On Wednesday, November 17, Italian language writers Jhumpa Lahiri and Amara Lakhous joined the European Institute for a conversation about writing in Italian, migration/mobility, and belonging. 

The special relationship between the reader, the writer, and the written word is something I hadn’t considered before taking a Russian literature class this year. Several times, I arrived in class only to realize that the book I had brought was in the wrong translation, not the one assigned on the syllabus. Struggling along with the class, as I compared my version to everyone else’s, I developed a new appreciation for the art of translation and for the profound alterity of languages that I don’t speak. The original Russian in which these works are written is so inaccessible to me that it might as well be hidden within an impenetrable void. 

The conversation between Jhumpa Lahiri and Amara Lakhous that took place on Wednesday, November 17 was about Italian (another language I don’t speak), but their ideas transcended the language. Listening to these two artists speak lovingly about the medium of their craft, I developed a new appreciation for the role that language plays in writing.

The conversation, streamed on Zoom with an audience size of almost 200, was moderated by Columbia Professors Elizabeth Leake and Konstantina Zanou. It began with an introduction of the two guests. Jhumpa Lahiri graduated from Barnard College in 1989 and began publishing short stories and novels written in English. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and has also won a National Humanities Medal. Several years ago, she moved to Italy and began writing exclusively in Italian. Her Italian books include Il quaderno di Nerina (2021) and Dove mi Trovo (2018), which she translated into English and published as Whereabouts in 2021. Amara Lakhous is a writer originally from Algiers who now writes in both Arabic and Italian. His novels have won Italy’s Flaiano Internationale Award and the Racalmare –– Leonardo Sciascia Prize.

Professor Leake posed the first question, commenting on the different models of desire and necessity that informed the role of the Italian language in both writers’ works. In Lakhous’ books, the ability to use Italian is material to the livelihood of the characters; it’s a vehicle for communication and community among lower-class characters, while, according to Leake, Lahiri’s work approaches the Italian language from the perspective of privilege and “hegemonic” power, where the interlocutors possess multiple hegemonic languages and the use of Italian is born of desire rather than of necessity. Leake asked the two writers to comment on “the economy of language acquisition” in their respective works.

Lahiri answered first: “I think what we’re asking here is the basic question of who belongs to language and whether language belongs to anybody.” She said that the question of privilege in Italian is wrapped up with a bunch of related questions, such as what is Italian, who is Italian for, and what is an Italian reader. For herself, Lahiri said, learning Italian was a choice while learning English was a necessity based on her circumstances as a young person. However, this question of choice and freedom of choice is complicated by the fact that, as someone speaking a language into which they were not born, one constantly has to grapple with the question of why one is “in” that language and why one has given oneself to that language. Although for Lahiri, transitioning to Italian was a choice freely made, it came with a lot of questions, whose unanswerability characterizes her relationship with the language.

Leake asked if Lahiri could clarify her preliminary answer to the question of “why”. “The simple answer,” said Lahiri, “is that there is no answer.” She continued, saying that there’s simply no way to explain what happens when one feels a “calling,” when one feels “summoned” by the force of language, which is necessarily outside of oneself but seems to be speaking as if from within. She insisted that her relationship with the Italian language could not be reduced or rationalized, calling her attraction to the Italian language “a completely unreasonable thing.” However, she added, upon reflection, part of the explanation for this phenomenon comes from the problem of “not having a language of my own.” Referring to her background as someone who grew up between cultures and countries, she explained that Italian beckoned to her as a protective force, a third language that, rather than resolve the question of belonging and identity, further complicates it, yet returns some of the power and agency of identity to Lahiri herself. She added that there’s a big leap in between learning to speak and read a language, which is generally regarded as a noble and worthwhile pursuit, and beginning to write in that language, giving yourself a voice within it. Once one takes the step of beginning to write in a language, the question of “what am I doing here” never truly recedes.

Lakhous spoke next, recalling a conversation he’d had with Lahiri at a mutual moment of transition when she’d just moved to Italy and he was preparing to move from Italy to New York. He emphasized the similarities between them, perhaps seeking to refute Leake’s implication that there was a fundamental difference in their approach to the Italian language. Then he described his relationship to the language. “I’ve always said,” said Lakhous, “that I spoke my best Italian at airports.” In these moments of bureaucracy and interaction with authority, Italian does function as a necessity rather than a privilege. However, Lakhous said, he’d always thought of the Italian language as his “protector,” especially during the time of his life when he lived as an immigrant and a refugee, after leaving Algeria for Italy. He made sure to emphasize, though, that his love for Italian had begun before he needed to speak it––when he was a teenager, he’d had a fondness for watching Italian films, and his goal in learning to speak the language was to be able to watch these films without subtitles. 

Regarding the question of who belongs to language, continued Lakhous, the tendency to connect languages to nations and borders is “a huge mistake.” He referenced the Algerian revolutionary slogan “the land belongs to who takes care of it,” saying that the language belongs to who takes care of it. Therefore, said Lakhous, he and Lahiri are like gardeners in the “fantastic Italian garden.” He framed himself and Lahiri as caretakers of the Italian language; by creating literature in Italian, they are challenging the hegemony that structures the language. It’s important to disconnect language from the authority and possession of a nation because nationalism and fascism are intrinsically connected to language. Therefore, outsiders who arrive to tend the garden of language are also doing the vital work of disrupting the borders that threaten to close. 

Lakhous added with a smile that he’d met his wife while he was living in Rome, saying that in addition to language, Italy gave him love. “By the way,” he said, “with my wife, we’re still talking in Italian.”

Professor Zanou asked a question about the “practical axis” of the experience of writing and speaking multiple languages. She compared Lahiri and Lakhous to students at Columbia, who often have to switch between languages to ensure their academic success, reinventing and defining themselves in languages that aren’t necessarily their first. She spoke of her own experience as a polyglot, finding that when she took notes for a paper, she often found herself writing in multiple languages at the same time. “While I inhabit all these different languages, it’s like I inhabit none of them,” she said, asking them if they found their own experiences with language to be comparable.

Lakhous described his lifetime journey of language: he was born into a Berber family in Algiers, speaking the dialect of Kabyle, and although his family lived in Algeria, his parents did not speak Arabic, the national language. He did, however, learn Algerian Arabic from his community, and then classical Arabic and French in school. Learning all of these languages at a young age, he was able to create “linguistic harmony” for himself. He recounted an amusing anecdote of how he’d used to refer to himself as a “linguistic polygamist,” until a journalist he’d been speaking to misinterpreted his phrase as a comment on the issue of polygamy in Islam. He concluded by saying that he had many mother tongues and had found a way to create harmony between each of them.

Next, Lahiri spoke, saying that anyone born into a multilingual identity could relate to the experience of feeling “in between” languages. She described switching between languages with ease depending on with whom she was conversing, whether her husband, her children, or the Bangladeshi people living in Rome. However, she continued, writing in other languages is an altogether different experience. Building on Lakhous’ metaphor, she called language “an open garden”: people who arrive to write in that language are gardeners who can add “new” seeds. In terms of openness and “porousness,” as she called it, language is tolerant. On the other hand, though, there is a sense in which language is intolerant because the systems that structure language are rigid and as a newcomer to the language, you have to give yourself up to the inflexibility of the language, fully embracing its rules and customs.

“Writing is about hearing,” she said and described her writing process as always having been shaped by the experience of “hearing” the story in her head before she began to write it. Her shift to writing in Italian, she explained, was actualized when she began hearing stories in her head in Italian and started to write down what she was hearing. Now, when she writes in Italian, she hears absolutely no English while she’s engaged in the process of literary creation. Only recently, when she began the process of translating her work in Italian back into English for publication, did she begin to create the “bridge” in her mind between English and Italian. Other than that, her Italian writing takes place in a completely separate sphere. 

Lakhous spoke again, concurring with Lahiri’s point that writing in multiple languages is a separate experience from speaking multiple languages. He talked about a project that he undertook in 2010 when he published the same novel in Italian and in Arabic. He’d written the two concurrently, and described them as “twins.” Lakhous emphasized that writing the same story in multiple languages simultaneously was a mystic, transcendent experience, jokingly saying that he’d been dead to the world for several weeks while writing. Within the two languages, the same character communicated different things in different languages. For example, he said, Sofia, the Egyptian character, “told him more” when he wrote her in Italian, and Christian, an Italian character, communicated more when he wrote him in Arabic. Lakhous emphasized that creating intimacy with language is an integral part of the experience of writing, joking “intimacy isn’t even easy to create between people!”

Next, Leake jumped in, referring to a moment in the memoirs of Eva Hoffman when she describes being proposed to by a man and reacting, mentally, with an English “yes” and a Polish “no.” Leake asked if the writers could describe the “silos” in which their thinking and writing takes place according to the linguistic construct. 

Lahiri responded that these constructions of mental “silos” are necessary to the process of beginning to think and write in another language because they help to completely block off the flow of English and create space to truly inhabit the world of the other language. As part of “impeding the flow,” Lahiri said, when she first resolved to write only in Italian, the initial step that she took was ceasing to read in English, which was momentous because her livelihood and identity had centered around reading English literature. She then moved to Rome so that she would only hear Italian, further walling off English from her life. Lahiri emphasized that her life has been, in many ways, defined by the borders that she’s encountered as she’s gone from place to place and language to language. But a border is necessary for a definition. To redefine herself as an Italian writer, she had to construct borders around the languages in her life.

“I think when you live in a situation like we do, you don’t have a strong identity,” said Lakhous. However, he argued, this is an advantage rather than a problem. To live in the country you were born in, speaking the only language you’ve ever spoken, creates certainty and protection, but this can be a hindrance. Lakhous argued that linguistic “protection” can be a cage, and breaking out of the cage of language is the only route to freedom. Lakhous acknowledged that, as he was currently speaking in English, his accent was not American, but he said he didn’t care, since his accent is part of his identity. Identity for polyglots is shaped by multiplicity, by the impossibility of definition, which, again, poses an inherent challenge to nationalism.

Strikingly, Lakhous declared that he’d chosen to never write in a powerful language, saying that the Italian language was inherently “weak” and “fragile.” He contrasted it to French, giving as an example the fact that COVID-19 restrictions in France were referred to as “sanitary” while in Italian they were called “lockdowns.” The fact that the Italian phrase included the word “down,” he said, is telling of the Italian inferiority complex. “You are in a depressing situation, you lock down.” It’s obvious to Lakhous that the Italian language has an inferiority complex, which he argued that he could say because he is not italianissimo. As an “outsider” to the language, he has the freedom to criticize it, which he described as his “mission.” Challenging the power of language from the outside means challenging the hegemony.

Finally, Zanou asked both writers about the element, present in both their texts, of metaphorical roots and bridges, asking, “who is the ideal reader of your books?” She wanted to know whether they wrote for an Italian audience or for an international audience who would read their works in translation.

“My ideal reader is myself, first and foremost,” said Lahiri. “When I write in Italian I write for the Italian reader who lives inside of me.” After she finishes the book, though, her ideal reader is anyone who reads in Italian, which of course is not limited only to Italians who read in Italy. Lahiri referred to a hypothetical student of Italian literature at Princeton University (where she teaches), saying that this student has as much of a right to have the book be accessible to them as an Italian citizen. Supporting this, she described an instance in which she was editing an anthology of Italian short stories to be published in English in the UK, where her role was to write the introduction and to create explanatory notes of Italian cultural references. She then wanted the anthology to be published in Italian for an Italian readership. Initially, her editor had told her that when the collection was being translated into Italian, they should delete the explanatory notes, since Italians wouldn’t need their own cultural references explained to them. However, Lahiri argued against this, since someone who had learned Italian without coming from an Italian cultural background would still need those notes included. 

Lakhous said, “I am writing for everybody and maybe for nobody.” He spoke a little bit about translation, referring to the fact that he and Lahiri shared a translator in common, Ann Goldstein (who also translated the famous Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante). Languages are bridges and translators construct those bridges. Returning to the question of “who is the Italian reader,” Lakhous emphasized that Italy itself is a diverse country, with cultural differences between the North and the South, and that in his own perspective as an immigrant to Italy, it is undeniably multiculturali. The idea that there is simply one kind of Italian reader is false. Looking out across the sea of faces on Zoom, seeing many identifiably Italian names but also many others, I felt like I was looking at a microcosm of what Lahiri and Lakhous were talking about. The group of people who are interested in literature written in Italian is certainly diverse, and the group of people who eagerly read Italian literature in translation is no less so. 

As the conversation shifted to each of the writers reading some of their work in Italian, I had to leave the Zoom meeting, since it was time for my next class. I left, though, feeling like I had reevaluated my relationship to language and literature. As a student of literature, I’ve read many books, many of which have been translated, from Russian, French, Spanish, or Italian. I tend to read works in translation the same way that I read books that were originally written in English, but the main thing that I took away from Lahiri’s and Lakhous’ emphatic attitudes towards the ineffable alterity of other languages is the idea that it may be a mistake to consider works from another language as the same as English books. As a monoglot, some worlds are simply closed to me; though the English language certainly allows and has allowed me a lot of room to express myself, whole realms of meaning are inaccessible to me. I felt almost sad as I walked away with my closed laptop. My mind was struggling to articulate this sadness, but it was as if I was hearing my thoughts in a language that I did not speak.

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