April is coming to an end, and that means the fellows of Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center will soon be leaving us. But Provincetown, we have come to learn, will surely not be leaving them, and many will find a way to return.
One writer who first came here 25 years ago as a recipient of FAWC’s extraordinarily influential seven-month residency returned on Saturday evening and spoke to a packed Stanley Kunitz Common Room on Pearl Street. Jhumpa Lahiri read to us from her latest book, the novel Whereabouts, which, astonishingly, she wrote in Italian, a language she learned just 10 years ago, and then translated into English. Her writing is a miracle of simple, direct, and yet stunningly original observations. I had not been to a FAWC reading since we started the paper, and I was transported to a nearly forgotten, beloved place.
Lahiri was 30 years old in 1997 when Roger Skillings called and told her she had been selected as a FAWC fellow. She wasn’t sure she would come. She had just finished a doctoral dissertation in comparative literature and had published a few short stories, but she didn’t really believe in herself as a creative artist, she said. She came to Provincetown for a visit. Skillings showed her around town and told her, “This is my Venice. This is my Paris.”
“I was struck by that,” said Lahiri, “that he had found the beauty of the whole world in this rather small land mass, and he had created a sense of place for himself that was so much an act of the imagination.”
Her seven months in Provincetown changed everything. Two years later, her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was published. It won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Lahiri told us about her winter here, and the “amazing people who were modeling ways of being working artists — people who had built the work center and believed in it — and believed in us. I will be forever grateful for that belief that I didn’t have in myself — but they had it for us.”
Looking back over the profiles we have published about this year’s class of FAWC fellows, I am struck by their echoes of Lahiri’s experience. Laura Cresté spoke of her fellowship as “a gift of time and space to create” that for her was transformative. And they, in turn, transform us with the light of their creativity in our darkest months.
Lahiri had been told by literary agents back in 1997 to write a novel, not short stories. It took courage to ignore those voices, to choose the harder path, and “turn your back to the world,” she said. “That is necessary for the artist.”
Every time she left Provincetown during her fellowship, she longed to come back here, “where I was facing the right way, with everything behind me. My time at the work center taught me that you can’t listen to those voices, because those voices are on the other side of the Sagamore Bridge.”