Jhumpa Lahiri talks art, linguistic boundaries

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Jhumpa Lahiri talks art, linguistic boundaries

By Anne Marie Wright | Apr 6, 2018

On Thursday, Pulitzer Prize winner and University professor of creative writing Jhumpa Lahiri gave a lecture about her personal experience with boundaries and borders through an analysis of avant garde and surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s paintings and short stories.

According to Lahiri, her infatuation with Carrington’s works began with a Whatsapp message.

A fellow author and friend in Rome sent her a link over the messaging service to an article about Carrington’s writing. After reading the article, Lahiri rushed to Labyrinth Bookstore to pick up a copy of Leonora Carrington’s “Down Below,” an investigation of the experience of madness. When she received the book a week later, she saw the words ‘Princeton University Art Museum’ on the cover and realized that the University owned the piece. According to Lahiri, she was inspired to see Carrington’s works in person, and when she did, she was encouraged to read more of Carrington’s short stories, some of which she shared during the lecture.

Lahiri praised Carrington’s ability to cross geographic and linguistic borders in her art and writing. Carrington had written in English, Spanish, and French, and Lahiri herself writes in English and Italian.

According to Lahiri, she is particularly inspired by authors who write in different languages. For instance, Lahiri mentioned the friend in Rome who sent the initial article.

“She decided to choose English as the language of her creativity,” Lahiri said, emphasizing the unique ability of multilingual authors to express themselves differently in several languages.

Lahiri has also noticed this ability in herself. When in Italy, Lahiri was struck by her peculiar interest in the Italian language. Her ability to express herself in Italian, at first, felt different than her English writing. According to Lahiri, she was even hesitant at first to translate her own works into English, fearful of how her English self would interpret the translation.

In addition to her similarities to Carrington, Lahiri spent most of the lecture describing “Crookhey Hall,” the cover image of “Down Below.” In her opinion, the image and book embody Carrington’s time institutionalized in a mental hospital in Spain.

Lahiri drew parallels between the image and the book, recognizing the symbol of entrapment in the building that represents both Carrington’s childhood home and the institution. She also described the numerous figures in the painting, especially the most prominent woman in white, displayed in the center of the image, emphasizing her flight from the gloomy scene.

Lahiri also compared Carrington’s art to the plays of Shakespeare, especially “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet.” She saw connections to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” elaborating on the idea of movement and the “dream state” represented in “Crookhey Hall.”

“The dream is movement; the dream operates by a sense of motion and there is a sense of velocity in the center of this painting,” she said.

Lahiri focused on five more paintings, including her favorite, “Twins.” For her, “Twins” and “Two Dogs Howling at the Moon” are darker than the other four works, but she described “Twins” as particularly moving because she sees it as embodying her journey of exploration into her two languages.

“It is the two versions of me,” said Lahiri, speaking of her Italian and English selves. “It is an ongoing conversation about what it means for a writer to decide to cross the linguistic border and write in a language that is not our own.”

Following the lecture, the art museum hosted a reception, where Museum Store employee Shiza Chaudhary described the lecture as “fascinating.” Chaudhary has read Lahiri’s books and was intrigued by both the exploration of different art mediums and how Lahiri resonated with the works, finding connections between her writings and paintings.

“I think it was super cool that it was a writer reflecting on a painter,” Chaudhary explained.

Art museum members Nancy Geiger and Dixie Kirpalani also enjoyed the introduction to the new artist and Lahiri’s interpretations.

The lecture was entitled “Along the Edge” and was sponsored by the Princeton University Art Museum on April 5 as part of Princeton’s Migrations program.