A young man, who had emigrated from India, stood up hesitantly, then fearlessly asked the famous author on the stage, “Could you please share some of your experiences and offer advice as to how to transition between Indian and American cultures?” Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri, who goes by Jhumpa, smiled at the questioner and her audience before stating that she had grown up American and her experiences of navigating cultures could be found in her stories and writings.
From a hospitably crowded pew in Hendricks Chapel on a cold night on the Syracuse University campus, I thought about the “other America,” the one disparaged for its diversity, by the current U.S. President. Hendricks Chapel that evening was filled to capacity with Americans of every color and shade on the planet. What distinguished this crowd from the America painted by Trump and his ardent supporters was not skin color alone, however, but a curiosity of intellect, a willingness to listen to others, an empathy and understanding of humanity that runs wide and deep. While people’s experiences in the hushed chapel were varied, everyone shared a common concern for the redefinitions of America and Americans under the new president. Even if that concern was quiet and reflective, not posed in anger or vitriol, the Americans in Hendricks Chapel were determined not to let ignorance and fear, bigotry and animosity define them.
We had all arrived at Hendricks to hear Lahiri read from her new work In Other Words and to listen to her speak about language and how it shapes and suggests. We were present for a journey through cultural, philosophical, and intellectual waters all the way to Italy, as Jhumpa recounted her experiments in a language other than English.
Lahiri, who was born in England to parents originally from India, came to America when she was only two years old; she became an American citizen at 18 years. We are fortunate, indeed, to claim her as an American author—this Princeton University professor, winner of the O. Henry Award, the Pen/Hemmingway Award, and nominee for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize, among many other distinguishing recognitions for her achievements. Lahiri is also, very much, a citizen of the world, living much of the year in Rome, Italy, where she pursues her love of the Italian language and culture that competes and struggles with her love of her American culture and English language.
A young teacher, originally from Cuba, sat to my right, and spoke with me at the end of Lahiri’s discussion about his students who were struggling with a much more basic command of their native language. Beside me sat a dear friend, originally from Ireland, but who had lived in France and knew multiple languages of the world, before coming to America to raise her family and teach American children French. In the pew behind me were Syracuse University students who had come out of curiosity and desire to learn, as much as for their course requirements. Not everyone in the audience could afford to buy Lahiri’s new book, but all of us made the time during the evening to listen and learn.
Driving home from the event with Lahiri’s In Other Words on the passenger seat of my car, I thought about the petulant words of Donald Trump in his tweet to America on the cusp of the New Year, his jeering comment, “including my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do.” It is almost impossible to comprehend an American President claiming openly that more than half of the American electorate are his “enemies.” Needing scapegoats for societal ills, including mechanization and robotics replacing human jobs, Trump and his campaigners found those targets in Mexicans and Muslims, in women and girls, in black Americans and recent immigrants, legal immigrants, as well as those undocumented. Some in Trump’s Cabinet and those closest to his ears also targeted Jews, but more subtly, at first. Trump’s Executive Order on immigration restrictions, banning those from seven countries (but not those predominantly Muslim countries where Trump has business dealings), was dishonorably conceived, inherently unconstitutional, and poorly rolled out. It served, however, to deepen the divide in the United States of America. Of course, the irony is apparent in that Trump’s grandfather was an immigrant. There are no citizens in the United States, except American Indians, who are not the sons and daughters of immigrants a generation or several back. We all came from other shores.
The people gathered at Hendricks Chapel that evening were not elites in the Trump campaign’s sense of the word, regarding class, but they are elite in the meaning of the word that is “the choice, the best” because there were people who were thinkers and doers, thoughtful, tolerant, kind, and generous.
Although the Trump presidency still fills me with dread and discomfort, I left Lahiri’s talk inspired by her bravery, as well as the daring of those other Americans who were recent immigrants. Long after hearing Lahiri’s quiet, lyrical voice and words, I thought about the metaphor of her “black sweater,” comparing that garment to her language, about what a language means to both identity and understanding of others. I may be saddened by the increasingly sharp divide among Americans, yet I remain hopeful that the American ideal is still alive, still inclusive, and even if not exactly exceptional, America, even in her flaws and fallibility, is still preeminent in her peoples who have hailed from all over this Earth.
by Nancy Dafoe