In 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for her very first book, Interpreter of Maladies. Her 2003 novel, Namesake, was turned into a movie, and she went on to publish Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. But Lahiri wasn't satisfied.
"I've always been searching to arrive at a certain voice that will probably elude me forever," she tells NPR's Ari Shapiro.
So Lahiri is trying something new — very new. She wrote her new memoir, In Other Words, in Italian.
"One week after moving to Rome I started writing in my diary in Italian. That was the first step I took on this road, and I haven't really stopped yet," she says.
Lahiri's parents are from India, and she spoke Bengali until she was 4. She learned to read and write English, but she says neither of these linguistic identities ever felt fully her own. And so when Lahiri set out to find her true voice, writing in a different language "just happened."
"I had studied Italian for many years — simply for the love of it," she says. But she also studied the language "for another kind of need, I suppose — a more irrational, emotional need."
Italian, she says, offers a different path with respect to writing and success. She writes, "I'm bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn't torment or grieve me."
On feeling the need to "demolish" and "reconstruct" herself as a writer
Well, I think that's what we are doing all the time, even if we write in one language. I think that's part of the creative impulse.
On using Italian to escape pressures and expectations
I think, like any artist or any writer, I just want to have that pure freedom of expression and of thought — the freedom to explore and move in unexpected ways. ... With recognition, with publication, with readership come certain things. You know, on the one hand you have a sense that what you're doing is worthwhile, but it does also create a series of expectations.
I'm a person who has never known life without answering to expectations from others — from myself most of all — and I think what is so attractive to me about this path in Italian is that no one expected me to do it.
On the contradiction of finding freedom in a language that is less familiar to her
An interesting contradiction, absolutely. But everything about this process, this project, is my choice. And it's the first time that I really feel the freedom to express myself as I want to.
On being unsatisfied with what many would identify as a very successful authorial voice
Well, I've always been searching to arrive at a certain voice that will probably elude me forever; in fact, it will. So it's the search for that voice, that for me, drives the whole thing forward. I wrote my first book and I thought, "Well, OK, how can I express myself more clearly in a way that's more true and more satisfying?" So then I write another, and then I write another, and then I write another, and I don't feel any satisfaction in the end.
I just want it to be true, and I want it to be strong, and I want it to be pure. But these are lofty ideals, and language is a very messy thing; it's a very complicated thing. And that's why I say that that voice is an illusion, it's an ideal that I'm moving toward. You know, the closer you get, the farther away it gets. But I think, isn't that the point of creativity, to keep searching?