Jhumpa Lahiri | Sept 29, 2013 | Isabel Bader Theatre

Tina Srebotnjak: Hi everyone. I’m Tina Srebotnjak,
I’m the manager of Cultural and Special Event Programming at the Toronto Public Library,
and it’s a great pleasure to have you here this afternoon for this evening with the fabulous
Jhumpa Lahiri. This event is presented in partnership with Random House of Canada, who
have brought Jhumpa Lahiri to Toronto for her only Canadian event, and I’ll just share
with you that it’s been one of those plane connection things from hell. The plane in
London was a misconnection, so she had to go to New York last night, and so we’re very,
very happy to have her here today with us. TS: Okay, let me get started, I’m gonna introduce
her. Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. She won the Pulitzer
Prize for her first book, the short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. She followed
that with a novel, The Namesake, which was critically acclaimed and made into a terrific
movie by Mira Nair. Then came another story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, which was
a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year. And now she brings us her new novel,
The Lowland. Set in Calcutta and Rhode Island, the book tells the story of Subhash and Udayan,
who are extremely close growing up but who choose different paths as grown men. The writing
has the clarity and elegance that we’ve come to expect from Jhumpa Lahiri, and it’s no
surprise to anyone who’s read it that it’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jhumpa Lahiri. [applause] Jhumpa Lahiri: Thank you, thank you all so
much for coming. I’m happy to have finally arrived. [chuckle] I would say good afternoon,
but I think it’s good evening for me. But in any case, good day to you. I’m gonna read
briefly from the beginning of The Lowland. This is Chapter Two of Part One, and I don’t
think I need to say much by way of introduction, only that this section is set in Calcutta
in the late 1950s, about a decade after independence. JL: They’d never set foot in the Tolly Club.
Like most people in the vicinity, they passed by its wooden gate, its brick walls, hundreds
of times. Until the mid ’40s, from behind the wall, their father used to watch horses
racing around the track. He’d watch from the street, standing among the bettors, and other
spectators unable to afford a ticket or to enter the club’s grounds. But after the Second
World War, around the time Subhash and Udayan were born, the height of the wall was raised,
so that the public could no longer see in. JL: Bismillah, a neighbour, worked as a caddy
at the club. He was a Muslim who had stayed on in Tollygunge after partition. For a few
paisa, he sold them golf balls that had been lost or abandoned on the course. Some were
sliced, like a gash in one’s skin, revealing a pink rubbery interior. At first, they hit
the dimpled balls back and forth with sticks, then Bismillah also sold them a putting iron
with a shaft that was slightly bent. A frustrated player had damaged it, striking it against
a tree. Bismillah showed them how to lean forward, where to place their hands. Loosely
determining the objective of the game, they dug holes in the dirt and tried to coax the
balls in. Though a different iron was needed to drive the ball greater distances, they
used the putter anyway. But golf wasn’t like football or cricket, not a sport the brothers
could satisfactorily improvise. JL: In the dirt of the playing field, Bismillah
scratched out a map of the Tolly Club. He told them that closer to the clubhouse, there
was a swimming pool, stables, a tennis court, restaurants where tea was poured from silver
pots, special rooms for billiards and bridge. Gramophones playing music. Bartenders in white
coats who prepared drinks called Pink Lady and Gin Fizz. The club’s management had recently
put up more boundary walls to keep intruders away. But Bismillah said there were still
sections of wire fencing where one might enter, along the western edge. JL: They waited until close to dusk, when
the golfers headed off the course to avoid the mosquitoes and retreated to the clubhouse
to drink their cocktails. They kept the plan to themselves, not mentioning it to other
boys in the neighbourhood. They walked to the mosque at their corner, its red-and-white
minarets distinct from the surrounding buildings. They turned onto the main road carrying the
putting iron, and two empty kerosene tins. They crossed to the other side of Technician
Studio. They headed toward the paddy fields where the Adi Ganga once flowed, where the
British had once sailed boats to the Delta. These days, it was stagnant, lined with the
settlements of Hindus who’d fled from Dhaka, from Rajshahi, from Chittagong, a displaced
population that Calcutta accommodated but ignored. JL: Since Partition, a decade ago, they had
overwhelmed parts of Tollygunge, the way monsoon rain obscured the lowland. Some of the government
workers had received homes in the exchange program. But most were refugees arriving in
waves, stripped of their ancestral land. A rapid trickle, then a flood. Subhash and Udayan
remembered them. A grim procession, a human herd, a few bundles on their heads. Infants
strapped to parents’ chest. They made shelters of canvas or thatch, walls of woven bamboo.
They lived without sanitation, without electricity in shanties next to garbage heaps in any available
space. They were the reason the Adi Ganga on the banks of which the Tolly Club stood
was now a sewer canal for Southwest Calcutta. They were the reason for the club’s additional
walls. JL: Subhash and Udayan found no wire fencing.
They stopped at a spot where the wall was low enough to scale. They were wearing shorts.
Their pockets were stuffed with golf balls. Bismillah said they would find plenty more
inside the club where the balls lay on the ground alongside the pods that fell from tamarind
trees. Udayan flung the putting iron over the wall, then one of the kerosene tins. Standing
on the remaining tin would give Subhash enough leverage to make it over, but Udayan was a
few inches shorter in those days. “Lace your fingers,” Udayan said. Subhash brought his
hands together. He felt the weight of his brother’s foot, the worn sole of his sandal,
then his whole body bearing down for an instant. Quickly, Udayan hoisted himself up. He straddled
the wall. “Should I stand guard on this side while you explore?” Subhash asked him. JL: “What fun would that be?” “What do you
see?” “Come see for yourself.” Subhash nudged the kerosene tin closer to the wall. He stepped
onto it, feeling the hollow structure wobble beneath him. “Let’s go, Subhash.” Udayan readjusted
himself, dropping down so that only his fingertips were visible. Then he released his hands and
fell. Subhash could hear him breathing hard from the effort. “You’re all right?” “Of course.
Now you.” Subhash gripped the wall with his hands, hugging it to his chest, scraping his
knees. As usual, he was uncertain whether he was more frustrated by Udayan’s daring
or with himself for his lack of it. Subhash was thirteen, older by fifteen months, but
he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point,
his brother was there. Suddenly, they were no longer in Tollygunge. They could hear the
traffic continuing down the street but could no longer see it. They were surrounded by
massive cannonball trees and eucalyptus, bottlebrushes, and frangipani. Subhash had never seen such
grass, as uniform as a carpet, unfurled over sloping contours of earth, undulating like
dunes in a desert, or gentle dips and swells in a sea. JL: It was shorn so finely on the putting
green that it felt like moss when he pressed against it. The ground below was as smooth
as a scalp, the grass appearing a shade lighter there. He had not seen so many egrets in one
place, flying off when he came too close. The trees threw afternoon shadows on the lawn.
Their smooth limbs divided when he looked up at them, like the forbidden zones of a
woman’s body. They were both giddy from the thrill of trespassing, from the fear of being
caught. But no guard on foot or horseback, no groundsman spotted them. No one came to
chase them away. They began to relax, discovering a series of flags planted along the course.
The holes were like navels in the earth, fitted with cups, indicating where the golf balls
were supposed to go. There were shallow pits of sand interspersed here and there. Puddles
on the fairway, strangely shaped, like droplets viewed under a microscope. They kept far from
the main entrance, not venturing toward the clubhouse, where foreign couples walked arm
in arm, or sat on cane chairs under the trees. JL: From time to time, Bismillah had said,
there was a birthday party for the child of a British family still living in India, with
ice cream and pony rides, a cake in which candles burned. Though Nehru was Prime Minister,
it was the new Queen of England, Elizabeth II, whose portrait presided in the main drawing
room. In their neglected corner, in the company of a water buffalo that had strayed in, Udayan
swung forcefully. Raising his arms over his head, assuming poses, brandishing the putting
iron like a sword. He broke apart the pristine turf, losing a few golf balls in one of the
bodies of water. They searched for replacements in the rough. Subhash was the lookout, listening
for the approach of horses’ hooves on the broad red-dirt paths. He heard the taps of
a woodpecker. The faint strikes of a sickle as a section of grass elsewhere in the club
was trimmed by hand. Groups of jackals sat erect in packs, their tawny hides mottled
with grey. JL: As the light dwindled a few began to search
for food, their lean forms trotting in straight lines. Their distraught howling, echoing within
the club, signalled that it was late, time for the brothers to go home. They left the
two kerosene tins, the one on the outside to mark the place. They made sure to hide
the one inside the club behind some shrubbery. On subsequent visits Subhash collected feathers
and wild almonds. He saw vultures bathing in puddles, spreading their wings to dry.
Once he found an egg that had dropped, intact, from a warbler’s nest. Carefully, he carried
it home with him, placing it in a terracotta container from a sweet shop, covering it with
twigs, digging a hole for it in the garden behind their house, at the base of the mango
tree, when the egg did not hatch. JL: Then one evening throwing over the putting
iron from inside the club climbing back over the wall, they noticed that the kerosene tin
on the other side was missing. “Someone took it,” Udayan said. He started to search. The
light was scant. “Is this what you boys were looking for?” It was a policeman appearing
from nowhere, patrolling the area around the club. They could distinguish his height, his
uniform, he was holding the tin. He took a few steps toward them, spotting the putting
iron on the ground, he picked it up, inspecting it. He set down the tin and switched on a
flashlight, focusing its beam on each of their faces, then down the length of their bodies. JL: “Brothers?” Subhash nodded. “What’s in
your pockets?” They removed the golf balls and surrendered them. They watched the policeman
put them in his own pockets. He kept one out, tossing it into the air and catching it in
his hand. “How did you come to acquire these?” They were silent. “Someone invited you today
to play golf at the club?” They shook their heads. “You don’t need me to tell you that
these grounds are restricted,” the policeman said. He rested the shaft of the putting iron
lightly against Subhash’s arm. “Was today your first visit?” “No.” “Was this your idea?
Aren’t you old enough to know better?” “It was my idea,” Udayan said. “You have a loyal
brother,” the policeman said to Subhash. “Wanting to protect you. Willing to take the blame.
I’ll do you a favour, this time,” he continued, “I won’t mention it to the club as long as
you don’t intend to try it again.” JL: “We won’t return”, Subhash said. “Very
well. Shall I escort you home to your parents or should we conclude our conversation here?”
“Here.” “Turn around then, only you.” Subhash faced the wall. “Take another step.” He felt
the steel shaft striking his haunches, then the backs of his legs. The force of the second
blow, only an instant of contact, brought him to his hands and knees. It would take
some days for the welts to go down. Their parents had never beaten them. He felt nothing
at first, only numbness, then a sensation that was like boiling water tossed from a
pan against his skin. JL: “Stop it,” Udayan shouted to the policeman.
He crouched next to Subhash, throwing an arm across his shoulders, attempting to shield
him. Together, pressed against one another, they braced themselves. Their heads were lowered,
their eyes closed. Subhash still reeling from pain, but nothing more happened. They heard
the sound of the putting iron being tossed over the wall, landing a final time inside
the club. Then the policeman, who wanted nothing more to do with them, retreating. Thank you. [applause] TS: Thank you very much. It’s lovely to see
you especially after the arduous journey. So we’re so glad you’re here. JL: Thank you. TS: And congratulations on the Man Booker.
So you read that lovely section that’s set in this Calcutta neighbourhood that I believe
is the neighbourhood that your dad grew up in and that you visited as a child. JL: Yes. TS: You mentioned the Tolly Club, so I wondered
if you could just give us more of a sense of what that neighbourhood was like and what
the Tolly Club… We get a sense of it from that reading, obviously, but the Tolly Club
represented. JL: Well, yes, this is a neighbourhood I know
well from visiting repeatedly throughout my life, my childhood, all my life. It’s where
my father was raised, where my paternal grandparents built their home and lived. And I would spend
several weeks at a time there on our visits, and the Tolly Club is part of… It’s a real
place, it’s a big walled off hundred acre country club that the British had created
on an estate. And when I was young, I felt toward it much the way Subhash and Udayan
I think feel toward it, in that, it was something… It was this mysterious world, walled off world,
that I never went into, that my father’s family, which comes from a very ordinary background,
was not a part of their lives. JL: So, I too was curious about it as a child.
The first time I went inside of it, I think I was, I don’t know, I was married I think.
So that would mean I was quite grown up. So, in terms of their curiosity, it’s something
I too felt. Of course, they would feel it in a very different way, having been raised
in this neighbourhood and being fully a part of that neighbourhood. Tollygunge itself is
in South Calcutta and to me it was a very striking contrast, that neighbourhood, compared
to the north of Calcutta, which is also represented in the book. That’s where my own mother was
raised, so I would go, we would go, either stay with my maternal grandparents or my paternal
grandparents, we would do this sort of north-south journey, back and forth or during our visits.
And whereas the north of Calcutta is really the heart of the old city, very congested,
very old, and bustling, Tollygunge has a very different flavour, it was created as a refuge
by the British, a sort of lovely suburb full of wildlife, and open space, green trees,
birds, and so on. So I was always struck by how different it was. And then, I don’t know
if you’d like me to explain a little bit about how the book came about. TS: Yes. JL: It’s sort of connected… TS: Oh exactly! Yes, and I wanna ask about
the Naxalite movement and all that stuff. JL: Okay. TS: But please tell us, just continue… JL: So I can just add that at a certain point
in my life, I heard that there had been an execution that had taken place in that neighbourhood
that I knew very well during the repression of the Naxalite period, in early ’70s. A violent
Maoist movement that was sort of at its height in the early ’70s and then the government
cracked down on it very brutally. And I learned that two brothers had been killed one evening
in front of their parents, and some other family members. And so this provided me with
the seed to write this story, and though I never knew these brothers, Subhash and Udayan
are completely imagined characters, absolutely imagined characters but that did provide me
with the original spark. TS: Yes, and Udayan is the one who joins the
Naxalite movement, is it? Now had you been familiar with that? Or was that research you… JL: With the movement? TS: Yes. Can you tell us a bit more about
it? You said it was a Maoist movement. JL: Yeah, I was… I was… It was sort of…
It was something very mysterious to me, of course because when it was going on, I was
quite a young girl. I was four years old in 1971. But it was something I was conscious
of from a very young age because I would hear my parents and their friends, their Bengali
friends who would come to visit us or the friends we would go to visit. They would be
talking about it, and I was aware of something being discussed that seemed very scary and
that they were very worried about and concerned about. And then I heard the word, they would
say Naxalite, and I wondered about it, and I… And then over time, I learned a little…
I mean it’s a very recent history in terms of Calcutta, it’s hardly 40 years ago, so
when we would go to India, people would refer to it, people do refer to it, people… I
have extended family members who were involved with it to varying degrees. JL: So it was something that people would
allude to, people would talk about those times and that period, and how violent it was, and
what the unrest was. What effect the political unrest had on sort of day-to-day life in the
city. And so in that sense, it was something I was familiar with growing up, hearing about,
wondering about. On the other hand, it was something really quite removed from my own
day-to-day reality and set of experiences. So I did have to educate myself, and read
about it, and ask people about it. And both ask people simply how this movement, this
period of violence, and instability affected ordinary life in the city, and also eventually
I did speak to some people who were more kind of directly involved or more sort of experts
in the movement itself. But for me, it was always a story about, not only the moment
of violence, the execution which I wanted to understand the context of, the reason for,
and then to explore the consequences of, fictionally, but also the fact that the thing… What haunted
me so much about this when I heard it was specifically that the execution had taken
place in front of the parents, and that the parents had been summoned and lined up, and
made… Forced to witness. JL: That was what to me was so… I mean I
know this happens in the world, but when I heard it first, it was what struck me most
deeply. So for me it was always a story both about the violence, about that moment in history,
but also about family, and the effect of something like that on a family. TS: Yeah. And you had children already then,
I’m sure, so it’s even more rips your heart out even more when you think when you have
your own children what something like that would be, to watch your child executed. JL: Well, when I first started working with
the book actually I didn’t have children. This was 16 years ago, and I mean I’d heard
about the execution probably when I was a teenager. I sort of… It was in the air and
people would talk about it. Because we continued to go back to the neighbourhood, and people
would continue to… I remember at one point, I was aware of the… The mother of the brothers.
And I was aware that she sort of lived over there. I was aware of these sort of elements
of… Of what had happened. But then at… Then at one point, 16 years ago, I was…
I was actively curious, and I asked my father if he could describe to me what he knew. Now,
of course, he was also in the United States when it happened, so he didn’t witness it,
but his family did. His family, I mean they didn’t witness it from up close, but they
were right there in the neighbourhood the night this happened. So they knew what had
happened, and so my father had heard their description of what had happened. So, then
he told me what had happened, and that was when I first tried to work with this material,
and I wrote a scene. I tried to write a scene of the execution itself, which I did, more
or less, not at all to my satisfaction, but I… I tried to… To just imagine what had
been told me. JL: But then soon found that it really wasn’t
going anywhere and that I wasn’t really understanding it or feeling any… It just… It just felt
that it was a… It felt like a scene, and I knew this would had to have more space and
that this was a potential novel. If it… If it were to be something, that it would
be a potential novel, and so I set that scene aside for ten years not really working on
it at all, but hoping maybe someday in the future that it would kind of begin to loosen,
as it were. And that I would be able to find my way into that story. TS: And do you know what loosened it for you? JL: Well, I think a few things. I mean certainly
just time and becoming… You know gaining a little bit more experience as a… As a
writer, as a storyteller because when I first wanted to, when I was first drawn to working
with a material. Sixteen years ago, I was… I hadn’t published any of my books yet, and
I was… TS: Oh, so this goes before you were… JL: This was in… TS: Famous! [chuckle] JL: This was… Yeah, this was 1997. TS: Wow. JL: So, two years before my first book was
published. I had written some short stories. I was… I was still very much… Very young.
Trying to get my bearings. As a… As a fiction writer and also quite young as a a person
I think, in a lot of ways, and I… I hadn’t had children and… And I do think that though
it’s frustrating to be drawn to an idea and to want to work with it and to not be able
to, it was right that I waited, and waited for the moment when I was able to slowly enter
the world of the book, which remained a great challenge for me during the writing process
itself. But at least it felt some… Like something I was able to try, and as you say,
yes, of course, I mean being the mother of two children adds a whole other dimension
of… In terms of imagining what that might have been like for the parents of these boys. TS: So the two brothers that you introduced
us to are incredibly close, they’re born very close, about a year and a bit apart, and they
take different paths in life as I mentioned when I set it up. Udayan is the one who becomes
involved with the Naxalite movement, and Subhash comes to Rhode Island. He decides he’s going
to go to America to study, and now, I think we’re in territory that is familiar to your
readers from your other books that you’ve… That you’ve dealt with that, the educated
Bengali community that comes to the Northeastern United States, and Rhode Island was specifically
where you grew up I think too right? JL: Yes. TS: So, and, of course, we come to your…
If I’m accurate in saying so, your great theme of dislocation and identity, and I wonder
if you could just talk a bit about that. About what it was… What it was like for you? I
know you were born in London and came, but were grown up in Rhode Island. If you could
just talk a bit about that? JL: About my own experience at dislocation? TS: Yeah, about your own experiences. JL: Well, I think the best way to describe
it in a sense is that… The metaphor of that walled off world that I lived up alongside,
and I think what drew me to the idea, I think unconsciously I was drawn, was precisely the
idea of living in a place where real life seemed to be not entirely accessible to me,
in that American culture was sort of walled off and that I had a sort of occasional access
to it. But that when I did enter it, there was a sense of transgression and trespassing
that was happening because of the way… Because of the people who raised me and how… And
where they were coming from both literally and in a more figurative sense in terms of
what… How they wanted to raise me. What they believed in and so on and so forth. So,
I felt in retrospect, when I… After I wrote the book, I realized that that the idea of
crossing over and being attracted to something, and not feeling entirely a part of it, but
also living right alongside of it, in a way defines my own upbringing. TS: So, did you consider yourself… You were
little when you came to Rhode Island, right? Two or three were you? JL: Three. TS: So, did you consider yourself American
when you were growing up, or Indian, or Indo-American, or any of those tags? JL: No. I mean I didn’t feel American, and
I was told not to be. TS: You were told not to be, by your parents
you mean? They wanted you to stay in the Indian culture. JL: They didn’t want me to call myself an
American. I mean I think to them this was something they found distressing. And it’s
very interesting because I live now in Rome, and I have met various people, Italians obviously,
but also Americans, other nationalities living in Rome, and it’s… One meets a range of
people. And the people who aren’t Italian who are raising families there, their children,
there is a clear expectation that, “We are Americans. We are Americans living in Rome.”
And so I think it’s really quite normal. So, similarly my parents were Bengalis living
in America, and this was who they were, and I was their child and that was the notion.
And… But I think that this happens really everywhere. I mean when you think of the British
who lived in India for so many years, I mean they remained British. Their children did
not think of themselves as Indian. I think it’s only in America, though, that eventually
one can become American, which is sort of what I love about America, that it is a place
that allows for self-redefinition. And my children do feel American and that’s fine.
That’s great. I mean they feel that and so that is what they shall be. TS: Do you feel American now? JL: Not really. No. I mean I think I was too…
It was too intense for me when I was growing up to feel, to ever really be able to feel
it. I mean whatever that means. I don’t know what it means. I wanted to be American when
I was young in many ways. I wanted to belong. I wanted to not be someone that people were
always curious about and asking about, but it wasn’t the case. And I felt very much that
it would be betrayal to my parents. So… TS: Your kids now in Rome then in a way are
going through what you went through, a kind of cultural dislocation. How is it for them? JL: Well, I think it’s different because we
are not… I mean my husband and I aren’t Italian, so in that sense, we’re not… No.
That doesn’t really make sense. But we… Because… What is the difference? There’s
a difference because… TS: I mean I’m just guessing. I’m assuming
your kids feel much more confident about their American identity, do they? JL: They do, they do. TS: And so therefore, it’s not a precarious
situation for them, perhaps is it? JL: Well, I think the other thing is this,
this is the difference. I think in Rome, there is not an expectation for them to become Roman,
to become Italian because Italians have a very precise a notion of what Italian is,
and it’s very precise. TS: Oh, yeah. [chuckle] JL: And one cannot become Italian. TS: Yeah. One can apply, but one is rarely
accepted. [chuckle] JL: And so it’s a different experience for
them, and I think also I think because my husband and I, to begin with, are both people
who have a rather unconventional notion of identity for various reasons. My husband was
raised all over the world. He was born in Mexico, he was raised in Thailand, he was
raised in Guatemala, then he came to the United States. And so his background is very, very
rich and varied in all sorts of ways, linguistically, culturally. I was raised by and large in one
physical, geographical place, but within kind of between two worlds all the time. So, neither
of us have a strong sense of “We must preserve our culture.” I think both of us, certainly,
I am someone who is always drawn to cultures outside of my… On the other side, again,
sort of what is on the other side of the wall. This interests me as a person, this interests
me as a writer. So, it doesn’t make me nervous if my children immerse themselves in Italian
and have lots of Italian friends. This doesn’t threaten me as a person because I don’t have
a sense of, “We must preserve and try to recreate a sort of forgotten culture or a culture from
which we are at a great distance.” TS: It’s the fear of losing it, and I’m sure
that’s what motivated your parents, is that they were afraid that if you… Are we on?
We are? Sounded like it just went off there for a minute, but okay, good. JL: Yes. TS: On living in Rome, though, I mean who
wouldn’t want to live in Rome? But what made you go to Italy? ‘Cause the whole family is
there now, right? Your kids are in school. Are they in Italian school or are they going
English school? JL: They go to an international school with
sort of half the student body being Italian. So it’s a nice situation for them because
they are, they’re neither in a kind of, international school bubble. In which, sometimes there are
no kids from the actual country you’re living in going there. But in this case there are
a lot of Italian kids in the school, so they have a number of Italian friends. We moved
to Rome to satisfy a very long simmering desire on my part. I had studied Italian for many,
many years in America. I’m not sure why, but I have a… TS: Oh, you were cagey, you were studying
knowing it was in the future. JL: I think I did, I have a great love for
the language. And so I taught it to myself and then started working with tutors to get
better at it, and eventually, I just felt that this was something I really wanted to
do and so we did. We moved there a year ago, and it’s been an extraordinary experience
for me in every way. I think part of me also feels, when I was raised by foreigners and
so many of my characters are foreigners, and I write about that, and I observed that all
my life, and I’ve absorbed that all my life, but in terms of my own experience, I had been
quite protected. I was raised in the United States. I would go to India all the time,
but as a… I was always their child and protected in that way. And this is the first time that
I am, that I am a foreigner. That I am a complete foreigner. Because even though I was, even
though I didn’t feel American in Rhode Island. But I knew that I, I mean I lived there, I
went to school there, I eventually was naturalized and got an American passport and all of these
things. Whereas in Italy, I live there, I love it there, I speak the language, I’m happy,
but I know that I will never belong there in that basic way. One lives in a certain,
with a certain sensibility. That again, I’ve witnessed all my life from my parents, but
I have never actually had to do that as an adult. So I find it, I find the challenges
of it very, very, very rewarding and very interesting, and very very humbling also. TS: So when you, and you still live in Brooklyn,
is that right? You’ve kept your place in Brooklyn? JL: We kept our place. TS: How lovely? Brooklyn, Rome, we hardly
know where to go. So just one last question on this identity thing. So when you think,
as we all do, when you think in your mind of “I’m going home,” where is that to you?
What do you think when you think, “I’m going home”? JL: I think of where my children and my husband
are. TS: Wherever that is? JL: (Nods yes) Um hmm. TS: Great answer. I want to move back to the
book a bit and talk about marriage. You’ve written about marriage in many of your short
stories and in your other writing. And you always write about it in, seems to me, in
a very unsentimental way. You talk about people coming together often, this kind of dislocation
where they, perhaps they’ve come to America from India. What interests you about marriage,
about the dynamic, as a writer? JL: I think it’s always a great story no matter
what. So many writers have written about marriage for this very reason, because it’s a sort
of built-in mystery. [chuckle] Built-in drama, tension, and sadly so many of them are flawed,
unhappy for whatever reason. Also, perhaps because the idea of marriage and the sort
of “How to get married” question. The idea of does one have an arranged marriage or not?
This was something that I was aware of from a very young age. Probably too young to, for
it to be healthy or normal. But by the time I was my daughter’s age, and she’s nine, so
well before that, people would say, “Are you going to marry within your culture or not?” TS: Wow. JL: I mean, what did I know? TS: Wow. JL: Right? But people did, people would ask
me, and I realized how important it was. And again as you say, it’s all about the desire
to preserve the culture, the fear of losing the culture. TS: Were your parents upset when you didn’t
marry an Indian man? JL: No, they weren’t, but I think they…
I worried that they would be earlier on, but they weren’t. TS: I think you said to Salon in an interview
that you thought you’d come to the end of a phase in your writing. Is that accurate?
Did you say that? Can you talk about that a bit what you meant by that? JL: Well, I think because this is a book,
as I said, that I’ve been trying to work on, trying to realize for so many years, and the
fact that I wasn’t able to realize this book and then wrote the other books kind of felt…
I just feel that I have finally completed something that I was trying to work out in
some sense in all of the books. And I also feel that with this book… I don’t know.
I just feel like sort of at the end of a road, and I want to get myself onto another road,
and I’m not sure where that road will take me, but I just know that I’m feeling a little
bit the way I was feeling a few years ago when I really wanted to move to Italy. I just
felt that I had live in America for long enough, and I wanted to get out of New York. I needed
to get out of New York. I needed to get out. And I think many people feel this… But I
feel that also, creatively, I feel that I am ready to get out of this particular world
sort of concerns, perhaps, way of writing. I don’t know exactly where it will go. TS: In the book, there, the main female character,
Gauri… Am I saying her name correctly? JL: Gauri. TS: Gauri. JL: Yeah. TS: Gauri, who in fact was Udayan’s wife and
becomes a widow and marries Subhash, I don’t think I’m giving anything away in saying that.
But she’s not a very good mother, and I’m interested in… Since the term of “bad mother”
is such a hot-button issue in our society, what interested you in writing about a woman
who seems to not have had any maternal instincts? JL: Well, I wasn’t thinking about it as an
issue. Though I am aware that it is, there have been some books and things recently.
I just, again, I was working from this situation, this original seed for the book. And when
I thought about it, and when I realized that there would be a wife left behind as well,
I began to follow her and to build her character and, to me, it just seemed true to her character.
What… What… Who she is and how she reacts. I really just tried to think of it that way,
but I wasn’t really trying to make a point or anything. TS: You mentioned before that 16 years ago,
you’d been young as a person and young as a writer. Had you always… When you were,
for instance, little, had you always wanted to be a writer, were you one of those kids
that was putting on plays at six and writing stories? JL: I was writing stories, and I acted in
plays, and I drew, and I did all… I played instruments. I mean I liked creativity in
all sorts of forms, as many children do. But I was very… I was not someone who was confident.
I was not someone who felt comfortable… Well, I didn’t feel comfortable, period. I
didn’t feel comfortable in my skin, so I was not someone who had that sort of… I mean,
I feel that being a writer is a very bold thing to do in a lot of ways, though a lot
of shy, retiring people end up doing it. But in a sense, the act of creation, it’s a very
emphatic thing to do, and I just felt that I was built differently, and that I was meant
to be quiet and to listen and to observe, which of course, are the things that writers
do. TS: Exactly. Make a good writer. Yeah. JL: But to make that leap into sort of wanting
to call myself a writer and to be a writer felt, again, it felt a little bit like on
the other side of that wall. I felt that it was something other people did. Other people
wrote things and painted and acted and did those kinds of creative things because I always
felt more comfortable in the audience and not on the stage. [chuckle] JL: Even though I like doing plays and things,
but just in general, I felt more comfortable in that position. TS: So what got you over the hump? What made
you say, “Okay, I’m a writer. I’m going to do it.”? JL: Well, I just realized I was spending more
and more time writing creatively when I
was outside of… After I had graduated from college because I had studied literature,
and I was planning to be a professor and studying literature and getting PhD, all of that. But
I… It occurred to me that what I was doing on the weekends was working on little fictional
things and this and that. And one thing kind of led to another, and at a certain point,
I realized it was sort of… It had taken over my life, not literally because I was
still a graduate student, and I had lots of other responsibilities and obligations. But
it was where my heart was and that became very clear to me at a certain point, in my
twenties. And it was sort of a process. I worked with a teacher who believed in me greatly,
and then I received a wonderful gift from a place called The Fine Arts Work Centre in
Provincetown, which gives long fellowships to visual artists and to writers, and so I
received a fellowship from them and that seemed like, “Wow, I’m not supposed to get one of
those.” [chuckle] TS: I better do it. JL: But I did, and I went and that was a big
turning point for me also to have… But I really did need other people. I wasn’t, as
I said, I wasn’t, I’m not proud of it. I just I’m not, I just didn’t have that sort of self-conviction.
“I can do this.” I didn’t have it. So for me it was very critical to have other people
who believed in me and encouraged me. TS: You’re known for the beauty and simplicity
is not quite the word, I don’t know what I want to say here, but you write in a way that
is not flowery at all. Is that a natural style for you or are you a relentless parer down
of your prose as you go along? JL: I don’t know. I mean I do like to keep
it simple, and I don’t like things to sound fussy. I mean I just want it to be clear.
So… And I work on the sentences a lot. You know, just to try to get a certain clarity.
But you know that’s not to say I don’t like reading other kinds of prose. Just seems like,
that’s what seems more, most natural to me. To aim for a more simple prose. TS: You always say, I believe, Thomas Hardy
is your favourite writer? JL: Certainly, my favourite novelist. Yes. TS: Yeah. What’s your favourite book of his? JL: I think I would say either Tess or Return
of the Native, but I think Tess is really his masterpiece. TS: I remember reading Tess, well I guess
as many of us did, and I might even have been on a high school reading course. I can’t remember
but just being blown away by it. What a spectacular book. What a wonderful writer. You are on
something called the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanity. Is that right? What
does that involved? JL: Well, it involves looking at ways to make
arts education stronger, more central to American public education. That’s sort of the core
of it. Looking at schools, looking at different arts programs in different schools and how
to increase arts education and the benefits of arts education. Sort of looking at how
essential it is to have arts education in schools in a period in which all of that is
being always threatened and pared down. So that’s the vision for it. What it meant for
me when I was… As long as I was here I haven’t been able to really participate from overseas,
was meeting with the other committee members, looking at examples of different schools and
their challenges and different programs that have… And just getting a sense of crafting
sort of eventually some kind of initiative. Some sort of legislation in the grand scheme
but again, it’s a slow… TS: Yeah. Sounds rewarding though. I’m just
gonna end with one last question about the Man Booker. There’s been some controversy
as you know, about the Man Booker being opened up to not just the commonwealth countries
but I guess the really, I mean the fear is opened up to America. Right? One of the commentaries
I read said, “Well, Jonathan Franzen will just win everything then. That will be it.
The Americans will take over. What’s your sense of that? Do you think… Is it an issue
for you at all? JL: Well, it’s funny because you know, I was
shortlisted a few weeks ago, and immediately, I gather, I mean I don’t read anything that’s
written about me, but I gather that people were saying “Oh well, she is not really, she
is American. She is American.” TS: And you said “No, I’m not” JL: And so I was aware that there was this
notion of it being a sort of British and Commonwealth and former Commonwealth and that I was a liar.
But then a week later they changed the rule anyway so, then people stopped, I gather,
people stopped bothering me about that. I mean on the one hand, I think it’s sort of
lovely, the idea of there being one big recognition, prize whatever you call it, for the finest
novel of any given year in the English language. TS: English language. JL: Because then I feel like it really becomes
about the language. TS: Yeah. JL: And the power of the language and a tribute
to the language and I think about, I mean you never know, you know you might have someone
like, I don’t know, a Conrad or whomever, someone, there maybe someone living in South
America who has a passion for the English language and has learnt it and writes in it.
You have people like Beckett. You have people who enter into other languages, not their
own, and become masters at it. And in that sense, I think opening it up to Americans
increases the sort of way you look at the… It as a real, as a prize in the English language.
On the other hand, I feel like, I know that there are a lot of American prizes that are
limited to Americans. So, I can sort of see both sides of it to be honest, but I think
it’s official, so… TS: Yes, it’s official. JL: I think… TS: Very diplomatic answer. JL: Yeah. [laughter] TS: Jhumpa Lahiri, you are a wonderful writer
and a wonderful interpreter of words, and it’s a great pleasure to meet you and see
you here today. Jhumpa Lahiri is going to be signing her books out in the lobby there.
You’ll see there’s a table out by the window, and I’d like to thank Jhumpa for being here. [applause] JL: Thank you.

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