An Evening With Jhumpa Lahiri

A review of Lahiri’s sold-out discussion at the Diana Center Event Oval.

On the evening of October 11, students and staff packed into Barnard’s Diana Center Event Oval for a sold out discussion, “Welcoming Jhumpa Lahiri: A Reading and Conversation with Brandon Taylor and Konstantina Zanou.” The event, much anticipated by book lovers, included an exclusive reading of Roman Stories, the new novel of Barnard alumna, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and English professor, Jhumpa Lahiri (‘89). A collection of nine short stories investigating modern life and family in Italy’s capital, Roman Stories joins the impressive list of Lahiri’s  novels, including Interpreter of Maladies (1999), The Namesake (2003), and Unaccustomed Earth (2008). 

Before the event, the crowd buzzed with excitement, many with notebooks in hand hoping to gain writing advice from Lahiri. Tensions ceased upon Lahiri’s arrival, and the audience fell into a respectful hush. 

Lahiri was clad in a well-tailored lime green suit, and maroon Doc Martens chelsea boots. Clutching a copy of Roman Stories to her chest, she approached the microphone with purpose. 

“When I was at Barnard,” Lahiri opened, “so many things that seem possible today seemed impossible. Coming back as a professor, I see that I would never be able to understand life or language enough without Barnard.” 

Lahiri described how Barnard has been a multi-generational affair for her family; not only did Lahiri attend Barnard, but she met her husband, journalist Alberto Vourvoulias, at her freshman year roommate’s wedding. Now, her daughter and son also go to Barnard and Columbia, respectively. “I owe a lot to the college,” said Lahiri with a smile. 

Propping open her new book to a dog-eared page, Lahiri melodically read the penultimate episode of Roman Stories, entitled “The Steps,” which tells the story of two brothers who, upon their father’s death, return to their Roman childhood. The brothers attempt to make themselves smile by reminiscing over the past, but discrepancies between their recollections only make them sadder. “The Steps” unveils a melancholic universal truth: we become an unreliable narrator in a life well lived. 

In a Q&A portion with author Brandon Taylor, Lahiri spoke about the process of completing Roman Stories, which she began writing in 2012 when she moved to Rome, Italy.

However, she spent several years mentally working through the novel. This has always been characteristic of her process, according to Lahiri. Her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, took seven years before she even felt comfortable describing it as a “manuscript.” “My life [at the time of Interpreter of Maladies] just didn’t create the situation to sit down and write a book,” says Lahiri. “There was no space for that.” Such experiences devised a split schedule for Lahiri; she would work in the U.S. for half the year, then retreat to Rome for some more devoted time with her writing. 

Beyond her complicated schedule between the U.S. and Rome, Lahiri wrote her novel’s first draft in Italian, translating to English herself to present to publishers. The author calls this process “mirroring,” a kind of unexacting process between languages, as many words in one language do not have exact translations in the other. Lahiri attributes her multilingual approach to authorship to her childhood. Born in London, the Indian-American author moved to the U.S. when she was three, often visiting family in India. Lahiri often found herself jumping from one language to another, learning Italian later on in adulthood.

“I would never have written a story like this in English,” says Lahiri. “It’s not that I’m not attentive in English, I’m weaker in English. But in some sense one cannot be an artist and keep the rules. In some sense I was nervous. I wanted to obey the rules more even after four books. In Italian, I’m able to approach things differently.” 

In addition to her process of self-translation, Lahiri attributes her success in the writing process to writing in a diary as a young girl. Describing herself as a shy, quiet child with few friends, Lahiri often recalls retreating to a diary to share her inner-most thoughts. “I owe all my writing to the diary,” says Lahiri. “I’ve been writing in a diary since I was very small. I felt this pressure to put words down on a page. The diary was a way for me to practice with English, with the English language.” 

Professor Lahiri urged this practice to emerging young writers. “The diary is crucial for writers who are finding themselves,” says Lahiri. “Doing it for yourself. You discover who you are. Who you are as a writer.” 

During the Q&A, Taylor remarked that Lahiri’s thoughts on linguistic and temporal matters make their way onto the page and into the fictional psyches of her characters. The author agrees. “I was very aware as a child that there was always another time,” says Lahiri. “Time in India being 10 hours ahead, calculating time to a different country, it gives a person an awareness of what another time meant. It makes one aware of their own mortality.”

“I think all of us–we weep at the passage of time,” says Lahiri. “Writers have been grappling with, leaping over the passage of time. These are the basic plots: we live, we lose, the sun rises, the sun sets. Things weren’t as they were. We can truly live in the past in literature. It can manipulate time in a way that is impossible in real life.” 

Seven days after her  panel with Brandon Taylor, I sit with Lahiri in Barnard Hall with a beautiful view of Broadway, a mug of tea in Lahiri’s hand. 

When asked what advice she had for young writers who wish to pursue a career as an author, Lahiri said she still doesn’t consider herself a professional. “I still don’t think of writing as my career,” says Lahiri. “I say this acknowledging that I have become a writer and published books, but I don’t think of it as a way to make a living. I think of it as a calling. I don’t want writing to be ruined by need, there’s something else driving it.”

Lahiri beamed as she recalled her October 10th panel “It was so special,” she says. “I have read at Barnard before, I’ve read at least a few times, but this was obviously very different as I’m not just visiting. It was very meaningful to have both my children, students at Barnard and Columbia, respectively. There was a beautiful circularity to it all.”

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