Pulitzer Prize Winner Jhumpa Lahiri spoke at the Italian Cultural Institute about language, identity, and belonging in relation to a new collection of Italian Short Stories which she has edited. As translated fiction sales are up by 5.5% in the UK this year, I’m musing upon what translated fiction adds to one’s literary diet.
I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri’s works in the last year of my undergraduate degree, when I was studying a module about ‘postcolonial literature’ (the tutors of which quickly dissected the chosen term, as all good English Lit tutors do), and I immediately fell in love with her writing. I was enthralled by Lahiri’s prose and how naturally it slips into questions of identity, migration, and belonging – themes which greatly preoccupy me. I was therefore incredibly excited when I found that she was coming to London (all the way from Princeton) and speaking at the Italian Cultural Institute about a new collection, The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which she has edited (and translated).
Having read most of her stories in English, I hadn’t heard much about her connections with Italian literature or culture, but I was fascinated to learn more. Lahiri, who is American, learned Italian as an adult and says that she now speaks Italian every day, and outside of work, she reads primarily in Italian too. She surrounds herself by the language through friendships and literature.
I was fascinated to hear that it was partly her hesitant, even turbulent relationship with English that encouraged her to turn to another language for her writing as an adult. From the way that she describes her relationship to Italian, it seems almost like an escape. Italian opens doors to a whole new landscape of literature for her, both historical and contemporary. New tongues give Lahiri new modes of expression: ‘I have many ways of being,’ she says. She directly relates language to identity.
I do not and never have had a fixed identity. I have an amorphous attitude towards English. English is not a language which makes me feel safe. It never has. As a child I was terrified to speak it.
It was also interesting to hear more about Lahiri’s thoughts on the act of translation – what is lost and what is gained by it. Lahiri is adamant that translation is a necessary art and an important way for writers, such as those featured in her collection, to maintain their legacy and to survive in the future. This was particularly interesting given that translation figures are up this year – people are buying more translated fiction. The Bookseller reported that research commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize shows that UK sales of translated fiction are up by 5.5% this year. Data compiled by Nielson related that 5.63% of fiction published in the UK is translated – mostly European, 17% of which is translated from French, but with Norwegian and Swedish authors most popular.
So, what is it that translation can add to one’s cultural diet or literary palette? What is it that is pulling people to experiment outside of the geographical and linguistic perimeters of Britain’s bookshelves? Well, perhaps in this troubled era of Brexit, readers are looking to break down barriers between Britain and the rest of the world, ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and to feel more like global citizens. Perhaps it is an act of political resistance. Perhaps it is a form of escapism – escaping from the doom and gloom of British nationalism, weather, and apathy.
Or, perhaps people are thirsty for the challenges which translated fiction entails – as a generalisation, translated fiction often deals with cultural identity in some form. It questions our perceptions of ‘otherness.’ Belonging, identity, migration – these are key themes of Lahiri’s works, but also popular keywords within the genres of translated fiction. Arguably one can see how this list could be presented like a doctor’s note for an antidote to Brexit blues, passed onto a bookseller instead of a pharmacist.
Lahiri noted that many of the writers in her new collection of Italian Short Stories were translators themselves, translating mostly from English to Italian. Their output was a part of their identity and undoubtedly shaped them as readers and writers. In a lot of cases, they were responding to fascism, she says.
And like in all good literary talks, Lahiri – who teaches creative writing at Princeton – had words of wisdom for writers in the audience. Reading is a necessary part of writing, she tells us:
I don’t believe in ‘teaching writing’ – I believe in ‘teaching reading.’
I’d strongly recommend Lahiri’s previous works Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies – they’re both beautiful. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the Italian Short Stories, and trying to learn more about Lahiri in the process.