Talking About Reading and Writing with Jhumpa Lahiri

Princeton University’s New Director of Creative Writing

By Wendy Greenberg | Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

Jhumpa Lahiri takes a framed sketch from her office wall. It is a drawing of a library in her Rhode Island hometown. “This made me a writer, being around books,” she says. “It was so crucial. I believe that reading was the most important thing.”

In addition to being an ardent reader and celebrated author, Lahiri is a teacher, lover of languages, translator, and now college administrator. In her life and in her writing, which seem to be inseparable, she straddles different worlds.

Born in London and raised in Rhode Island by Bengali-born parents, she now divides her time between Rome, where she does most of her writing, and Princeton, where she was named director of the Princeton University Program in Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts in August.

Teaching has helped Lahiri explore new worlds, and new words. “When I teach, it inspires me to re-read an author, like Kafka,” she says. “I read the familiar and the unfamiliar. Reading is ongoing, infinite. I like being in environments where reading leads to conversations.”

A lot of writing comes from conversations and questions, says Lahiri.

Twenty years ago she won a Pulitzer Prize, at age 32, for her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies. At the time, the Pulitzer did not signify a “before and after” point in her life, but perhaps — in retrospect — it did. 

“Everything has a before and after. So, looking back, I can say, ‘yes,’” she says. “But at the time, I was undergoing several profound changes in my life. I got engaged and was more focused on a series of adult transitions.”

After the Pulitzer, she wrote several more well-received books, including The Namesake (made into a film by Mira Nair), Unaccustomed Earth (winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award), and The Lowland, which was named a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award in fiction in 2013.

Recognition followed. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships including the PEN/Hemingway Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Asian American Literary Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, among other awards and honors including a National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Obama.

In 2012 she moved to Rome to fulfill a love affair with the Italian language and, eventually, its literature. This passion resulted in writing In altre parole (In Other Words) in 2015, Il vestito dei libri (The Clothing of Books) in 2016, translations of two novels by Domenico Starnone, and the novel Dove mi trovo (written in Italian) in 2018. This fall The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which she edited, was published by Penguin Classics.

Twenty Years After

As her first success, Interpreter of Maladies, reaches the 20th anniversary of its publication, it still resonates today, especially in regards to the challenges facing immigrants in a new culture. “The stories are about basic human experiences — bewilderment, lack of connections, making connections,” says Lahiri.

Although she has been described as a chronicler of the Bengali immigrant experience, Lahiri wants to be known simply as “a writer.
I work in different modes. Writing should be as free as that.

“The Bengali immigrant experience was a specific world that not many people were thinking about when I was a child. Growing up as a first generation American was my experience. Now the immigration patterns have changed and more people from different parts of the world are having that experience. There was a big wave of immigration from India in the late ’60s and ’70s, and my family was a part of that. Those numbers were not there in the 1950s, but by 1975 it was completely different.”

Writing Encouragement

Her journey to becoming an award-winning writer reflects her experience bridging different cultures. Lahiri says she was a prolific writer as a child, but less so as a teenager. I didn’t focus on writing until after college. For many years, I wasn’t comfortable with the creative side of myself and felt nervous to call myself a writer. I was encouraged in graduate school at Boston University by BU Creative Writing Chair Leslie Epstein. I took a creative writing class while I was studying English literature and was encouraged by the other students in the workshop.”

She referred to Trading Stories (Notes from an Apprenticeship), a piece she wrote for The New Yorker in June 2011. It is introduced by a photo of Lahiri at age 3 with her parents Amar and Tapati in Cambridge, Mass., who are still in her life, “still anchors” but aging, she says.

In The New Yorker essay she writes about growing up in Rhode Island where her father was a librarian, but, ironically, she didn’t own many books. Speaking Bengali but reading in English, Lahiri (whose birth name is Nilanjana Sudeshna) was caught between the two languages. But, when reading, “entered into a pure relationship with the story and its characters,” she wrote.

As an adolescent, she preferred to practice music and perform in plays, and, as an undergraduate literature major at Barnard College in New York, thought she might become a college professor.

At Boston University — where she earned a M.A. in English, M.F.A. in creative writing, M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies — she “began to want to be a writer.” After sitting in on a creative writing class, she was later accepted to the creative writing program. When she was 30, as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, she wrote what she considers her first mature story, “A Temporary Matter,” which introduces the collection of short stories in Interpreter of Maladies.

As she noted in the 2011 New Yorker piece, her desk became her home. Now she writes mainly in Rome. When she writes, she likes uninterrupted time, and seems to get that in Rome. “My life in Princeton is hectic,” she says.

Princeton Creative Writing

Her office in New South at Princeton University — bright, welcoming, and full of books and posters — is where she teaches, meets with students and faculty colleagues, and runs the department and all the details and schedules that necessitates.

“There are so many great things happening here, and part of my job is maintaining that. Creative writing should be a place of exploration, whether for one semester or the rest of one’s life. It should be welcoming, first and foremost.

“There are so many ways of becoming a writer. It’s not a career track per se; it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. If I look back at my writing career, I realize that it unfolded on sort of a time release basis, and that there was an element of mystery to it. You don’t know when life will throw you something, or you will remember something. For me it wasn’t always a goal-oriented experience. It can be, but some writers develop more slowly.”

She wants the writing program to be “a place of experimentation, with the freedom to turn into something else, to present your point of view or learn other points of view. It’s like acting, assuming and embodying different perspectives, and getting to know yourself in the process.”

The program is in its 80th year. Lahiri succeeds its former director, 2017-2019 U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, who was named chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts in July. The program has free public programming offered to the community, including the Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series, the C.K. Williams Reading Series, the biennial Princeton Poetry Festival, and other readings and lectures. 

“I am excited by the many authors working in languages other than English who are reading in our series this year, and we aim to bring more translated literature to campus as part of the Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series,” says Lahiri. “I would also like to invite more author-translators, writers who do both. My other priority has been to organize more student involvement and engagement with our guest writers. Prior to each reading in the series, one or more of the writers have an informal tea with students to talk about their craft.”

Lahiri also serves as associate faculty with the departments of Comparative Literature and French and Italian.

This fall she received an Andrew W. Mellon faculty stipend from the Princeton University Art Museum to teach a class on artist, painter, and writer Leonora Carrington. The idea was born from her discovery of Carrington’s writings in 2016, combined with the fact that the Princeton University Art Museum owns a number of her artworks. Two of Carrington’s works are now featured as part of the exhibit “States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing,” on view through February 2, 2020. The cross-disciplinary nature of the course “epitomizes the potential” of the creative writing program, Lahiri says, describing Carrington as someone who “crossed borders” in many ways.

“I love the Museum. I love this course!” says Lahiri. “Carrington’s migrations, the language shifts, the many changes she realized in her creative life are so inspiring. So far it’s been quite exciting to see how the students engage with her and her vision.”

Advice to Young Writers

“I hope it happens more,” she says of making connections with other academic disciplines, such as comparative literature and Italian. “I like to partner with the translation world and build bridges. One of the things I am most proud of is helping to institute the Translator in Residence program overseen by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.” Now in its third year, the position is currently held by Larissa Kyzer, who translated Kristin Eiríksdóttir’s book A Fist or a Heart from Icelandic to English.

Lahiri envisions more links between creative writing and other disciplines, such as a connection with playwriting. “Unusual pairings interest me. I taught a course about the author Primo Levi. I revere him deeply with every ounce of my being. He shows how one can be a chemist and a writer too. We read The Periodic Table, his hybrid coming of age book. I loved sharing that extraordinary work with my students.”

Continuing to bridge cultures, these days Italy and the Italian language and short story tradition excite her. “It is both an organic interest in ‘the other,’ and explains where I’ve always been coming from — outside. I was seeking something out but wasn’t sure what until I got there. I live in two worlds now, in Italy part of the time. In fact, this year part of me is always there because my son is finishing high school in Rome. I have a couple of homes, that is the nice thing about this job.”

Next semester she will teach a translation workshop and a class called Imitating Italians — a course she has taught in the past, but before the new book. Reading contemporary Italian masters, the class will explore a range of techniques, styles, and themes.

As she continues to bridge cultures, she has some basic advice for beginning writers: “Go to the library. Make that a fundamental part of who you are.”