Jhumpa Lahiri Inspires Near Capacity Audience at Montclair State

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist finds creative freedom in the Italian language and culture

Taking the plunge to learn a new language is a challenge. As bestselling author Jhumpa Lahiri describes it in her new book, In altre parole (In Other Words), learning Italian was like swimming out into the middle of a lake without a life preserver. It was by immersing herself and “happily drowning” in that lake that she succeeded. “It’s not that my knowledge of Italian has simply changed my life,” she has said. “This has given me a second life, an extra-life.”

On Monday, October 5, 2015, she visited Montclair State to share her “extra-life” experiences with the challenges and rewards of living in Italy -- a foreign world -- and learning to write in foreign words.

Nearly 500 students, faculty and guests filled the University Hall Conference Center to enjoy “In Other Wor(l)ds: Jhumpa Lahiri on the Italian Language and Culture as a Place of Freedom,” an event marking Lahiri’s first public appearance since her return from a three-year stay in Italy and since she received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama on September 10, 2015. Program highlights can be viewed on the video below.

“The event was the largest we have sponsored so far,” says associate professor and Inserra Chair in Italian and American Studies Dr.Teresa Fiore who organized the event. “Her book promises to be a ‘bible’ for the community of Italian students and professors, a number of whom are planning on adopting it.”

The program was presented by The Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies, in collaboration with the Global Education Center, the Department of English and the Department of Classics and General Humanities at Montclair State University in connection with the Settimana della Lingua Italiana, or Week of Italian Language, which is celebrated worldwide through the Italian Cultural Institutes. Students from classes of literary theory, first-year writing, creative writing, Italian, French, along with many members of the Indian and Italian communities in NY, NJ, and PA were among those who came to hear Lahiri’s personal stories, peppered with amusing anecdotes, about shifting cultural identities.

Lahiri, who received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, discussed her evolving relationship with the Italian language and culture, from her first experiences with Roman mythology as a young reader to her most recent three-year stay in Rome where she wrote In altre parole. “I am constantly courting the language,” she told her audience.

“During her three years in Rome, Lahiri explored issues of language, culture and belonging through ‘Italian eyes,’ which has only enriched her established inquiry into the complexities of her mixed background as an Indian and American,” says Fiore, who organized the event. “Her decision to learn Italian and write In altre parole in Italian was the starting point for an engaging conversation on issues of displacement and relocation as part of a personal journey to other worlds and other words. Lahiri’s delicate and incisive words on the language of affect, the role of metaphors as other languages, and the challenges of translating oneself enchanted the audience: the room was filled to capacity and you could hear a pin drop.”

Classics and General Humanities professor and Italian novelist, poet and journalist Tiziana Rinaldi Castro served as the event’s respondent. “I introduced my students to Lahiri’s book and visit via the lens of Odysseus’ voyage. The event was a good reminder of how a language, as powerfully as a city or an ideology, can be a muse. And can and will turn into a transformative journey for the careful traveler,” she recalls. “It is a welcomed gift when a great mind and artist such as Lahiri pays homage to my beloved land.”

The Language of Metaphor

For Lahiri, metaphor is a way to use language to reform experience and an apt way to describe the challenge of acquiring a new language and absorbing a new culture. She used the metaphor of crossing a bridge to describe what it was like to write in Italian. “Every sentence I write in Italian is like a small bridge that I build and then cross,” she said. “Every sentence, like a bridge, takes me from one place to another.”

Junior Allison Plishka was selected to present her own metaphor describing the process of learning Italian at the event as one of blowing up a balloon that never fills completely. “Presenting my metaphor at this event was a wonderful experience,” Plishka recalls.

She was inspired by Lahiri’s experiences.  “I had never heard a story like hers, nor had I heard anyone speak about something that they were so passionate about,” she says. “Listening to Lahiri speak about her desire to learn the Italian language and culture and all she did to fulfill that desire made me realize I can make things happen for myself.”

Others, like Italian professor Gina Miele, who is asking students in her classes to formulate their own metaphors for learning Italian as part of a midterm project, were impacted by the event. “For me, it brought to the foreground so many of the emotions I myself felt when I lived in Italy for the first time,” she says. “I was moved by Lahiri’s description of the pain she felt upon returning to the United States, the distinct feeling of no longer having a true home. At the same time, her clear passion for all things Italian has motivated my students to find the joy in learning a second language.”

Why Study Italian?

“I come to Lahiri’s work as a teacher of Italian, who is always looking for new answers for students who ask why they should study Italian,” explains Fiore. “One excellent reason is the fact that Italy remains the top choice among study abroad programs for American students attracted to Italy’s vast cultural patrimony in the arts, literature and fields like gastronomy and design. But Lahiri takes a different approach to answering this question by showing us how profoundly enriching, life-changing and seductive the pursuit of a language like Italian can be, independent of any notions of usefulness.”

Like Lahiri, student Carlos Montufar wants to submerge himself in the Italian language and culture. Picking up on her metaphor, he says,”I don’t want to tread along the shores of the lake, I want to drown.”

“Jhumpa Lahiri inspired me to work harder to learn how to speak Italian, so that one day I can go to Italy and speak fluently and understand everything everyone is saying,” says student Allyson Gallo, reflecting on the model for language studying shared Lahiri, who is currently teaching a creative writing seminar on Italian authors at Princeton, shared with the audience. During her stay in Italy, she kept a diary in Italian, read only Italian books and was open to corrections and criticism while defending her own Italian writing.

Many of Lahiri’s observations resonated for Italian professor Marisa Trubiano. “So many of her reflections were inspiring for instructors and students alike at a number of levels, furnishing us with ways to express the emotional impact of learning the language, while showing us how essential following one’s passion can be to one’s well-being and intellectual and personal growth,” she says.

Learning from Lahiri

The Inserra Chair is inviting students of Italian to follow in Lahiri’s footsteps by entering a contest in which they are asked to  share their own metaphors for learning Italian. Entries, for a chance to win prizes, must be received by March 20, 2016. To learn more and to submit a metaphor, click here.

Please see video above for a summary of the most salient elements of the event. See Media Coverage to view two related articles and pictures.