Wednesday night I attended a reading and interview of one of my favorite authors, Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, The Lowland). The Pulitzer Prize-winner joined her Creative Writing alums at BU as the Ha Jin Visiting Lecturer. The full house at Morse Auditorium observed a sentimental reunion between the former classmates and teachers.
After a lyrical reading from The Lowland, Lahiri and her friend, author Daphne Kalotay (Russian Winter, Sight Reading, Calamity and Other Stories), sat in easy rapport for a brief discussion. Kalotay questioned Lahiri about the metaphor of the walled country club in the novel, and the consistent theme of displacement in her stories. Lahiri addressed her lifelong experience of otherness, which she seems to attribute to having been born in London and raised in Rhode Island by Bengali parents. She examines this sensibility from different angles in her characters’ attempts to put down roots in new lands. I believe that a large appeal of Lahiri’s writing lies in the fact that we all face this existential otherness, regardless of the hearths we have called home. I have only briefly known the foreigner’s discomfort while traveling, and yet know the feeling of approaching a wall, real or imagined, hoping for a door to appear and open, but finding none. I think we all experience moments of perceived exclusion, standing on the outside, looking in on a world that does not see us. Lahiri details this unease with precision, in the shifting lives of both her male and female characters.
Lahiri described her most creative space as the one right outside her comfort zone. To this end, she moved her family from Brooklyn to Rome last year, where she sought the stimulation of perfecting the language she studied at BU. She immersed herself in reading and writing only Italian. Lahiri commented that she felt substantially detached from her latest novel since living abroad, adding that few opinions of her work matter to her beyond the perspectives of her colleagues present in the room.
I was intrigued by the author’s confession of what she described as her ‘slippery identity’. One might assume that Lahiri enjoys a supreme confidence in her place in the world, along with a wise appraisal of what defines her. The wisdom is there, but the complacency is not. Luckily for us, Lahiri is eager to exert herself in new directions. I look forward to her reflections and impressions from beyond those borders.