Jhumpa Lahiri and Prof. Hisham Matar enjoying each other’s conversation

On Thursday evening, Staff Writers Jack Treanor and Lexie Lehmann had the pleasure to attend a completely sold out event with Jhumpa Lahiri, BC ‘89 and Barnard Professor Hisham Matar (both Pulizer Prize winners!) They strolled in past the line of 200+, Diana pizzas in hand, and were conveniently placed next to Spec. Classic. Here’s what happened…

The night began with an introduction by a current Barnard English Professor and chair of the Creative Writing Program, Timea Szell, BC ‘75, who had taught Lahiri while she was at Barnard. She told of reading a piece in the New Yorker years ago, an emotionally rich story about the power of secrets and their effect on marriage and relationships, then realizing after that it was written by her former student. She described how Lahiri always had a seriousness to her, not earnest or humorless, but attentive, thoughtful. This would become evident throughout the night.

Lahiri began the event by reading a piece that she had written three years ago while living in Rome. This was the first time the piece had been translated in English. It was originally called “Confine”; Lahiri translated the title to “Boundary”. The story was written from the perspective of a young woman living with her family in the countryside of what seemed like Italy. Her parents are immigrants, and her father works as a caretaker for a villa in the country. Each week, a new family, usually wealthy and from the city, arrives to spend their weeks in the rural tranquility. Through the young woman’s perspective, we examine this family. The story richly shows two worlds, that of the girl and her immigrant family living deep in the country, and that of a family on vacation who only are here to enjoy the rural life for a few days. As the story unfolds, we learn somewhat about the visiting family and their reasons for vacationing, but we learn even more about the observant young caretaker, watching the family from afar. The story told of the deep loneliness of a rural life, especially when it intersects with the difficulty of immigration.

As an audience member, Lahiri‘s story nearly brought me to tears. The “seriousness” commented on my her former professor translated into a beautiful gentleness. The crowd was silent throughout the reading, with hardly any stirring or distraction.

After the reading, the founder and organizer of the Barnard International Artist Series, Professor Hisham Matar, began the conversation part of the event. Matar and Lahiri are friends and “shipmates” (as Matar said at one point during the evening), and share many common themes in their work; Matar asked questions and made observations throughout the conversation that seemed to encourage Lahiri to some of her more poignant statements.

The professor began by asking what young Lahiri was like when she first arrived at Barnard. Lahiri said that she was thrilled to come to Barnard. The city was so different than the small Rhode Island town she grew up in. She described the transition as “arriving with the wrong suitcase”, feeling as though all her preparation for the move was hopelessly not enough.

“I think the metaphor of the wrong suitcase is the metaphor of my life,” Lahiri said. She explaind that she was “terrified in general for four years”, but in a good way. But, she went on, it is important to feel small at times, to be in something so much larger than oneself. The city provided this for her. She described how her writing had its roots at Barnard, mentioning her Chaucer and Spenser class along with her study of languages, including ancient Greek and Latin. While she did take some creative writing classes, she commends her literature classes for fostering her love of reading. Lahiri would later say that reading is what made her a writer.

Matar and Lahiri went on to talk about her scholarly journey. After, Barnard she moved to Boston for graduate school, where she found herself pausing more and more as she passed the Creative Writing department on the second floor during her walk up to the English department on the fourth. After graduate school, she began writing.

Lahiri explained that her first four books are all related to each other, or, as she put it, “talking to each other.” All four were motivated by her Bengali parents, as she attempted to reclaim a past that her parents had lost. The region of Calcutta in India, a central location in many of her stories, was familiar to her because of trips to visit family when she was a child, but it was not home, as it was to her parents and many of her characters.

After finishing that set of stories, Lahiri “did not move countries so much as [she moved] languages”, in Matar’s words. She made the decision to move to Rome in order to more closely study Italian, a language that has been a personal passion for decades, and while there, transitioned to writing solely in Italian. She told us that writing in Italian was a reclamation of sorts; she felt as though the language loved her in a way that English never had. Italian allowed her to utilize her love of words, which is a topic of her most recent book, In Altre Parole / In Other Words.

Lahiri discussed how writing in Italian has freed her, offering her playfulness and eagerness because she has lost the harsh expectations that English always seemed to have for her. This work has created a new harmony between English and Bengali, her two previous languages. She also mentioned that she has recently finished a “book-length work” in Italian; a feeling that she compared to “the terror of slipping a paper under Timea’s [Professor Szell’s] door.”

Referring back to her metaphor from earlier in the conversation, Lahiri said, “It’s like I’ve dropped the suitcase altogether.”

“Where do you keep your things?” Matar replied.

More recently, Lahiri has transitioned back to academia. She is currently a professor at Princeton University, in the Creative Writing department. At one point, she expressed a fear that her students had lost the love of reading and words that had contributed to her own success. She remembers a class wherein she referenced Plato’s allegory of the cave, and was shocked when none of her students had neither heard of it nor read it. (As current CC sophomores, we grinned in our seats.)

The final question asked was what advice Lahiri would give a writer who is just starting out. After some thought, Lahiri asked, “Have you read the Allegory of the Cave?”. The crowd burst into laughter and applause, a conclusion that seemed to exemplify the spirit of intellectual camaraderie that had made the evening truly delightful, inspiring professors and students alike.

Two friends and shipmates via Barnard Media Relations