Jhumpa Lahiri on Book Covers and Uniforms | Conversations with Tyler

Jhumpa Lahiri on Book Covers and Uniforms | Conversations with Tyler


COWEN: I brought a copy of a German book;
it’s by Rilke. The publisher is Reclam. The cover is plain; it’s just a color. If
you go to German bookstores, at least parts of them are actually organized by publishers.
You probably know other countries in Europe sometimes . . .
LAHIRI: Like in Italy, too, and France, yeah. COWEN: And the books, more or less, all look
the same. How do you feel about this system? LAHIRI: I love them.
COWEN: So you would opt into this system for all of your books?
LAHIRI: Yeah, I talk about that in the book. The whole piece is a kind of meditation on
the idea of wearing a uniform and dressing yourself, and these contradictory approaches
to presenting oneself — what they mean. COWEN: It’s like you have to make a statement
about where you’ve decided to rest on the identity question. And a cover forces your
hand when you’d rather be hovering in this ambiguity.
LAHIRI: Yeah, I prefer this kind of cover because to me, there’s a protective quality
to the lack of specificity, and the belonging to the series, which is what Europe . . .
In the US, you have certain series, as well. I wrote the essay when I was in Rome, and
I was far away from my American library and my books and things. But now that I’m back
here and I unpacked a lot of my books . . . there’re certain presses here that have that aesthetic
philosophy. City Lights books makes those beautiful little books, like my copy of Allen
Ginsberg’s Howl, etc. These are beautiful books, American books, that all looked the
same, similar dimensions, have a kind of sober quality, a lot of emphasis on type.
So I won’t say that it doesn’t happen here, but for the average writer and the average
publisher, it’s a very different dialogue that’s happening when it comes to putting
a cover onto a book. If I had to choose, I would choose the safety of the uniform because,
of course, the whole piece, the whole little essay begins with the memory of being a child
and being traumatized by having to dress myself. Because it just churned up so many problems
and was a source of true anguish for me, as a child, to have to choose clothes and put
them on — and this has economic ramifications, this has cultural ramifications, this has
all sorts of ramifications, because clothes are things we buy in stores, etc., etc.
I had this crazy envy, admiration, obsession with my cousins’ school uniforms in Kolkata
because they were all the same. They just put on what they had to wear to school every
day and it was the same thing. And I dreamed about that. I dreamed of being able to wake
up in the United States and just put on my blue skirt and my white shirt and my black
shoes, and going to school, and nobody commenting on what I was wearing. I was always so terrified
because people were always commenting on what I was wearing. And they were teasing me or
whatever. I think there’s this: Where do you stand
between wanting to express yourself and be free and being afraid of that freedom, being
actually vulnerable to that freedom? I think America represents Freedom with a big capital
F. And it always has, and we hope it always will for the good. But there’s also the
danger of that, even as a young girl in the ’70s, as a kid, a child of immigrants, I
knew what it meant to shop in one store versus another store.
I saw what the girls in my class were wearing: the kinds of shoes, the kinds of purses. I
knew that my parents weren’t taking me to those stores, that they thought that was a
waste of money and that we’re not going to pay $40 for Nike sneakers, or whatever
it is, because it’s a waste and you’re going to grow out of them in six months. Whereas
my schoolmates had these things, and suddenly there was the gap between me and them, reinforced
by these things. For a child, at least for me, these things were traumatizing. And I
imagine for others as well.

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