy to be back. It feels destabilizing in all of the best ways, thinking about life and coincidence, this idea of a kind of a spiral of elements. 

 

My daughter is a first-year at Barnard. My son studies at Columbia, he’s a senior. So it’s really potent for me right now: the fact that I came back to teach, that my first year physically back at the college coincides with her first year, his last year. I remember my beginnings here, and I remember what it was like to be on the way out, and the long, long years that have elapsed since 1989 when I graduated. There’s that notion of ‘It was just the other day…’,  time collapsing, and things feeling so comforting and stimulating at the same time. 

 

B&W: Especially with the building, the physical place. 

 

JL: I don’t know if you know this story by Henry James, “The Jolly Corner.” It’s basically someone who goes back into a space that they once inhabited. So it feels very much like, “Am I 19 years old again?” I know I’m not, but when I go up the stairs as I’m rushing into Barnard Hall, I feel like I’m just rushing to go to take one of my classes and not prepare one of my classes. This place had, in retrospect, such an enormous impact on my life.

 

B&W: We’re both about to graduate, and it’s nice to think that the space will always be here. Do you have a favorite spot on Barnard’s campus?

 

JL: I just really love this building. I love the bones of Barnard Hall. I like the energy, I like the high ceilings. I have colleagues now who were my professors 35 years ago in the English department. That’s really powerful to take in. It’s a very warm but serious place. I like the combination of those two things: the warmth and the seriousness of it. 

 

B&W: I think it must be nice that Barnard Hall and Milbank are two of the places that remain the most unchanged, and the faculty that work in both of those places are some of the oldest at Barnard. There’s a sense of history to it. 

 

JL: Yeah, absolutely. 

 

B&W: Barnard’s origins.

 

JL: Origins!

 

B&W: Being at Barnard, how does being an academic mingle with being a novelist, a poet, and an essayist? What has the classroom environment done lately to affect that? 

 

JL: I think the older I get, the more grateful I am to have teaching and a place in academia alongside the other things that I do in my life. The study of literature that has given me a sort of ongoing, unquestioned life project. The books come and go. I don’t feel that I can really control if I am going to write another book and if it is going to be publishable or interesting. So I find it really deeply nourishing to have an island that is Barnard and Columbia in the archipelago of my life, a space of ongoing reflection, thinking, and discovery. As a writer, everything is very momentary. Right now, I have a book out, and I have all these events, and I have to travel, and I have to give interviews. In two months, it will die down, and in two years, there will be nothing. One has to get used to these lulls of your book being talked about, whereas with my work as a reader and thinker, that’s something that doesn’t fall away. 

 

B&W: It’s like a constant, which is rare in a collegiate community. The notion of home that we have here is so fleeting, we only have it for four years.

 

JL: For me, home is really much more a state of mind than a physical location. We can’t live in our heads, we do need structures and actual physical coordinates to inhabit. But I think that college ideally should remain a home and be there as a point of reference, even if you don’t set foot on Barnard’s campus for the next 10 years. Just as I don’t live in the home I was raised in anymore, but it was my home, it is my point of origin. College becomes a new point of origin for us, right? We can carry it with us, we can carry it inside of us. 

 

B&W: I like this idea of multiple points of origin throughout your life. It reminds me of the quote we read in the beginning of class by Theodor Adorno: “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” How has writing become a place for you to live?

 

JL: I think reading and writing are my places to live at the end of the day. I feel at home—I mean, what is home? It makes you feel safe, it makes you feel rooted, it protects you. Right now, it’s Ovid. That poem, that project, is my home. When I’m not there, I feel kind of unsettled and a bit nomadic. It’s the whole process of reading, translating, reworking, thinking, all of the energy and attention. It feels like home. More generally, physical books around me represent the idea of home. I feel that they’re protecting me, that they’re watching over me, that they’re taking care of me. They provide essential companionship, and they always have. 

 

B&W: As we read in class, Ágota Kristóf viewed French as an enemy language, whereas Etel Adnan loved moving fluidly between languages depending on her situation. Where do you think you fall on this exophonic spectrum? 

 

JL: Well, I have openly declared my love of the Italian language, and it was love. But we’re talking about an experience that was 10, 11 years ago, and now it’s a different type of bond. Though I adore Kristóf, and she was such an eye-opening writer for me when I discovered her, I don’t feel that at all, but partly because I don’t share her experiences. I mean, I was not forced to flee my point of origin. I don’t have a point of origin. In that way, I align myself more with Maryse Condé in questioning where the beginning point is. I know from growing up in this country, if people say, ‘Where are you from?’ and I respond, ‘I’m from Rhode Island,’ where I grew up, people will say, ‘But where are you really from?’ There’s this ongoing need to locate people by their origins to create some kind of order, to understand who’s in the room. 

 

The deep affection I feel for the Italian language has profoundly altered my consciousness. It has been an emancipation in some sense of my own consciousness. I learned English to assimilate and to survive in the United States. I was just 4 or 5 years old and told to learn English, and I did so with some trepidation. Now I can see that move into learning to use English, well, was a kind of assimilation that allowed me to survive in this country as a person, as a student, and to come to Barnard, to move forward with my life. But it wasn’t without a price. And that’s why I feel that Italian has been an emancipation for me. 

 

B&W: Because you chose it. 

 

JL: Because I chose it. I think this distinguishes me from Kristóf or Condé, who write in French but didn’t choose the language. What distinguishes my own trajectory is that I absolutely chose the language. Ever since I was brand new here at Barnard and I read Beckett and Nabakov for the first time, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what would that be like?’ It was completely incomprehensible, the idea of someone learning a new language well enough to write in it. I think it’s been percolating in me for most of my life now. In the beginning with Italian, I wanted to get it to a place where it would be accepted. But then I realized my Italian is always going to have a different flavor. I don’t want to say, ‘Look at me. I can write in Italian too, just like other Italians,’ because as soon as I start using that kind of logic, I think, ‘What are we even talking about? Who is the person in charge? Who is the gatekeeper?’ 

 

B&W: Who gets to say if you're writing in Italian like an Italian?

 

JL: Exactly. Who is going to come down on what side of Italian I fall on?

 

B&W: That reminds me of the part in “Two Brothers” when you write that the mother is a lot more aware of the mistakes that she makes, whereas the father is more willing to make mistakes.

 

JL: You can’t learn a language without making a lot of mistakes and allowing yourself to be very imperfect. Learning a new language as an adult is much more challenging because our brains are no longer the sponges that they are when we are children. I remember moving to Rome and meeting with the American ambassador to Rome at the time, a lovely man named David Thorne, who grew up partly in Rome. I told him I need my Italian to get better, there’s some room for improvement. And he said, ‘Just speak it.’ It was the best advice, because otherwise the desire to not make a mistake won’t let you move forward. It is so intimidating to move into a new language.

 

B&W: Since your move to Italy, how have you navigated parenthood through different languages?

 

JL: English is our dominant language of communication. My kids speak Italian, and often our texts end up in Italian because, literally, “domani” has less letters than “tomorrow” and things like that. My husband is a bilingual Spanish and English speaker, so he used to speak in Spanish with our son, and I used to speak Bengali with him. It’s clear that my kids are both very interested in languages. In our house, they absorb different ways of communication and gain an understanding that the world is not a monolingual place. I think that’s the key to so much of humanity. The most incredible thing that humans have done is make languages that are these distinct universes of logic and meaning. It’s not a solar system, there’s not a main one and then these other ones. It’s like the Milky Way, we’re all part of this incredible conversation, even if we’re not literally conversing with one another. 

 

That’s why I like to teach writers in translation. English has become the language of the empire again, in an even stronger way. English is literally like a linguistic passport now. It lets you go places, it lets you build a life for yourself. My relationship to English is, what can I say? There’s a lot of ambivalence built around it. I would never say it’s an enemy language, it’s not. I love the English language. I have loved so deeply literature in the English language. I have now built a deeply emotional, fulfilling life with not only my husband and kids, but with friends and all sorts of people with whom I have been relating to English for a long time. So the language has enormous positive significance for me. It’s given me so many things, but it’s not just that. There’s another side of things that I’m now considering as well. 

 

B&W: With regard to your translation work, what has the process of translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses, such an enormous, canonical work, been like for you? 

 

JL: This may sound strange, but I feel like Ovid is my origin. It’s the place I always fall back to, everything I think, everything I am, and everything I’ve done, and everything I’ve been trying to figure out really goes back to this central text. It’s the most enormous, elastic, extraordinary container of everything. And I can really say that now, with authority, because I have translated the entire poem. I know that there is really nothing that somehow he wasn’t talking about or trying to explore. The power is immense. He says in the invocation, “Help me, gods, help me to write this perpetual poem, an everlasting poem.” I feel like everything I can possibly think about, whether it’s an idea, a theory, or just a basic problem, or something like war, or death, or love, or being a parent—all of the things are there, mixed up and unfolded and explored in these extraordinary 15 books of the poem. It’s really, at a core level, a transforming experience for me to be so close to this text. 

 

B&W: What is it like translating that versus translating your own book?

 

JL: So much more interesting and meaningful. Translating my own work is an interesting exercise in working with language, staring down what you’ve done, and coming to terms with it. But Ovid is just food of the gods. It’s nectar, it’s milk and honey. 

 

B&W: Would you like to translate another big work like that? Or does the fact that this has been such a big emotional exercise for you make you not want to? 

 

JL: I hope, if I have the energy in the days ahead, to also translate Tristia, Ovid’s work that he wrote in exile, which is another amazing work. I would gladly translate another work. I wouldn’t say no. 

 

B&W: So excited for when it’s published.

 

JL: Me too. It's really slow-going  right now. I have a couple of hours a week to devote to it. I'm getting through like 50 lines an hour of reviewing it, having it settle in, and thinking about things. We’re talking about 12,000 lines, so I need a lot of time.

 

B&W: Something that came up in Roman Stories was the idea of vacations and parties as liminal spaces where origins don’t exist or can’t be placed. How do you use those kinds of places as ways to suspend or distort reality?

 

JL: Yes, there are various people on vacation in the book, and there’s one central story of a party, with people coming for brief periods, long periods, their whole lives. For centuries, Rome has been a destination. 

 

B&W: All roads lead to Rome.

 

JL: Yes. The broader cultural pilgrimage, the “Italian journey,” the English gentleman goes to Rome and sees the Colosseum… That stuff is still very much in the air. The expectations can be so exaggerated but, in the end, Rome is just another place. It has a very specific history, feel, look, and energy. But it is also a place like any other place. I’m complicit, too. My first trip to Rome was in my imagination because I got a book out of the library and started reading it, and that’s when I first started imaginatively traveling to Rome. I think a lot of people have done that. So, certainly they are liminal spaces, but they are also spaces in which people can put their origins on ice. There’s a reason why people go on vacation. They want to get away from it all. They want to get away from themselves, perhaps. 

 

B&W: Yeah, I like the metaphor of putting it on ice, like it’s champagne that you can use to make a toast. You can tap into it and not permanently dismiss your origins. 

 

JL: I have now spent all this time in Rome, and I know people who have lived there for a long time. It’s interesting to see the people who still consider themselves rooted in their original place, whether it’s the U.S. or wherever, and those who don’t. 

 

B&W: Throughout the work you often don’t give your characters names, you only refer to them by letters or by ‘the mother’ or ‘the widow.’ What was the thought process behind that? 

 

JL: It’s an apt question. It was a very intentional way of destabilizing the idea of origins. You can deduce that perhaps [the characters] weren’t born and raised in the place, that there’s a moment in which they enter the city, but you can’t pinpoint on the globe where they’re coming from.

 

In a novel I wrote called Whereabouts, there’s a woman who lives ostensibly in a Rome-like city. When people read the book, they said, ‘Oh, well, it’s about an Italian woman. That’s really interesting that you’re writing about an Italian character.’ And I said, ‘Well, how do you know she’s Italian?’ There is never a moment in the book where it says she’s Italian. One can read through the lines and realize she lives in an Italian city, probably Rome, and there’s information in the book that she speaks Italian, but that doesn’t equal she is Italian. So that’s why I withhold the names, because as soon as you say, her name is Jhumpa, as opposed to Giulia, the reader says she’s not Italian, but she is. I want to take these names away because they are a direct pipeline to origin, birthnames, last names. My parents come from a culture where even the last name can micro-pinpoint you to an exact subset of the family, group, caste. These are modes of organizing humanity into hierarchies that I have absolutely no understanding of, in the sense that I don’t agree with it. Us, them, us, them, us, them, down to the wire. 

 

So, the lack of names or the initials are ways I would like for these characters to be very porous in their identity. I like this word porous. I like this idea of porousness, of malleability.

 

B&W: Yeah, absolutely. And it is cool too, because in Kristóf’s work, there is also a lack of names. 

JL: Yeah, I got it from her. I read her and I was like, wow.

B&W: I realized recently that even when reading you try to figure out where people are from based on their names, you are trying to place characters in certain categories in your mind. 

 

JL: I think it’s such a subconscious thing, we’re not even aware of how much we’re doing it, you know? 

 

B&W: It’s been really cool to be able to hear how much the themes we discuss in Exophonic Women are also themes in your life. 

 

JL: They are. 

 

B&W: Thank you so much for your time. 

 

JL: Of course. Thank you for your interest. 

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