Long before fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri decamped to Rome in 2011 and began writing in Italian, she was a fan of the Italian short story. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author began teaching creative writing at Princeton University, she wanted to share these works with her students but found few were in translation. The new anthology “The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories” changes that. Lahiri, author of “Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake” among other books, selected the 40 writers as well as translated some of the stories. She will discuss the anthology at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 21 at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
LAHIRI: I’m going to Rome tomorrow so I’m reading Domenico Starnone’s new novel, “Confidenza,” which is about to come out in Italy. I printed out the pdf.
BOOKS: Do you still read exclusively in Italian?
LAHIRI: For myself, mostly. At Princeton I teach in English so I need to read along with my students. This semester I’m teaching a class on the writer Leonora Carrington, who wrote in French, Spanish, and English. Today we’re going to discuss her novella “The Hearing Trumpet.” I’d read part of it in Italian translation but I hadn’t read the whole thing in English until now. On my own I just started rereading “Pale Fire” by Nabokov. I have most of my books here in America. The ones here are in English. The ones in Rome are in Italian. So what language I’m reading in depends on where I am but I try to maintain a discipline of reading in Italian. That’s part of staying inside the language.
BOOKS: What was your last best read?
LAHIRI: This summer I read everything by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. I read her in Italian translation. That was the last reading experience that shook me up. She’s such a deeply intelligent and disturbing writer. I find her whole story so interesting given that she is from a Ukrainian background and moved to Brazil, where she learned Portuguese. I saw some of the things in her work that people now talk about with Elena Ferrante, this disturbing vision about women’s lives.
BOOKS: Are there other authors that you’ve read everything they have written?
LAHIRI: That list would be very long. If I like an author, like Italo Calvino or Willa Cather, I try to read all their work. When I studied Nabokov, I read everything by him. When I discovered Mavis Gallant, I read everything by her.
BOOKS: Did living in Rome change you as a reader?
LAHIRI: Obviously. Everything shifts in a different direction when you are in a new place, haunting different bookstores, and making new friends. It’s a completely different conversation there. Americans are almost phobic about reading in translation, and it’s a terrible, shameful thing. People in Europe are curious and comfortable about reading works in different languages. They also read a whole lot by American and English authors as well because those writers are so dominant. My Italian friends are more abreast of contemporary American literature than I am. They ask me about current authors I’ve never heard of. They read the New Yorker and I do not.
BOOKS: Do you read a wider range of European writers since you moved there?
LAHIRI: I have always read a lot of foreign authors. I read E.M. Cioran, a Romanian writing in French, and Agota Kristof, a Hungarian who also writes in French. I read a lot of European writers like that, who are writing outside their given language.
BOOKS: Do you recall which was the first book you could read easily in Italian?
LAHIRI: I don’t really remember. At a certain point the dictionary was no longer the main event. I was on my own. It was like learning to ride a bike. It’s a very specific awareness of you being equipped to handle a language. Every language is its own reality. The language radically alters your perceptions of everything and your relationships with the world. That is why we’re so fortunate to have different languages in the world.