Jhumpa Lahiri is kind of like the U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team of authors: she has won all the things. Among her trophy-cabinet treasures are a 2000 Pulitzer Prize, for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, and a 2014 National Humanities Medal, presented by Barack Obama.
Except, I doubt Lahiri actually has her myriad awards on display. As a recent New York Review of Books piece noted, “Once finished with a book, it was dead to her, she says. And to rest on her laurels was clearly antithetical to her nature.”
In the interest of not resting on her laurels, after her 2013 bestseller, The Lowland, Lahiri stopped writing in English. Let that sit for a minute. Lahiri was born in London, raised in the U.S., and became one of the most acclaimed authors of a generation. And then she decided not to write in English anymore. She moved to Rome to learn Italian, a language that she had studied before but never nearly mastered.
In 2016, Lahiri published — in Italian — a very short book of reflections on her linguistic odyssey. That book, In Other Words, appeared with Italian writing on each verso (that’s the left side of a bound piece of writing), and the corresponding English translation on the recto. Lahiri refused even to do that translation of her own work back into English. “Writing in Italian is a choice on my part,” she wrote in an author’s note, “a risk that I feel inspired to take. It requires strict discipline that I am compelled, at the moment, to maintain. Translating the book myself would have broken that discipline; it would have meant reengaging intimately with English, wrestling with it, rather than with Italian.”
Later in the book, in a chapter titled “The Metamorphosis,” Lahiri continues:
So why would she take such a risk? Her answer: precisely in order to change.
Lahiri wanted to get away from the sense of herself as an expert, so that she could once again wield art to explore, and to change. (“We are searching, through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before,” she wrote.) She is beginning again, in the manner of the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind.” As Shunryu Suzuki put it in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” That doesn’t mean expertise is bad, of course, only that as we become comfortable doing a particular thing, we can lose sight of other possibilities, or of the sense of growth that drew us to an endeavor in the first place. (In psychological research on problem solving, experience-induced myopia is sometimes called the “Einstellung effect.”)
Lahiri has said that “all writing, all art is a wild leap off a cliff.” Most figurative leaps in anyone’s life will not be nearly as extreme as Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian. But for an author who plumbs art for that which will change her, should it be surprising that she also searches in life for experiences that will change her art?
I hope this post sparked a new thought. It reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges’ very, very short story, “Borges and I,” in which the author plays with the divide between himself and his famous-author self. (In In Other Words, Lahiri wrote: “Rather precipitously, I became a famous writer...I couldn’t connect myself to that recognition, and yet it changed my life.”) The discouragement Lahiri received about her Italian adventure brought to mind Neil Gaiman’s famous “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” letter.
Beyond writing, this post reminded me of London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra’s research on successful work transitions; close confidantes often advised the transitioners against change, while support tended to come from new social contacts or the fringes of an individual’s network. (Lahiri has received more encouragement from people in Italy, even while they also question her decision to write in a language that is less widely read.) Finally, this post reminded me that the fastest way to change a habit is to change your environment; that organizations should probably run more radical experiments (at Bing, 2 percent of ideas were responsible for 74.8 percent of gains); and that if you have a kid, “or can borrow one, let her give you beginning lessons in looking.”
Thanks for reading. Until next time...