An author's world

An author's world

An author's world

Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of ‘The Lowland’, which has made it to the Booker shortlist, says there is no such thing as ‘immigrant fiction’. In conversation...

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

“Lovers, a novel by a French writer named Daniel Arsand. I read it first in the English translation, then in Italian. It’s a harrowing love story with rich historical context. But it’s free of bulk, of weight, of all the predictable connective narrative tissue. I found it incantatory, transcendent. It inspires me to tell a story in a different way.

If you had to name a favourite novelist, who would it be?

Thomas Hardy. Ever since I first read him, in high school, I’ve felt a kinship with his characters, his sense of place, his pitiless vision of humanity. I continue to reread him as often as I can. The architecture of his novels is magnificent, and the way his characters move through time and space is remarkably controlled. The world he creates is absolutely specific, as is the psychological terrain. In spite of the great scope of his work, its breadth and complexity, the prose is clean, straightforward, economical. No scene, no detail, no sentence is wasted.

What immigrant fiction has been the most important to you, both personally and as an inspiration for your own writing?

I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction’. Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed ‘immigrant fiction’, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as ‘immigrant fiction’. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

Did you identify with any literary characters growing up? Who were your literary heroes?

I identified with orphans, like Anne of Green Gables, or pioneers, like the characters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or children who slipped in and out of different worlds and dimensions, like the siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And of course, there was the writer, Jo, in Little Women. I loved the brother and sister in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil.E. Frankweiler, who run away from home and survive among works of beauty. I never go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art without thinking of them.

What books have you enjoyed reading with your own children? Any you’re especially looking forward to reading together with them?

My husband and I have been reading to our children every night for the past 10 years (our eldest is now 11). We take turns, alternating nights. I love rereading and sharing the books I read and loved as a child, such as the Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren and everything by Roald Dahl. And I’ve loved discovering new books with them. Last summer, we read a great series together called The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. These days I also like to read to my children in Italian, which they can now follow. We just read some beautiful fables adapted by Italo Calvino, and another collection of very brief and amusing stories by Gianni Rodari, called Le Favolette di Alice. They’re about a tiny little girl who keeps finding herself temporarily trapped inside of things, like pockets, ink bottles, birthday cakes and soap bubbles.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

The idea of meeting writers of the books I’ve read doesn’t interest me. That is to say, I wouldn’t go out of my way. If the book is alive to me, if the sentences speak to me, that’s enough. A reader’s relationship is with the book, with the words, not with the person who created it. I don’t want the author to explain anything to me or to interfere. Still, I wish I’d met Edward Gorey before he died, if only to salute his brilliance.

If you could be any character from literature, who would you be?
I’d like to be Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisited, but only during the early chapters, before things start to go downhill. I’ve always wanted to dress for dinner.

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