Language Is a Place: A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri

By Urmila SeshagiriMay 22, 2021

Language Is a Place: A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri
JHUMPA LAHIRI’S STORIED ODYSSEY into the Italian language has yielded a period of creative tumult. Twenty-one years after receiving the Pulitzer Prize, the author continues to transform 21st-century letters, her plurilingual voices reshaping the very act of reading. Like Virginia Woolf, Lahiri’s many-layered career nourishes the connective tissues of literature and culture. She brings her formidable intellect and literary inventiveness not only to writing fiction but also to her work as scholar, editor, poet, essayist, critic, diarist, teacher, and — most crucially at this moment — translator. 

The occasion for our conversation was the publication of Whereabouts, Lahiri’s English-language self-translation of her 2018 Italian novel Dove Mi Trovo, an intricately plotted story narrated by a 46-year-old woman in an unnamed Italian city. In between composing the novel in Italian and then translating it into English, Lahiri produced The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (2019), selecting and introducing 40 stories by canonical, non-canonical, forgotten, unpublished, or untranslated 20th-century Italian writers. The collection is a marvel: a testament to Lahiri’s literary-historical expertise, it restores a long-obscured mosaic of Italian modernism. And it mirrors the labors of Elio Vittorini, the Sicilian translator, novelist, and editor whose massive 1942 anthology Americana introduced “iconic American voices to Italian readers.”

In June, Lahiri will branch out into poetry with Il Quaderno di Nerina, an Italian verse-novel shaped like Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Autumn brings the publication of Trust, Lahiri’s translation of Domenico Starnone’s 2019 novella Confidenza and the third of his fictions she has presented to English readers. As we spoke about these diverse projects, I was reminded of a moment in Whereabouts when the unnamed narrator, traversing the grounds of a beautiful villa, encounters

statues of unsettling creatures that don’t exist: female forms with four breasts, a woman who turns into a lion from the stomach down. Satyrs, hairy below the waist, with giant hooves, carry urns on their shoulders. The women all pose like beasts, languid and provocative. Ecstatic children with fishtails blow into conches.

Form erupting out of form, movement unleashed into stillness: these “unsettling creatures” embody Jhumpa Lahiri’s literary accomplishments. Eluding a singular point of origin, the — classical? surrealist? posthumanist? — statues brim with possibility, evoking their author’s own astonishing, multidimensional cultural stature.

That multidimensionality becomes immediately apparent if we try to pinpoint the literary antecedents of Whereabouts. On one hand, Lahiri’s restless flâneuse descends from Poe and Baudelaire. The novel itself, gliding through climax and anticlimax, verges on a midcentury nouveau roman. Compact, complex vignettes of a modern woman’s life echo the cinematic innovations of Michelangelo Antonioni and Agnès Varda. But it is perhaps more illuminating to read this novel — as well as Lahiri’s vertiginous project of auto-translation — in relation to exophonic European literature, a body of writing unassimilable into any particular artistic tradition. The very endeavor of writing in borrowed language literalizes the displacement that is Lahiri’s aesthetic-philosophical center. Whereabouts, a novel Lahiri describes as a “declination,” thus resembles works by figures such as Emil Cioran and Leonora Carrington, Ágota Kristóf and Milan Kundera.

Whereabouts may abound with dramatic events (a parent’s death, a lover’s betrayal, a life-threatening stroke), but its passions reside, startlingly, in the simple prepositional phrases that title its chapters. This brilliant stroke rearranges the reader’s frames of reference, distilling the agon of Lahiri’s art into small parts of speech. What is the preposition’s function but to determine the relation of individual to place? Innocent chapter titles — “On the Sidewalk,” “In the Office,” “At the Crypt,” “By the Sea,” “Up Ahead” — gather tensile strength as they describe the narrator’s transitory life. Eventually, this solitary character utters a cry of anguish and acceptance: Esiste un posto dove non siamo di passaggio?” [“Is there any place we’re not moving through?”] Her self-portrait emerges as a collage of words: “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. […] These words are my abode, my only foothold.” Language, Lahiri teaches us, is a place.

Translating Dove Mi Trovo into Whereabouts — a responsibility that Lahiri considers “as grave and precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs” — marks but one point on this writer’s journey. Like Janus, her oft-referenced Roman god of thresholds, Lahiri gazes back at the literary past while simultaneously looking toward the unwritten horizons of the future. She has begun a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her recently completed Italian short-story collection (titled Racconti Romani in homage to Alberto Moravia) promises to be as culturally specific as Whereabouts is vague, capturing the ethno-racial conflicts of present-day Rome. A forthcoming volume of essays about translation will explicate her philosophy of language. And she plans a return to Bengali as she embarks on a translation of her late mother’s poetry. Lacking words of my own for the largesse of her artistry, I borrow Lahiri’s wonderful description of the Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi: “A human polyhedron who contemplated the act of transformation throughout his life: the conversion of elements, and the double nature of things.”

We met over Zoom in April, she in Princeton and I in Knoxville, and spoke about the sacred task of translation. What follows is part of our conversation.


URMILA SESHAGIRI: I’m struck by the book’s title, which you translate from the Italian Dove Mi Trovo into the English Whereabouts. Dove Mi Trovo was translated into several other languages before your own English translation, and Spanish, French, Dutch, and German translators rendered it more literally as “where I find myself,” or “where I am,” or “where I am now.” But your English title, Whereabouts, turns a complete phrase or sentence into a single word, and it also removes the personal pronoun, the “mi.” How did you make that decision?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: There was the more literal option of “where I am,” or “where I find myself,” and that’s how I would explain what “dove mi trovo” meant to people who didn’t know Italian. And yet I didn’t like it. It bothered my English ear. I remember really struggling with it.

One of the things that frustrated me was that the verb trovarsi in Italian is very layered. It’s not just about geographical coordinates; it’s also emotional coordinates. There’s an existential sense to “Dove mi trovo.” It’s not just “Mi trovo a Princeton” — “I’m in Princeton” — it’s also a way of saying in the affirmative, “I’m in Princeton and this is a good situation for me and I feel well.” So that is not possible to capture in the English “where I am” or “where I find myself.” I wanted to get at a sense of an inner location, the inner bearings, which is very much part and parcel of the Italian title Dove Mi Trovo. And the poetry that’s built into that phrase is in the Italian. So, I wasn’t satisfied with the more literal translation in English and I was looking for an alternative.

In the fall of 2019, I was going back to Rome to visit my son, and I had gotten on the plane — just mentally departing from this world and thinking about moving into the other world — and the word “whereabouts” came into my head. And I thought, Hmm, now there’s something to consider. And what I really liked about “whereabouts” is that it’s actually not translatable into Italian. It’s a very English word. And just as trovarsi is such an Italian or Latin root verb, I liked finding a word that was so quintessentially English. It had this Beckettian feeling.

There was a question when I titled the book: Is this Dove Mi Trovo (the statement) or Dove Mi Trovo? (the question)? And even though there isn’t a question mark on the cover of the book, anybody who sees Dove Mi Trovo could potentially add a question mark in, because it is also a question. I like that “whereabouts” is used in interrogative sentences in English. But it can also not be. It can be “These are my whereabouts,” or you can say, “Whereabouts is the local farmers market?”

That’s part of the thinking behind my choice for the title. And it’s true, I take away the subject, the “I” in there, but it’s inside of the book, so I thought it was okay.

It’s beautiful: the precision and the ambiguity that attend “whereabouts.” And that both English and Italian titles are, in a sense, untranslatable. Another word that stood out as I was reading was “portagioie.” Your narrator feels that this Italian term for jewel-box is “the most beautiful of Italian words.” What is magical about “portagioie”? It’s so important that you give it an endnote in the English translation.

It’s this constructed word, and it’s part of a series of words that exist in Italian for carriers or containers of things. So portacenere is an ashtray, or portaombrelli is an umbrella stand. Porta grissini is my favorite: an implement to hold the breadsticks. But portagioie is poetry, right? Because gioie are jewels, and also joy. Gioia is the word for joy and it’s just so incredible to think of a container, or a carrier or bearer, that brings joy, contains joy. In Italian, I just say, “Oh, that’s the most beautiful word there is” [“portagioie, se ci penso la parola più bella che ci sia”]. And then, in English, I realized I had to either provide a note, or it would just be lost. There was no way that the narrator would stop to comment on that. It’s only I as the translator who could put in a note, and so I did.

By the time you began to translate Dove Mi Trovo, you had become an authoritative, fluent translator of Italian. You had completed prize-winning translations of Domenico Starnone’s novels, and you had translated six writers — Goffredo Parise, Italo Calvino, Carlo Cassola, Corrado Alvaro, Fabrizia Ramondino, Lalla Romano — from different points in time, different regions of Italy, for the Penguin anthology you edited. You’ve been a judge for Italy’s Strega Prize and for the PEN/Nabokov Award. What does it mean, then, to translate yourself? To be in possession of the translator’s authority when you are the author of the source?

Well, I think it throws all of that into question. The idea of being an author: Who has the authority? What is the original? What is the translation? It becomes a hall of mirrors or an endless loop when you are at both ends. It’s like playing tennis with yourself but it’s not against the wall. It’s like hitting the ball and then running over to the other side, lobbing it back, and then running back. It’s kind of impossible, but in some crazy cartoon version of life you can imagine someone doing that.

But that’s what had to happen. I had to really acknowledge that I was two different people. (I mean, I’m more than two people; I’m many people; we’re all many people.) There was the person who had written the book in Italian, and the person who was going to translate it into English, and there needed to be separation in order for the text to come together, for one to join the other.

Do you feel that you’ve written two different books?

Not really. I mean, yes, and no. Yes, because it’s a different book because it’s in a different language. Every translation is a different book, right? So, when I translate Starnone, it’s in lieu of the Italian book. It’s the English version, so that people can come to it who don’t have access to the language it was written in. And so that’s how I feel: I’ve reproduced the book, and in reproducing the book, I’ve rewritten the book. Because that’s what has to happen. You have to rework everything. There’s no slotting in easily and substituting. It’s a much more complex process of really reconsidering each sentence. Each word.

I think of the narrator’s last line in “Borges and I”: “I do not know which of us has written this page.” Reading this translation and knowing that it’s yours was staggering. It was entirely different than reading your 2015 book In Altre Parole in translation.

In that case, I didn’t feel that I rewrote the book at all, because I didn’t. I had a superficial end-stage glance at it, but I felt that Ann Goldstein reproduced that book. That was her translation. But here I felt that, because I produced it, I reproduced it.

It’s funny when I think, “Well, this is another book of mine? What are the books I’ve written in my life?” At this point, I have books written by me, books translated by me, and then Whereabouts is hovering between those two columns. It’s neither strictly a translation nor is it strictly written by me.

I don’t know how Beckett thought of this. I wish so much I could have a conversation with him! He probably didn’t even bother to think about these things, but I do wonder.

A decade ago, you wrote, “Though a writer’s job is to look and listen, in order to become a writer, I had to be deaf and blind.” And in In Altre Parole, you say that “in Italiano sono parzialmente sorda e cieca” [“in Italian I’m partly deaf and blind”].

It’s so suggestive to revisit those words now, in the context of translation. I think of your work on the painter-writer Lalla Romano, who said, “La mia cecità = un punto di vista” [“My blindness = a point of view”]. And I’m reminded of a character in Igiaba Scego’s 2008 novel Beyond Babylon. She can’t see the color red, and you observe that her very blood “has been visually muted, altered, literally drained of significance.” 

But I also think of my identical twin boys. One is deaf, and one is not. The son who suffered total hearing loss at birth now hears and speaks with the aid of cochlear implants. He couldn’t acquire language passively within the speech-universe of the family, which is what his twin did. That’s how a hearing baby first learns language, right? — through immersion in familial language. But my child who is deaf had to be actively taught the relationship between sound and meaning. So: First, “Here’s this sound,” and then, “This is what it means.”

As a result, all language is a foreign language for him. And paradoxically — or maybe consequently? — he makes himself at home with all words. His linguistic abilities are brilliant. Everything is foreign, but everything is also equally available to him. And because he lacks natural hearing, he performs the act of listening very deliberately. So, to return to your metaphor of adopting the conditions of deafness or blindness, how might that serve you now as a translator? Does it continue to be generative?

That’s so striking: your experience with your sons and what you say about how all languages are a foreign language, a learned language. I feel that very much in my own case, even though I have hearing. And yet I’ve always felt that each of the three languages that I work in and speak in and live in has this element of foreignness — that none is intrinsic to me. It’s so interesting — but I don’t know if that answers your question.

It’s about the willed estrangement from language in order to translate. I’m not a translator, but I grew up in a multilingual household in Illinois, immersed in Tamil and English. My relationship to Tamil is alien as well as intimate. But in raising a deaf child who relies on a neural prosthesis, I’ve realized that there’s something neurologically alien and intimate in his relationship to any language. He lives his life in the split between sound and meaning. So, my question was: Do you need to actively put yourself in a state of deafness in order to be a better translator, to not take familiar sounds for granted?

I think so! And I think because I, too, was raised in an analogous childhood home environment of English and Bengali, every word sounded … There was no point of reference. There was no language that was the point of reference saying, “Oh, this is a glass,” but in Bengali, it’s this. It was always this collision, or simultaneity of the terms, kind of spiraling outward. And because of that, there was no one place to stand and one way to think about things.

Exactly. And perhaps that becomes your great advantage as a translator because you’re not so locked or rooted in any one place.


The narrator of Whereabouts keeps yearly agendas to document her life: she’s a diarist. What’s compelling about that genre?

I love diaries. I’ve kept a diary for many, many years now and it’s been a shifting text. It’s shifted into Italian now, and in fact all of my Italian writing grows out of that diary.

I learned so much about writing by reading other writers’ diaries. When students say, “Should I do an MFA?” part of me wants to say, “Why don’t you just take a couple of years off and live somewhere really nice, by the sea, or the mountains, or the desert, and just get a stack of writers’ diaries and read them? I think you will emerge changed and very inspired.” Because those diaries that I read when I was young — Woolf’s diaries, Gide’s diaries, Anne Frank’s diary (the first diary I ever read as a girl) — I still trace my writing back to her for that reason. I learned so much from her about how to be a writer, about how a writer inhabited life and space and listened to people and just saw things. The first time I wrote anything was in a little diary that my parents had given me. It remains an enormous anchor in my life, whatever the notebook is at the moment and the pen that’s alongside it. It’s become a laboratory for things that I do. I’ve written a book of poetry in Italian that will be coming out in a couple of months, and those poems also grew out of my diary writing.

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the diary. In the fall of 2020, I taught a course at Princeton on the diary as a literary genre. We looked at actual literary diaries and then we looked at stories that were written out in the form of diaries. You see the diary being reconverted into a mode of storytelling in a novel like Dracula and the advantage of that, as opposed to a more conventional first-person narrative. This great contemporary writer, Sarah Manguso, uses her diary to create her own genre of storytelling; it’s a meta-story about her diary. Lydia Davis talks about the journal as the real writing and then the stories as this other thing; we read some stories by her in my class.

Because the diary is written only for you — only for oneself — you’re in a different state of mind. Because you’re not thinking, “Oh, someone’s going to read this: my teacher, my friend, my editor.” You’re writing with the idea that maybe no one will ever read this, ever. I started keeping a diary quite seriously in my 20s, when I started writing. Now, that’s a lot of diaries and no one’s ever read them. Maybe someone will one day, but I don’t have plans anytime soon for sharing them. But it’s a whole body of work, a whole trail of thinking and reacting and responding. It’s a vital part of the literary landscape for the writer who keeps the diary.

But for the reader: I mean, you can’t really understand Virginia Woolf unless you read her diaries, right? It forms part of an ecosystem with her other work: her novelistic work, her criticism, her essay writing, and then you have her diaries and her letters. I mean: What is a diary? It’s an ongoing letter to yourself. What’s key about the diary — especially in this age of people keeping blogs and posting everything — is that it insists on the private realm. Don’t seek reaction, response. This is a conversation you’re having with your self, and it’s nourishing your self. It’s a kind of meditation, something very private. It’s very intimate. And I think more than ever it has a purpose.

That’s especially profound for me because I’m a Woolf scholar …


… and her diaries are central to my research. I’m working on a new edition of Woolf’s memoir, Sketch of the Past, which masquerades as a set of diary entries. The memoir was unfinished when Woolf died, and scholars assume that she left it in a rough state of incompletion. But she had actually designed the memoir to resemble a diary. She invented a form of autobiography that contains multiple kinds of time — a record of daily life in the present moment, an imperfectly remembered past, and an arc of meta-reflections on artistic method. Her memoir is an extraordinary formal achievement, but it has never been accurately transcribed. Woolf wrote about it in her diaries and so I’ve been thinking about the, as you say, ecosystem of what lives first in the private diary and then takes a very different shape in the literary work.

That’s great. I’ve been thinking about Woolf a lot again in recent years. She was such a huge influence on me when I first silently, furtively dreamed of writing. And now in Italian, now with a new approach to my writing: I think so many of the writers that were on my personal Mount Rushmore, as a young person, as a college student — i.e., Woolf, i.e., Joyce, i.e., Beckett — there’s intense new relevance for me in rereading each of these writers. With Woolf, for example, just the shift in her writing — the so-called more experimental work as opposed to the more traditionally conceived work. I knew that she had turned drastically at a certain point and was inventing a kind of language, working within English, but nevertheless creating her own language.

It’s interesting, the circularity. These authors feed you and create a base layer (in my case, when I was young), and then I went on to discover this writer and that writer, and do this thing and that thing, and there seems to be a process of coming full circle and re-engaging — but on my own terms — with these writers. Kafka: Another example of someone I read early on. The impact of Kafka is always completely terrifying and extraordinary. But now to read him again, to read his diaries again, and to think about the relationship between the work and the diary — I find that really rich. And it feeds a lot of my teaching.

You speak of these modernist writers and you seem to also be gravitating toward surrealism at this moment. And I wonder about Clarice Lispector, and Leonora Carrington, and Giorgio de Chirico, whose works share with yours an uncanny and ecstatic affinity. What is it about surrealism that speaks to you?

It’s hit me in segments. First was my discovery of Carrington, when everybody seemed to be discovering Carrington. A writer friend of mine in Rome sent me a piece about her in The New York Times and said, “This might be interesting to you, a writer who wrote in another language.” And I rushed to the bookstore in Princeton, and I ordered the books that were available. Then I looked at the cover of Down Below [Carrington’s memoir] and it was a painting of hers, or lithograph, actually, called Crookhey Hall. And the back of the book said, “Courtesy of Princeton Art Museum.” And I thought, What?! and I contacted a friend of mine who works in the museum, and I said, “I must see the work you have by Carrington,” and so they pulled everything out. The museum actually has 10 pieces by Carrington. It was one of those life-altering moments: the richness, the intensity of these images. And then I started reading all of her work, thinking about her journey.

I taught a seminar last year dedicated to Carrington and her work across languages, and her images, her paintings, and we held the classes in the museum. Each week I pulled out one of the pieces, and I think it was the most wonderful, exciting class I have had the pleasure of teaching. Her state of mind, her bravery, her vision, her way of working across in so many ways. And because she was a visual artist — like Lalla Romano — she had the visual, she had the writing, and then she had the movements from English into French into Spanish. Carrington had the whole geographical transformative voyage, ending up in Mexico City — a city that is in my mind analogous to many Indian cities in its richness and vitality, and its deep poetry. And so she became another beacon.

Then in Rome, my apartment is a five-minute walk from a church where de Chirico is buried, so I always think about him, and then I went to visit his house in Rome by the Spanish Steps. Those paintings — that emptiness combined with the human presence — it was the right moment to really think about what that meant. And also the work of his brother, Alberto Savinio, who’s one of the authors in the Penguin anthology. The two brothers who are stateless: not homeless, but stateless. Raised in Greece and then educated in Germany and then they go to France. They have their encounter with surrealism, then they come back to Italy. All of these movements.

If you had told your readers years ago that Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Lowland, is going to find connections with European surrealism, it would have seemed unthinkable.

You know, my writing has been an ongoing apprenticeship. Lispector is another example of someone who’s moving, right? She leaves Europe as a very young person, moves to the New World, lives in Brazil, moves back to Italy, lives in Naples for two years. The rediscovery of her writing was totally mind-blowing. She was a writer I knew long ago — I had read The Hour of the Star [her 1977 novel] — but then I was in a different place, trying to figure out other things. Every writer who has helped me has come at a certain moment. So, when I was struggling to put a story together and I was turning to Chekhov, Clarice wasn’t really helping me in that moment. [Laughs.] It was too many signals that were confusing the matter. But I continue to stop, and think about, and learn from, or relearn from, writers.


Speaking of — thinking of — surrealism, I recently lost my mother. It’ll be three weeks tomorrow. So now she’s gone, right? She’s physically gone, her body is gone. I was walking down the street and I said, “This is surrealism.” Surrealism is losing someone you love. And they are there and they’re not there. They’re there above the reality, right? The reality is that my mother is gone; she died; there’s a death certificate. But she’s also there.

It just hit me like that, because I know that surrealism — the movement — is born after World War I. It comes out of the trauma of the violence of war, and the enormous death that results from that war. And I thought, “I’m living surrealism now. I’m in that realm.” I’ve never lost anybody. Well, I’ve never lost my mother, who is irreplaceable, but this really is my first enormous loss. Surrealism was a way for me to somehow understand what had happened to her.

That’s the profundity of it. When I was younger, maybe when I was 18 and going through a museum and looking at surrealist paintings, I would have read it in one way, thinking, “Oh, this is strange,” but now there’s another way of reading suddenly what surrealism means.

I’m very sorry for your loss.

Thank you. Thank you.

It is a strange moment for the planet: the overwhelming trauma of suffering and loss has shaped so many people’s lives during the pandemic. And now, one year later, we collectively understand how important the arts have been for solace and escape and hope. Does translation — the act of translating — offer us something particular at this moment, as we grieve?

For me, it’s huge. I’m just so glad that I became a translator before the pandemic because it’s been a source of great comfort and ongoing inspiration in times that are quite dark.

I started translating the third novel [Confidenza] by Starnone about a year ago, partly because it was the only way that I could get to Rome, to Italy, in my head, to hear Italian and just be inside of it in that very intense way that translation can provide. It’s a way of being outside your reality constantly, right? It was a lifeline last spring, to sit down and translate another novel by my dear friend but also such an amazing writer, whose language is so rich and is constantly teaching me, constantly giving me, giving me, giving me ways to think not only about Italian but just about storytelling and about why we tell stories, what are the stories that are important to tell.

More recently, I’ve embarked on a new translation of the Metamorphoses by Ovid with a colleague of mine in the Classics Department here. That’s going to be my Everest. I’m terrified to do it, but I’m also inspired to read every line of that magnificent poem that contains in my opinion everything we need to know about this human condition. It is the most beautiful and expansive poem there is about change, and change is life. And translation is transformation.

Think about it: literally the change of form. And that doesn’t mean changing a haiku into a 300-page novel; it’s not form on that level, but it’s a change of form because language is form. I’m constantly trying to talk to my translation students about translation as an act of metamorphosis. It’s an active thing. It’s a violent thing. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a miraculous thing. That’s what translation is.

That is wonderful, and it leads me to my last question, which takes a lighter note. A few years ago, The Guardian published an essay by a soccer fan in the US who was lamenting the English-language commentary that accompanies Premier League soccer matches. He missed watching Serie A matches with Italian commentary, because, he argued, “The Italian language manages to mesh perfectly with the action it describes.” He loved the poetic terms that Serie A commentators use: the player who scores is “l’autore del gol”; to win a close match is “resolvere la partita”; an elegant pass, a “fraseggio.” For this fan, the drama and the pleasure of the sport are inseparable from — are actually generated by — language, even though the sport itself doesn’t require spoken language.

After living in Rome, what lived experiences do you simply need to have in Italian, like this soccer fan? Some sphere of life so transformed by experiencing it in Italian that it becomes undesirable, maybe meaningless, in English?

Well … I mean … [Laughs.]

It’s meant to be a light question!

It’s lovely. I have a major soccer-watching household here — those are like our basic vocabulary words: our Serie A, our Premier League — so I totally understand what he’s getting at. But I think, in my case, it’s the writing. It’s like the writing has to be taking place in Italian now. There’s something lacking if I’m not writing in Italian. Even if I go to write a line in my diary later today, it’s going to be in Italian because I feel like it has to be.

This is not a light response. But when I knew my mother was going, I was getting messages from people, and when I would read or hear messages in Italian, there was something about how that language, those words, made it more bearable. I think it comes from my sense of feeling at home in that language. Ironically. Paradoxically. Inexplicably. But it is the case that it’s not just a comfort. It’s a kind of lucidity, a kind of precision. Maybe my brain is layering these things onto it, because it’s not that English isn’t a beautiful language, or Bengali. There were three languages going on in my head all the time and especially around this loss, and I was grateful to have Italian nestled within the linguistic sphere that is mine. Because language, in the end, is there to help us to make sense and to ground experiences that have no words. We fail to express what we really feel, what it’s really like. And yet, language tries.

Yes. Yes. Thank you so much, Professoressa. I wish you all the best as you navigate the shock, and the grief.

Grazie. It is the moment right now. I’ve lost my mother. I’m grieving her. My book is coming out. My writing comes from a very profound place inside of me, and my mother is there, and she’s been across the works, on and off the page, from the very beginning.

I hope that Italian continues to be healing.

And the Bengali, too. My mother was a poet. She left behind all of her poems, and I gathered them together. She’s given me a new challenge, because my Bengali isn’t as good as my Italian. But it’s something to think about. Something to look forward to.


Urmila Seshagiri is associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

LARB Contributor

Urmila Seshagiri is associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee. The author of Race and the Modernist Imagination (Cornell, 2010), she is completing a book about the complex legacy of modernist aesthetics titled Still Shocking: Modernism and Fiction in the 21st Century. Her scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf’s memoir Sketch of the Past is forthcoming from Cornell University Press. She is the Out of the Archives Editor for Feminist Modernist Studies.


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