Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘In a monolingual universe, you see the world through one eye only. You lack perspective.'

As a child, Jhumpa Lahiri often felt like an alien, both in Rhode Island and in Calcutta, the two pivotal places in her life. Although the Indian-American writer has moved on since then, she says that ‘almost no day passes without me thinking: wouldn’t it have been nice to have one place of origin?’ A conversation about identity, migration, language and appearance.

The books of Jhumpa Lahiri 

The interpreter of maladiesDebut with short stories (1999), immediately won her the Pulitzer for Fiction Writing 

The NamesakeNovel (2003), filmed by Mira Nair 

Unaccostumed EarthShort story collection (2008), awarded with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2008) and the Asian American Literary Award (2009) 

The Lowland .Novel (2013), nominated for the Man Booker Prize and for the National Book Award for Fiction; winner of the DSC Prize for Asian Literature 2016 

In Other Words/ In altre parole. Essay (2015) 

The Clothing of BooksEssay (2017)

Jhumpa Lahiri is in Rome, I’m in Westerlo, a small town in Belgium. We speak English, we see each other through Skype’s video function. ‘Language is my backbone’, says Jhumpa Lahiri. And: ‘Language is one of the most poignant things mankind has created. It’s a living reality, full of contradictions, and it’s always bigger than what a single person can know from it.’

Jhumpa Lahiri is not a Big Name in Belgium, even among literature lovers. That’s a shame, as I already wrote in 2008, when her acclaimed short story collection Unaccostumed Earth was published. Because ‘the stories written by Jhumpa Lahiri are of the kind that leave you speechless as a reader. She doesn’t achieve this by overwhelming you with intricate or exuberant language but through her stunningly human approach. So much attention for detail, so much empathy for the experiences of each character, is only possible when the author approaches life and people without a hardened soul and even without skin around her heart.’

‘A good observer’, says Lahiri, ‘must be curious. And maybe you always have to stand with one foot outside the world to be able to observe better’

If I mention this touching empathy which she articulates so crystal-clearly, she says: ‘I try to portray the things that I observe as truthfully as possible. There is already so much judgement in the world, while all of us try to lead our lives with our own limitations and abnormalities. I want to understand people, I want to figure out why they are the way they are. I wouldn’t even consider making a judgement on that.’

A good observer, says Lahiri, ‘must be curious. And maybe you always have to stand with one foot outside the world to be able to observe better. Yet, it’s probably the great desire to fully participate in the life of the others that stimulates you to look over the wall so curiously.”

The Lowland, her novel that was translated in Dutch as Twee broers, starts off with two boys in Calcutta who look over the small wall to a world of which they can never be part – because of their social class, background and history. ‘That’s actually a metaphor for my entire life,’ says Lahiri. ‘I am those two boys.’

Everyone is lonely

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London as Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri and grew up in Rhode Island, the United States, as daughter of two Indian migrants who built up their future in the United States, but who very consciously held on to their Bengali mother tongue and culture at home. This led to a constant battle between the young Jhumpa, her American environment and her Indian parents. Mother Lahiri for example wanted her daughter to dress herself properly, and preferably in an Indian style.

‘She wanted me to become a Bengali woman, just like her,’ writes Lahiri in the opening pages of her most recent essay, The Clothing of Books. To be allowed to go to parties of other Indian migrant families, she eventually had to give in. But that was against her will: ‘As soon as I wore those clothes, I felt even more out of place, a foreigner just like her. It felt like an identity that was forced upon me.’ This ‘bitter battle between my mother and me’ leads the now long mature Jhumpa Lahiri to realise that ‘our clothes, just as our language and our food, are an expression of our identity, our culture, and our origins.’

‘Our clothes, just as our language and our food, are an expression of our identity, our culture, and our origins.’

This statement, and her entire story about her youthful desire to belong and to especially not stand out, conflicts with the trend of today, now that one should embrace differences, cultivate one’s origins and claim that each clothing style or cultural value is an individual choice. Lahiri seems to have gone in this direction as well: ‘I have in the past years very consciously tried to actively create and experience this feeling of being different,’ she says.

‘I now realise that I am not the maladjusted outsider, because everyone is different in his or her own way. If you remove from every person the many layers of experiences and meanings which shroud his or her individuality, you find out that all of us are ultimately alone. And at the same time, we are now connected with many more persons through blood, context, history, language or current affairs than we could ever have suspected.’

The question however is whether you can remove all those layers from people, because, don’t they allow us to understand ourselves and the others? That’s right, answers Lahiri, after which she returns to that older loneliness, that of the little girl that didn’t belong anywhere. ‘I grew up in a gap between peers who very evidently belonged to the place and the language of where they lived, and parents who very consciously remained separated from this language and place, although they worked and functioned in it. In this gap, I lacked support  and reference points. Today, I realise that there is no solution for that and that my idea of belonging somewhere was much too simplistic in the past.’

Parole, parole, parole

Jhumpa Lahiri then decided to move to Italy, where she only read books in Italian and also learned to speak and write in this language. ‘I know from my parents’ experience that, once you have left, you are gone forever’, she writes at the end of In Other Words, the book from 2015 in which she brilliantly reports on her language migration. Is that an experience she consciously sought?

“Home” has always been an ambiguous or fleeting concept for me, and it is now more so than ever.

Lahiri: ‘It was never my purpose to burn boats or bridges behind me, the decision to move didn’t arise from dissatisfaction with my life. It arose from the desire to create a distance between myself and the world that was familiar to me – even though it was not “my world”, because I don’t have a fatherland or motherland. What matters to me is the journey. Not the place where I arrive or which I leave. “Home” has always been an ambiguous or fleeting concept for me, and it is now more so than ever. It has even less than before the scent of a place, and increasingly more the scent of books, friends, family.’

Ultimately, the search for a new language was for the author also a farewell to the old dilemma she had as a child: she wanted to speak Bengali perfectly to please her parents but she also wanted to speak American English like all children in her class, to be part of their world. The quest for a language in which she feels at home, is the essence of her authorship, says Lahiri.

‘Language is maybe the most defining community and the most intimate way to belong somewhere. Language is on the one hand a very closed identity, because you always feel vulnerable as an outsider: are you using the right term, do you have an acceptable accent? On the other hand, language is a very open community, because you can learn a language and thus break through the language border.’ That sounds hopeful, but she herself also writes: ‘You cannot contradict a native speaker.’

If I respond with this quote, she says: ‘That’s correct. You can learn a language, and master it increasingly better, but you can never acquire the casualness of someone who grew up with it. And that’s why language always at the same time distinguishes and connects. Nobody can possess a language, nobody has the exclusive right on a language, although it is used to exclude people and label them as inferior, on the basis of accents and language proficiency. That’s the way in which human tribes have defined and identified themselves: by creating nations, borders and walls – also with language.’

The wall, the bridge, a door

On the other hand, language borders and language walls maybe had a useful function in times that people lived in separate tribes, but today we live under, with and amongst each other. How can, in this context of a super-diverse present, the connecting force of language be strengthened and her excluding function be weakened? Lahiri doesn’t believe that you can remove from language its excluding function. ‘Even inside one language, like Italian, you hear all the time different accents and dialects. I find myself trying to locate Italians geographically on the basis of these accents. But that shouldn’t prevent us from deploying language more as a bridge, a connection between people, than as boundaries and means of exclusion. 

She notices in Italy that this kind of connection doesn’t always take place. While her husband with his Southern European looks is treated in restaurants and shops as a full-fledged Italian, although his Italian is certainly not better or more flawless than hers, she is time and again served in English. ‘That’s the border I will never be able to cross’, she writes in In Other Words. ‘The wall that will always remain standing between me and the Italian language, no matter how well I master it. My appearance.’

 ‘The wall that will always remain standing between me and the Italian language, no matter how well I master it. My appearance.’ 

And further on: ‘They don’t understand me because they don’t want to understand me; they don’t want to understand me because they don’t want to listen to me, don’t want to accept me. It’s in this way that the wall works… Sometimes I feel reprimanded when I speak Italian in Italy, like a child that touches something that one should not lay his hands on. “Keep your hands off our language”, some Italians seem to tell me. “It does not belong to you.”

It’s an experience that sounds very familiar to many Flemish citizens of non-European origin, who apparently need to choose between a paternalistic admiration ‘for speaking Dutch so well’ or the presumption that they have a language deficit. ‘The wall of appearance or language exists, that’s clear,’ says Jhumpa Lahiri.

‘But everything can become a wall: on an island, the ocean forms a wall between you and the rest of the world. At the same time, this ocean is the only way to reach the others. In each wall, you can make holes, doors, so you can cross to the other side, which immediately at least partly lifts the strict division between here and there. Writing and especially reading are excellent ways to escape from your own world and to enter the world of others – much better than the travelling which everyone is constantly focusing on. Unfortunately, it is far too rare these days to find people reading with earnestness and attentiveness.’

Multilingualism offers a better perspective

A conversation with an author looking for a language to live in, cannot but produce echoes of Flemish discussions on language, people and culture. Is language more than an – although complex – instrument that you use to survive in a certain context? Or is language culture, and thus the foundation of what you can call a people? ‘Language can be both at the same time’, answers Lahiri. ‘My Bengali parents speak English very well, but they don’t do that to become American, but to work and function at the place where they are located. Their real lives take place in another language. Joy, sorrow, crisis: that’s the domain of the Bengali to which they have held on. For me, the choice of learning Italian was a way to penetrate deeper in the culture that fascinated me so much. I am a language nomad.’

Someone who speaks more than one language, knows that there is more than a single way to be human

I present Lahiri with the question which in Flanders is answered so easily and with so much determination: is it for migrants and their children an advantage or a disadvantage to hold on to their language of origin as home language? Does a different home language obstruct the smooth integration or does it actually offer the necessary security to afterwards participate assertively in society?

Lahiri responds a little surprised: ‘Isn’t it always an advantage to know and speak multiple languages? I feel a fundamental difference between people who speak more languages and people who only speak a single language. Because someone who speaks more than one language, consequently also knows also that there is more than a single way to be human. You feel that from inside out, this awareness is present underneath your skin. Someone who lives in a monolingual universe, looks at the world through one eye only. You lack perspective.’

‘Besides, imagine the opposite: that parents and children after migrating don’t have a common language anymore to articulate their most profound experiences. It’s already complicated enough to be a parent and child, so you need natural language spaces in which you can conflict with each other but also can share intimacy. Where this space is absent, too much distance forms between parents and children, and children end up in a sort of alienation that can have very problematic consequences.’

She says the latter with so much hesitation that the thoughts about politics or criminal violence resound very loudly in it. ‘Like violence, indeed. The destruction of the own life or the lives of other people. A nihilistic attitude towards society.’

Both options are valid

We are already talking more than an hour about migrating, about origin and identity, about the inevitable consequences of language and appearance. We deal with the United States and Italy, but Lahiri has not yet mentioned India. Does she still travel to India? And what does that country and its confusing multilingualism mean for her?

‘I have been in India very often, and the importance of India or of Bengalis is that they form one of the necessary elements to make me whole as a person. At this moment, each of these elements also has a clear place in my life. As a child, I was always looking for the country that would suit me, but that never worked out, although you are very malleable and in a blessed way capable to fool yourself. And I thus felt attracted to Calcutta, and at the same time made incredible efforts to belong in America to the majority, the inconspicuous mainstream. I tried hard to be accepted as somebody whom I never was or would be.’

‘Almost no day passes without me thinking: wouldn’t it have been nice to have one place of origin? Wouldn’t it have been easier to grow up and to live without this discomfort of not belonging anywhere?’

The stories and novels which she published before her move to Italy, all seemed to concern the experience of uprooting seen through the eyes of Indians in America. The last book and the recent essay are more distinctly about herself, about her dealing with identity, language and appearance. Is that a break in her work?

‘Less than you would think at first sight. There are of course all those stories of Indian migrants. But the journey to Italy and the Italian at the same time also started when I got fascinated by the ancient Rome as a young girl. For me, there is no division, because it all comes from the same source and because the key questions remain the same: should I be part of a community and a place, or should I actually try to leave? After all those years, I found out that the answer to that dilemma for me is: both options are valid.’

She pauses. Then says: ‘At the same time, almost no day passes without me thinking: wouldn’t it have been nice to have one place of origin? Wouldn’t it have been easier to grow up and to live without this discomfort of not belonging anywhere? Wouldn’t it have been better if I had been surrounded by certainties: where I fit in, where I go on holiday each summer, which language I speak, which taste I have because I inherited it from my mother who just as my grandmother…? Still, I feel that the freedom which is linked to fragmentation and diversity also gives me much joy.’

That’s the wisdom related to the special age which she reached earlier this year, I suggest. Lahiri laughs: ‘Rest assured: these are insights and experiences that didn’t appear on my fiftieth birthday. Insight into yourself grows every day, or it doesn’t grow at all.’

Translated by Andy Furniére.

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