Jhumpa Lahiri was speaking in Brooklyn last night. Although it was part book tour for her award nominated new novel “Lowland”, Brooklyn is also one of her homes. Family and friends were there. The book signing line was out the door. This was not only due to her writing and celebrity status, but because of neighbors wanting to catch-up as she moved her family to Rome a little more than a year ago. She is a person without any airs as friends and neighbors will attest.
I usually do not attend book readings, so I did not know what to expect. She read from her book. I closed my eyes to listen. It was principally plot. Two young brothers jump a wall that was built up around a Club, to separate its patrons from the infusion of poor East Bengali refugees into Calcutta. They are caught by a policeman upon their return and one brother receives a beating with a golf club as a warning. “Lowland” is a departure of the Indian émigré genre of Ms. Lahiri’s body of work because it has a political theme. Ms. Lahiri was drawn to the subject by a newspaper article about the killing of two brothers who had been drawn into Naxalism, who like Maoist, wanted rural development. Not having any male siblings Ms. Lahiri had to borrow memories of her father, who lived in Calcutta and has brothers.
Most interesting was Ms. Lahiri’s discussion about her addiction to the beauty of language. Although she is fluent in Bengali and in English, having grown up in the United States and visited her family in Calcutta many times, her love is Italian. She took it in college, was privately tutored when she lived in Brooklyn. She uprooted her family from Brooklyn because of it. She now lives in Rome, and is fluent in Italian. She is reading and starting to write in Italian. Her departure from English and the United States was also intended to be a literary departure. “Lowland” she believes will be the last of her existing genre. She wanted the excitement of a new literary path, which she is now exploring. The most interesting point she made during the evening is that language changes who we are as people. Italian is now her dominant language. She thinks and exists in its culture. Are we products of our language?
She also talked about her children and its influence on her. As a mother she is an interloper in her childrens’ private worlds. A world of siblings to explore. I did not realize that writers have an occupational curse of developing plot lines. She talked about projecting the plots of her childrens’ future when she looks at them. All parents think about this to some extent, it is at least for her, more of an occupational hazard.
One of the sponsors of the talk at St. Joseph’s College was Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. It is one of her favorite bookstores as it is to other writers and readers in Brooklyn. I have yet to visit the store, but I will make a point of it.