A Literary Legacy

Jhumpa Lahiri ’89 talks with her former teacher, retiring professor Timea Széll ’75, at a moment “beautifully braided with meaning”

Jhumpa Lahiri ’89 headshot
Photo by Pacific Press Media Production Corp./Alamy Stock Photo

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and translator Jhumpa Lahiri ’89 is returning to Barnard as the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English and Director of the College’s Creative Writing Program. Lahiri took over the program’s leadership from the beloved professor Timea Széll ’75, who retired after 43 years on the English faculty. Széll taught thousands of students during her Barnard tenure — including Lahiri, who considers her Barnard English courses fundamental to her subsequent writing life. Here, they converse about mentorship, the complexities of translation, and how Lahiri’s literary interests have influenced her teaching philosophy. 

Timea Széll: I never taught you in a creative writing class, and I don’t believe that you took any at Barnard. So I’m very curious about your path to fiction writing.

Jhumpa Lahiri: My love of writing, or my interest in writing, has roots in my childhood. I wrote stories and invented things and copied versions of books that I read. So writing has always been there, but I think that as I grew older, and especially in my later adolescence, thinking of myself as a writer and putting myself on the page felt intimidating, so I avoided it. As an undergraduate, I focused on literature courses, and reading and thinking about language. The first tentative steps toward creative writing came after I graduated from Barnard, between college and what eventually became the long haul of my postgraduate studies and doctoral work. It was in that interim when no one was looking over my shoulder — when I wasn’t writing to fulfill the requirements of the class or engage with a certain professor. 

TS: I appreciate that sense of being in a kind of intellectual solitude. And the whole notion of saving the adjective “creative” for fiction writing, poetry, etc. — I have a bit of a problem with that. I read your critical work and that by wonderful colleagues, and it has all the elements of creativity. And to students who say, “Well, I prefer creative writing; I think academic writing is too dry,” I always say, “By all means, let it be a creative piece of academic writing.” This leads me to ask — did you carry some of Barnard’s legacy or fingerprints, so to speak, on your thinking, on your imagination? 

JL: Barnard was the root of my trajectory. My college years exposed me to an undeniable rigor and seriousness when it came to the question of language and literature. I agree with you, I think this word “creative” writing is very problematic as well, because of course, there is imagination involved in all forms of writing. And I think it creates a false separation that needs to be re-examined. This is something I’d like to try to explain to students — that creative writing is fluid and hybrid and elastic. And that the imagination doesn’t exist on one side of this divide. What is writing but thinking, meditating, seeing, reflecting, processing, and then reworking experience with words? And yes, there can be basic sorts of differences — perhaps, in a “creative” project, I’m making up a character or working off an emotion or a personal observation. But the key is — and this goes back to “How did Barnard prepare me for all of this?” — my writing comes out of an alchemical reaction between my life, my sensory reality, my emotional reality, my reading, and my relationship to books, poems, novels, essays, and so on. That’s what brings forth the writing, and that conversation includes reading critical works as well and seeing how carefully things can be read, should be read. 

TS: I agree profoundly. I was just reading your most recent work, and so much of it centers on the craft of translation, the meanings of the word “translation,” the ways in which each translation is, as you say, a “unique shadow.” That also makes me think of how I taught Critical Writing. I usually took a few English translations of a specific passage from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and we talked about the ways in which they differed. What are the ramifications of some of the decisions made by the translators of the original classical Greek?

JL: I remember looking at Agamemnon with you in that Critical Writing course, and I took a page out of your book at Princeton in my translation workshops. I used Agamemnon, among other texts, comparing translations, which is always revelatory for me as well as for the students. If I’m teaching a course in which the idea is to write an analytical essay, on, say, Dante’s “Inferno,” I try to walk the students through how to close read a text as you did for me. They need to cite the text; they need to have something to say. On the other hand, that text should be engaging and beautifully written. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All of these things are relevant, whether you’re teaching them to write an analytical three-page paper or a nine-page story or 12-line poem. The point is to be attentive to structure, to how you’re using language, and to determine whether your words have impact, grace, and uniformity in terms of tone. Whatever I’m teaching, I would hope that it’s relevant no matter what the student is going to go on to do. I’ve taken, I want to say, at least 50 literature courses in my life. It feels like more — could it be 100? Meanwhile, how many creative writing courses have I taken? Maybe 10? Less? And then we see the fruit of that journey, which is that I’ve written much more fiction and a comparatively smaller body of nonfiction and critical work. 

TS: In the impressive chapter on Echo and Narcissus in your newest book, Translating Myself and Others, you write: “The hierarchy of original and derivation dissolves. To self-translate is to create two originals: twins, far from identical, separately conceived by the same person, who will eventually exist side by side.”

JL: I was following the idea of Echo and Narcissus as translator versus text and realized at a certain point that the analogy really wasn’t as clear-cut as I thought it would be. And then, yes, there’s the bit about self-translation: Is it a solipsistic act? Or is it the ultimate creative act? I don’t have the answer to that. This experimentation goes back to my undergraduate years, when I was exposed to authors like Nabokov and Beckett. Any author you read whose first language is not the language she is writing in is already a sort of self-translator. So even when I was writing in English, given that I was raised in another language, writing about Bengali culture and experiences in English involved a form of translation. Language is so intensely, intimately bound up with the question of identity, and whether we can be truly ourselves in different languages is a question that I ask myself. And it’s a question that has been asked of me as I’m going out farther and farther on a limb of ongoing exploration.

TS: How much time do you give to workshopping and reading short stories or novels?

JL: My courses are extremely reading heavy. Reading is like the food pyramid. You should be eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and a lot of whole grains and then eat less meat and even less of the sugars at the very top. So in a way, the creative writing part is like that special treat, and what is going to really nourish you is the reading. One of the courses I just taught last spring, which I hope I will teach again at Barnard, is a semester-long, close reading of one of my very favorite texts, which is The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. We read two elements a week, very carefully. And that’s what we’re focusing on for at least half of the classroom session. That’s typically how I would teach what is commonly thought of as a creative writing workshop. If students are going on to be writers, they have the rest of their lives to write whatever they want, and they will have no prompts, no professors saying, “Use this as a first sentence” or “Try to incorporate this form of imagery.” I like to work with restraints, and I try to teach my students that total freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But the main thing, I repeat, is that a writer should always be in conversation with her reading. You can’t play the game until you understand this basic fact. The undergraduate years are incredibly precious, they’re finite, you don’t have that kind of freedom later on. Life just gets more complicated, in beautiful ways, but in ways that eat up your time. And you’re being asked to do different things. You’re not necessarily being asked to read 200 pages of Anna Karenina for the next class session. So college is when you do it. And that’s what I will continue to urge my students to do.

TS: I am excited to see what you do, and I look forward to continuing this conversation soon and to many more similar conversations in the future. 

JL: I’m happy to talk to you. It’s beautifully braided with meaning, this moment of transition for both of us: one of us going and the other arriving. It’s very much connected. Thank you for being my mentor and my guide for all these years. 

TS: Oh, please! Would you say something about mentoring students? 

JL: I think the best mentors, like you, are a bit like how Joyce, loosely translating one of Flaubert’s letters, describes the artist: one who “remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible … paring his fingernails.” The point is letting the story run, but the writer is back there, in charge but in a very discreet way. You were exactly that. You were my professor, my advisor, somebody I admired and learned from. And I think all we can do is be ourselves, and be true to ourselves, and be true to our pedagogy — not to be set in our ways about things, because life is changing, and students are changing, and circumstances are always changing. And language is changing, too. We have to be relevant to the students because otherwise, there’s very little point in being a professor. But I try to transmit, as best as I can, the passion I have for the work at hand. And if that passion for literature can spark a passion for literature in others, I feel that my job is basically done. Because we aren’t the real teachers; the real teachers are the books that are already in the library waiting for new generations. Those are the real teachers, and we are kind of the conduits, right?

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