ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The author Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for her very first book, published in 1999. Her latest book is like nothing she's written before. First, it's nonfiction - a memoir. And second, she wrote it in Italian. The book is called "In Other Words." Actually, that's the English translation. The original title is, Ms. Lahiri...
JHUMPA LAHIRI: "In Altre Parole."
SHAPIRO: Thank you, and welcome.
LAHIRI: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: This entire book is, in a way, an answer to the question, why did you give up writing in English? But I still kind of feel like that's where I need to begin this conversation. Why write exclusively in Italian?
LAHIRI: Well, it just happened.
LAHIRI: It just started happening, you know? I had studied Italian for many years simply for the love of it and for another kind of need, I suppose, a more irrational, emotional need. But none of this was at all clear to me.
SHAPIRO: It was sort of only in the rearview mirror that your...
SHAPIRO: ...Reason became clear.
LAHIRI: Yes. It was only once I moved to Rome. And then, as I describe at one point in the book, one week after moving to Rome, I started writing in my diary in Italian. And that was the first step I took on this road, and I haven't really stopped yet.
SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you to read from the book. And we should explain to listeners that we're going to have you read in the Italian that you wrote, and then you're reading the English translation. This is page 167, the paragraph that begins in English, anyway, by writing in Italian.
LAHIRI: (Reading, through interpreter) By writing in Italian, I think I'm escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer, I can demolish myself. I can reconstruct myself. I can join words together and work on sentences without ever being considered an expert. 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.
SHAPIRO: You say that as a writer, in Italian, you can demolish and reconstruct yourself. Why do you feel that need to demolish and reconstruct yourself as a writer?
LAHIRI: 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.
SHAPIRO: Is it a way of trying to escape the pressures and expectations of the success you've had as a writer to date?
LAHIRI: Well, I think, like any artist, any writer, I just want to have that pure freedom of expression and of thought. There's a difference to writing the short stories and interpretive maladies which I didn't know if anybody would ever read compared to writing my subsequent books because with recognition, with a readership come certain things, you know? On the one hand, you have a sense that you are - what you're doing is worthwhile, and - but it does also create a series of expectations. And 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.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And there's a paradox in the fact that you find freedom in a language that, in many ways, constrains you because you don't have the full range of motion in that language that you do in English.
LAHIRI: Yes. I mean, it is an interesting contradiction, absolutely, but everything about this project is my choice. I want to do it, and it's the first time that I really feel the freedom to express myself as I want to.
SHAPIRO: Just to give listeners some context, we should explain. Your parents are from India. You spoke Bengali until you were 4. You learned to read and write English, and so you say that none of these identities ever felt 100 percent fully and truly yours.
SHAPIRO: And you describe being in Italy with your husband who looks like he could pass for Italian but doesn't speak the language nearly as well as you do. And people compliment him on how well he speaks Italian, and they default to speaking English with you.
LAHIRI: Yes. This continues to be the case at dinner parties. It's - we try to laugh about it now.
SHAPIRO: I hope this question doesn't sound rude. But when you have such a successful authorial voice in English, does it seem at all hubristic to go searching out a new one? You know, so many authors with - they live their lives striving to have the kind of voice as an author that you have. And you sort of say, well, that voice was fine, but I'm going to try to get a new one.
LAHIRI: Well, I have 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. And you know, 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.
SHAPIRO: How would you describe this unattainable ideal voice that you're looking for?
LAHIRI: I don't know. I mean, I just want it to be true. I want it to be true, and it 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. So perhaps that's why I say that that voice is an illusion. You know, it's an ideal that I'm moving toward, you know? It's, like, the closer you get, the farther away it gets. But I think - isn't that the point of creativity - to keep searching?
SHAPIRO: Jhumpa Lahiri's new book is called in other words. Thank you so much for joining us. It was great talking with you.
LAHIRI: Thank you.
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