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Our obsession with origin is a global danger, says Jhumpa Lahiri

Our obsession with origin is a global danger, says Jhumpa Lahiri

“Where are you really from?” is a question that Jhumpa Lahiri gets asked “all the time”. Yet the Pulitzer prize-winning author – who was born in London to Indian parents, moved to the US at the age of three and now lives in Rome – cannot answer it. “I don’t have that specific set of coordinates that mark me as who I am,” she said. “I have many pieces to myself.”

Appearing at the Hay literary festival in Powys this week, Lahiri, who writes in English and Italian and has translated her own work, said she thinks our global “obsession” with what is original or authentic is “very problematic”.

There are “so many variables” to how we live on this planet, she said. She sees her “mission” – both as a creative writing teacher at Barnard College in New York and in her books – is to get people to question “what the idea of being authentic means and why we think this is so important”.

“I understand that we don’t want things to be false, we want things to be true, but then there’s the leap from authenticity to the idea of purity, and therefore, what is not authentic or pure is somehow corrupt, and that’s the danger zone,” she added.

Lahiri thinks this focus on origin is partly responsible for “the fallout we’re seeing now” in Gaza and in the three countries she has connections with: India, Italy and the US.

“What does Make America Great Again mean? What is this ‘again’ that we’re talking about? What are we trying to get back to?” she asked. The rise of Donald Trump, growing support for the rightwing populist party Lega in Italy, and Narendra Modi’s “notion of what India is” are all examples of an “increasingly nationalist sentiment” that comes from “believing that you have, you know, some sort of non-negotiable right to belong to a place”, Lahiri said. “I don’t believe that.”

“I’ve never had that claim to any place and I think that we should try to think about the fact that we really are all passing through,” she said.

A sense of having a defined identity in a place “is understandable”, but the writer thinks it “is a potentially very dangerous way of thinking of ourselves and our world, because identity is not fixed, and rootedness should not be tied to things like language and place”.

Having such a strong attachment to where you are from, and constantly wanting to identify where other people are from, can create a sense of xenophobia, she believes. “It boils down to two pronouns: us versus them.”

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When people talk about “our land”, she said, they are often talking about land that was originally occupied by a different group of people. Having grown up in Rhode Island, Lahiri was taught to sing This Land Is Your Land: “There was complete negation of whose land it really actually had been,” she said.

“So much of history is built on states of exile”, “physical movement” and the creation of “homelands”, she said, adding that the emotional attachments we have placed on to this sense of place and belonging can “pervert our knowledge of what is actually the case”.

Source: theguardian.com