I attended Dartmouth’s “Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri” on Monday, May 16, for which she sat at a table and answered questions, first from moderators, then the audience. The event, which took place in Dartmouth’s Filene Auditorium, was standing room only.
Ms. Lahiri talked about her most recent book, In Other Words, about learning to speak and write in Italian and live in Italy. She is so very thoughtful about language, what it means to her, what it means to have a mother tongue and its relation to feeling at home. Lahiri was born in England to parents, speakers of Bengali, who were immigrants from India. They moved to the United States before Lahiri started school, so she grew up here, speaking and learning to read and write in English but speaking Bengali at home.
So which is her mother tongue, Bengali or English? She referred to Bengali as a mother tongue that died (although not completely) and English as a step-mother tongue. Being an avid reader (“I live to read” she said at one point), she feels she could never be nourished by Bengali because she never learned to read and write it. Yet English was not the language of mother love for her. When her son was born, she found she only desired to speak to him in Bengali; for her, English was inappropriate for a young child.
Instead she spoke the language of her own first nurturing.
Lahiri never felt truly at home with either Bengali or English; “home” or “coming home” were concepts she knew but never felt, until she moved to Rome, a city for with whom she fell in love. And speaking and writing in Italian gave her freedom she never felt before. “The thing that’s liberating about Italian,” she said, “is that I can never be Italian.” She is free to make mistakes.
Jhumpa Lahiri has lived astride cultures and languages and struggled, feeling alienated and lonely, as many people have. She took refuge in the books, feeling at home in the library and she never did in her house. Learning Italian has given her another tool with which to work, another perspective from which to gaze. Long may she do so.