Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer’


The author’s new book, written in Italian and accompanied by English translation, is the result of an infatuation with Italy that began with her first visit in 1994. Here, the Pulitzer winner recounts her journey towards fluency, and answers our Q&A: The Guardian

Jhumpa“Returning to America, I want to go on speaking Italian. But with whom? I know some people in New York who speak it perfectly. I’m embarrassed to talk to them. I need someone with whom I can struggle and fail.

One day, I go to the Casa Italiana at New York University to interview a famous Roman writer, a woman, who has won the Strega prize. I am in an overcrowded room, where everyone but me speaks an impeccable Italian. The director of the institute greets me. I tell him I would have liked to do the interview in Italian. That I studied the language years ago but I can’t speak well.

“Need practising,” I say. “You need practice,” he answers kindly.

In 2004, my husband gives me something. A piece of paper torn from a notice that he happened to see in our neighbourhood, in Brooklyn. On it is written “Imparare l’italiano”—“Learn Italian.” I consider it a sign. I call the number, make an appointment. A likable, energetic woman, also from Milan, arrives at my house. She teaches in a private school, she lives in the suburbs. She asks me why I want to learn the language. I explain that I’m going to Rome in the summer to take part in another literary festival. It seems like a reasonable motivation. I don’t reveal that Italian is an infatuation. That I cherish a hope – in fact a dream – of knowing it well. I don’t tell her that I am tortured, that I feel incomplete. As if Italian were a book that, no matter how hard I work, I can’t write.”

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