Dialogs: Jhumpa Lahiri and Jennifer Scappettone Discuss Mother Tongues, Displacement, and the Verb Trovarse in CHF Panel

Jhumpa Lahiri (l) and Jennifer Scappettone (r) at the Chicago Humanities Festival

When one speaks more than one language, and moves from one to another with any degree of frequency, one runs into them: words that don’t quite translate, because they’re not just a word and a feeling, something tied intimately to the language that originated them. Two such words, the Italian verb trovarse and the English word whereabouts, figure prominently in Jhumpa Lahiri and University of Chicago professor, poet, and translator Jennifer Scappettone’s Chicago Humanities Festival panel.

Lahiri’s interest in place, and in displacement, serve as a conversational underpinning. She and Scappettone discussed the ways in which languages forged Lahiri’s childhood—Bengali at home, English in school—and the ways in which language, including Italian, continue to form her life and work. Lahiri’s newest novel, Whereabouts, was originally written in Italian, and published as Dove mi trovo, utilizing an Italian verb—traverse—that doesn’t really translate. Lahiri herself translated Dove mi trovo into English, and spoke of the difficulty of finding a title, before finally settling upon Whereabouts: a word far more unsettled than the verb she chose in Italian, to be sure, but one equally difficult to translate.

Moving beyond the boundaries of one’s own language is, Lahiri argued, intrinsic to the development of literature, nodding to the ways in which the Italian literary tradition has drawn from French and Spanish, and, by way of Spain, from the Arabic literary tradition as well. She pointed to the European Renaissance and the ways in which Renaissance writers looked beyond their borders, as well as to the ways in which the ancient Roman writers looked to Greece and beyond, saying that literature must cross boundaries in order to grow.

Identity—and the human desire to ascribe identity to nearly everything—features prominently in both Whereabouts and the short story collection on which Lahiri is currently working, Racconti Romani, or Roman Stories. (Its title is, she noted, a homage to Alberto Moravia and his collection of the same title.) Lahiri pulls against this desire to name in Whereabouts, never fully naming its location though her protagonist spends a considerable amount of time discussing foreign accents and otherness. Indeed, as Scappettone and Lahiri discussed rising tides of white supremacist violence in Europe and elsewhere, Lahiri noted that otherness continues to be a strong theme in the forthcoming Racconti Romani, also originally written in Italian—though, once again, she does not plan to use much in the way of concrete place names beyond that title.

There were, for a panel based so heavily around words and language, some jarring word choices. Scappettone described the word “whereabouts” as “Anglo-Saxon,” which is both inaccurate and carries a heavy load of white supremacist violence in its syllables. Similarly, a discussion of pluralism in Italian literature was fascinating, but seems a bit odd: Italian literature is hardly the only literature to draw from a pluralism of voices including differing regional tongues. (Spain, for example, includes multiple mother tongues, ranging from Basque to Catalan to Galician and beyond, all of which figure into a national literature.)

Lahiri and Scappettone’s discussion of place and displacement, of language and identity, was a moving one, a reminder of the importance of stepping beyond the bounds of what we know (or think we know) in order to see it better. We can never come back, not really, but, as Lahiri suggests, maybe it’s for the best, for we will certainly grow from the experience.

More information on Lahiri’s novel Whereabouts can be found at the publisher’s site.

Caitlin Archer-Helke
Caitlin Archer-Helke
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