Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri said she was really born when she started reading.
Lahiri spoke to the crowd in the almost-full Whittenberger Auditorium about her connection with language.
Her appearance Monday was part of the Hutton Honors College’s “Many Worlds, One Globe” initiative.
“I think before I learned how to read, I had no sense of who I was or why I was here on this Earth,” she said. “And it was really when I started reading and forming connections with books and authors that I felt safe, secure — that I had a purpose and a kind of grounding physically and more emotionally.”
Now the author of several collections of short stories and novels, Lahiri said reading gave her a sense of flight from what was normal in her life as a child.
Her first collection of stories, “Interpreter of Maladies,” earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. From there she wrote another collection of short stories, “Unaccustomed Earth,” and two novels, “The Namesake” and “The Lowland.”
Lahiri said she describes her latest book, “In Altre Parole” (“In Other Words”), as a meditation on her relationship to language.
Living with Bengali-speaking parents while learning and growing up with the English language, Lahiri said her relationship to reading and writing has always contained an element of estrangement.
Upon learning Italian as an adult and moving to Rome with her own family for a time, Lahiri said she realized her inability to feel fully connected to any language.
“I can’t fully possess English,” she said. “And it’s because, in some sense, English, and everything that the English language represented, was the kind of enemy territory for my family.”
She said her parents fought an uphill battle to preserve their language and culture from their home in India in their children, who wanted to do anything but absorb those things.
Lahiri felt the “inherited exile” of her parents. Not being able to identify with a particular culture and a home appears as a theme in many of her works, she said.
She said she found a certain freedom in learning and eventually writing in Italian, because it is the language she sought out on her own.
Although feeling at home will only ever be a state of mind for her, Lahiri said she found that comfort in Rome.
“If it doesn’t feel strange, it doesn’t estrange you,” she said.
Now living again in the United States, Lahiri said she has been working on translating an Italian novel and teaching about Italian literature at Princeton University.
Although she feels a strong creative connection to Rome, Lahiri said writing in any language allows her to revel in imperfection.
“The whole creative process is confronting imperfection until the very end,” she said. “I think this is a really important exercise to be comfortable with what life really is, which is a series of trial and error and huge pockets of imperfection. But also learning to enjoy life ... in spite of all of that.”
Noor Shaika, a second-year graduate student, said she wanted to hear Lahiri speak to connect with the words she has written — namely Lahiri’s novel “The Namesake,” which had some significance in Shaika’s life.
“Growing up as an immigrant, that book held the space in my life where she could see into a world that no one else could,” Shaika said.
Lahiri said being back in the U.S. has left everything “happily uncertain” for the future of her writing career, which she is content with at this point in her life.
“Feeling inspired but in the dark is exactly where I’d like to be,” she said.