Author Jhumpa Lahiri discusses language’s power on identity during University Lecture

"Language is the only identity I have and even that is questionable," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author said Tuesday night.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, being a writer is about insisting you have a voice – or even voices. She learned this when she began to read, write and translate Italian – even though she grew up with Bengali and English.

“Translation is always an act of interpretation.” said Lahiri, who currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

"When I spoke English, I was no longer my parents' child." - Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri discussed the relationship between language, identity and writing Tuesday night during a University Lecture in Hendricks Chapel.

Lahiri is notably known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Interpreter of Maladies,” but since then the author has shifted her work not just in genre, but also in language. Lahiri’s most recent autobiographical book, “In Other Words”, was published in 2015, and originally written in Italian. After a move to Italy with her family, Lahiri began reading and writing in Italian, as not just a way to immerse herself, but also as a way to explore herself. 

Lahiri and her family immigrated to the United States from England, and her parents are originally from India. For the first four years of her life, Lahiri only spoke Bengali, a part of her Bengali culture her mother fought to preserve. The author mentioned that although Bengali was her first language, there is a part of her that cannot fully connect to it. 

“When I spoke English, I was no longer my parents' child,” Lahiri said.

Lahiri said, like many writers, reading was her first love, but she first learned to read and write in English. 

“Language is the only identity I have and even that is questionable. English is not just another language, but another way of looking at life,” she added. 

The topic of identity unfolded many times throughout the event. One member of the audience posed the question “When you write in Italian, are you a different Jhumpa Lahiri?” The author replied yes and no. She went on to explain that while she remains who she is between languages, she teases out different aspects of who she is with each one.

Although Lahiri managed to write and publish a book entirely in Italian, she said she feels it’s not style she lacks, but vision. Reading and writing language in a language that is not your first means rejecting and placing distance between the self and the origin. 

Lahiri said she does not know whether or not she will indefinitely write in Italian, as she views her relationship with language as navigating in a “sea of different inspirations.” The lecture covered many aspects of what Bengali, English and Italian each meant for the award-winning author, and highlighted the complexity of not just language, but the power of words. 

SU’s next University Lecture will feature Brandon Stanton, the creator of the Humans of New York. Tickets will go on sale Wednesday morning. Tickets will be needed for admission and they can be purchased for $5 at the Schine Box Office with valid student I.D.

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