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Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘It was perhaps the closest I came to having a religious experience’

Marco Delogu/photo illustration by the globe and mail

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of two previous novels, The Namesake and The Lowland, and two collections of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies, the latter of which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Her latest book, In altre parole, an account of her life-long fascination with Italian, was written in her adopted language and published last year; it was translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published as In Other Words earlier this month by Knopf Canada.

Why did you write your new book?

In Other Words grew out of a series of notes I was taking in Italian while living in Italy. After a year of accumulating several pages of abbreviated notes to myself, I started writing a series of reflections on my relationship with Italian and also with the other languages of my life. When I moved to Italy, I already spoke Italian, having learned it in America, and wherever I went, people kept asking me what had driven me to learn the language. And I realized that I couldn't provide a coherent answer, either to them or to myself. It remained a mystery. The book is an attempt to answer the question.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

When I was a graduate student in Boston, I studied creative writing for one year, the first formal step I took as a writer. But after the year ended, I went on to get a PhD and wrote very little fiction. I was still very scared to call myself a writer, to pursue it. From time to time I would run into my teacher, Leslie Epstein, and he would always say the same thing: "Don't forget that you're also a writer." It was as if he intuited my confusion, my hesitation. If it weren't for his words I don't think I would have kept at it. It would have been very easy, at the period, to lose sight completely of that part of me.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

As I've said, my new book is about language, and what it means for a writer to adopt and express oneself in another tongue. The questions – philosophical, linguistic, creative, existential – that I believe my book poses are ones that interest me, that I would like to discuss on a more profound level. But almost everyone, at least in the United States, is calling the book a memoir and focusing on the personal element, my family's experience in Italy, and so on. It's true, I write about myself in the book; there is an autobiographical element. But at heart, it's about other things.

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

When I was an undergraduate at Barnard College, I was very lost as a person. High school was alienating enough, but in college, I was even more aware of how different I was compared to many of my peers, how relatively sheltered, how comparatively young. The impact of finding myself suddenly alone in New York, away from my family, was very intense. The highlight of my undergraduate years was a year-long Shakespeare course I took with Edward Tayler. Immersing myself in Shakespeare's plays, reading them closely under the guidance of a brilliant, plain-spoken professor changed my life: It opened up the great questions, it put my petty problems into perspective, it got me out of bed in the mornings and kept me in the library late into the night. It was perhaps the closest I came to having a religious experience, other than when my children were born. Incidentally, I wrote one of the worst papers of my college career for his class. But he corrected it; with patience but without mincing words, he showed me how and where I had gone wrong. I remain deeply grateful to him.

Which country produces literature that you wish more people read?

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I have only been reading Italian literature for the past four years. I wish more Italian literature were translated and read in English. I've discovered so many extraordinary and diverse writers: Lalla Romano, Carlo Cassola. Beppe Fenoglio, Giorgio Manganelli, just to name a few. And Domenico Starnone, who is, in my opinion, the finest fiction writer working in Italy today.

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