Creative Writing and the Museum: An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
They seem to be saying, look at me, and what I’ve done to myself. The faint top line of the glass sheet intersects her hair, a line of light against dark. She reminds me of boxing, of faces twisted in anger, blood smeared on lips and knuckles. Or the first time I went with my cousin to get my ears pierced. I’d held on tight to her hand as she kept repeating that pain is beauty.
—Allie Spensley, Class of 2020, on Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints–Face), 1972 (above)
This fall, Jhumpa Lahiri, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, brought her class “Creative Writing: Fiction” to the Art Museum. Recently she and Veronica White, curator of academic programs, reflected on the group’s visit and the act of closely engaging with a work of art.
VW In preparation for your visit, we selected a group of six works—including a German medieval Pieta, a nineteenth-century watercolor by Goya, and the contemporary prints of Nalini Malani—that all incorporate the theme of suffering; why did you feel that this subject was important for a writing class?
JL Our workshop began with the idea of suffering and its counterpoint, survival, as the premise of most literary works. Writers react to suffering through language, and, as Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Suffering makes art necessary and gives it urgency. It was with this idea in mind that, early in the semester, I asked the class to read a portion of Agota Kristof ’s extraordinarily powerful novel The Notebook, which is told from the point of view of two children surviving war. Desire, conflict, drama, emotion—the cornerstones of any great work of fiction—all fall under the broad umbrella of suffering. When I visited the Museum before bringing the students, I was immediately struck by images in which the subject is visibly reacting to either physical or emotional pain.
There is flow, from one form to another. No entity is alone, yet no entity is complete. The color is striking, grim and provoking, but it is the lack of color in places that is even more striking. And all forms are just transitions between nothingness and darkness. The monochrome captures the saturated transition perfectly.
—Avaneesh Narla, Class of 2017
VW You mentioned the significance of visiting museums and engaging with art for your own writing. Could you elaborate on this idea?
JL Writing is a way of seeing the world; point of view means nothing other than how something is seen. And without point of view, there can be no story. I have been inspired by works of art since childhood. My grandfather was a painter, and so I grew up with his portraits and landscapes in my house. As a child, until I went to college, really, I drew pictures with the same passion with which I wrote. And throughout my life, I have cultivated an appreciation for visual artists—painters and photographers, mostly—who inspire me deeply. I’m fortunate to know many artists—some are among my closest friends—and I love hearing about how they approach and conceptualize their work. Looking at art inspires me just as reading does; I think about tone, setting, action, detail, framing, and—of course—point of view, but the vocabulary in which everything is rendered is different, and sheds fresh light on the problem.
VW Princeton certainly differs from Rome, where you were previously living. How would you describe your encounters with works in the Art Museum, or, more generally, the experience of walking through the Museum’s galleries?
JL The Art Museum is my favorite place in town and it consoles me greatly. I love the fact that it’s there, walking distance from my home and in the middle of campus, and that I can walk through it whenever I feel the need to see something beautiful. Several years ago, I came to Princeton to read, before I taught here, and saw an incredible show of Kurt Schwitters’s collages, which I love, and there was even a reconstruction of the Merzbau—truly astonishing. I miss Rome and being in Italy generally, so it’s always a treat to see the big oil painting of Naples, or to go downstairs to look at the Roman statues and mosaics. It’s almost as if I’m back in Palazzo Massimo in Rome, which is one of my favorite museums there. I loved the Indian miniatures on exhibit this fall—one could go study just two or three each day and be completely satisfied. It’s such a privilege to be able to do that.
VW After the visit, your students returned to the Museum to choose one of the works we examined and to write a response. Could you say a little more about the assignment and your reactions to reading your students’ pieces?
I am drawn first to the woman’s face, the whites of her eyes pale and stark against the black hollows of her brow. Her gaze extends to a horror somewhere beyond the left corner. Her mouth is a contorted crescent, revealing broken shards of teeth on black gums. The monk is in mid-sentence, his face tilted toward the woman as he speaks, lips drawn in a wide O. They are two figures in a single state of mind, both forms blazing white, as if a spotlight locked on their faces in the night.
—Elisabeth Slighton, Class of 2020
JL The assignment was in two parts. First, I asked the students to return to the Museum, choose one image, stand in front of it for ten minutes or so, and describe what they saw. Describing a visual image that you find inspiring, or intriguing, or even disturbing, is a valuable exercise in that it is a way of “re-seeing” in words something that has already been carefully seen by the artist. The second part of the assignment involved writing a scene that took place just before the moment depicted in the work of art. I was trying to get them to think about constructing narrative by working backward, to imagine what prompted that pivotal moment. I was impressed by how precisely the students described the works, and how emotionally honest they were in their reactions. I should add that we visited the Museum the day after the presidential elections, and we as a group were all quite shaken, in a daze, really. Engaging with specific pieces forced us all to step outside that reality. The second part of the assignment inspired some unforgettable scenes, some of which read like very short stories. The images of suffering in the Museum were points of departure for the writing but also the point of arrival for each story. There is a nice circularity to that.