Jhumpa Lahiri at Barnard

The curriculum of any tenth grade English class is notoriously depressing.  It’s the year when you tackle the classics - Frankenstein, Beowulf - and a chock full of all that fun substance like 19th century diseases, disappointing sons, and dead languages.  That’s one of the many reasons why The Namesake has always stuck with me.  It was the only modern book I read that year, but The Namesake, like all those classic novels and epic poems, is a story of identity.  It wasn’t until after I was accepted to Barnard that I learned that Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of the only 10th grade book I cared about, was an alumna.  Since graduating in 1989, Lahiri has released several books and short story collections, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 1999’s Interpreter of Maladies.  On October 12, she returned to campus for the reading of a short story and a conversation with fellow Pulitzer Prize winner and Barnard professor Hisham Matar.         

That night would be the short story’s English language debut; Lahiri wrote the story in Italian during her time living in Rome. Its Italian title translates most closely to “Confine,” but Lahiri prefers the English word “Boundary.” This story follows a young girl living in the remote countryside of what is believed to be Italy, as she works with her immigrant parents as a caretaker at a villa.  Each week, the villa is rented out to a new family hoping to escape the city and enjoy the beauty of the country.  The girl, however, doesn't see rural life as beautiful, but rather sees it as lonely.  The story is beautifully told from her point of view as the observer in both the visiting and her own families’ lives.  As a reader, Lahiri is very serious. Her soberness translates well to the girl in the story, quiet and observant, but it’s clear Lahiri is not playing a role.  This seriousness is representative of her own personality, which becomes more evident throughout the evening.   

The other personality on stage that night was Professor Hisham Matar, founder and organizer of the Barnard International Artist Series.  Matar and Lahiri are friends, the former Barnard alum stating she immediately accepted his offer to return to Barnard as it was a chance to have a chat. Lahiri began the conversation by joking that as soon as she arrived back on campus, she instinctively went to the fourth floor of Barnard Hall.  This is also known as the English department; majoring in English and studying languages were major sources of inspiration that lead her to becoming a writer.  Matar then asked what Lahiri was like when she first arrived to Barnard as a freshman.  The same as all of us, she remarked that it was a mix of complete excitement and utter terror.  She further explained that she felt as if she had “arrived with the wrong suitcase;” a metaphor that would steer the night’s conversation.  “I think the metaphor of the wrong suitcase is the metaphor of my life,” she later said.  Coming from a small Rhode Island town, the transition to the city was emotionally challenging but ultimately rewarding for Lahiri.  She explained the importance of feeling small sometimes, as it means you’re part of something bigger.  It’s very possible that this ideology applies to her love of reading, something she fostered during her time at Barnard.  She notes that the most important thing she read at this time was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; a piece of writing she believes to be so important that she was horrified to learn none of the freshmen students in her Princeton writing class had read before.  Later answering an audience member’s question - “What advice do you have for young writers just getting started?” - she simply replied, “Have you read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?”     

Besides Plato’s influence, language plays a key role in Lahiri’s work.  It plays a role in her stories of immigration and takes center stage in her memoir, In Other Words, a love letter to Italian.  Italian, she tells Matar, loved her in a way that English never had.  She connected to Italian so much that she moved her family to Rome for a period of time, over which she became immersed in the language and rediscovered her voice as a writer.  With Italian, Lahiri says she feels like she’s “dropped the suitcase altogether.”  To this, Matar joked, “Where do you keep your things?”  She even announced that she had just finished her first full-length book in Italian, something that made her comparably nervous to slipping a paper under a professor’s door.

No matter if you’re a freshman or thirty years out of college, the feelings of being anxious about submitting a paper or worried you’ve brought the wrong suitcase will inevitably pop up at different times.  Lahiri embraces these feelings as necessary discomforts allowing us to grow and improve.  As an audience member and first-year student, I was moved by this outlook on life and its challenges.  Lahiri also reminded me of myself, not the whole Pulitzer Prize thing, but in her unexpected shyness and in the way she spoke about writing.  The combination of these qualities is evident in her writing - and is perhaps why I liked The Namesake so much in the first place.