Thursday, June 17

Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘I have always existed in a kind of linguistic exile’ | Books

Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel is the triumphant culmination of her 20-year romance with the Italian, an obsession that led her to move to Rome with her family nearly 10 years ago. He gave up reading in English and started writing only in Italian. Published in Italy in 2018 as Where I am – “Where am I” or “Where am I?” – is his first novel written in Italian. Now he has translated it into English under the title Whereabouts.

The story follows a nameless woman in a nameless city over the course of a year, each chapter an espresso of regret and loneliness. In the second chapter, “On the street”, the narrator meets a man, the husband of a friend, with whom “she could have been involved, perhaps shared a life”: they enter a lingerie store because she needs to buy a pair of medias, which leads the reader to think that we have started a particular kind of story. But many of these streets lead nowhere. The chapters relate different relationships or connections: a visit to his mother; a daily chat with a barista; a fleeting encounter. The novel asks, “How does a city become a relationship unto itself for the female lead?” she says now. This is a book about belonging and not belonging, place and displacement: questions of identity that Lahiri has explored throughout his fiction, whether set in New England, Calcutta, or now (we assume) Rome. After a year of forced isolation for many, especially in Italy, this “portrait of a woman in a kind of urban solitude”, as she describes the novel, has acquired an unexpectedly timely resonance.

Today Lahiri is at home in New Jersey: “I found myself Princeton, ”she says. He went back to teaching at the university in 2015, maintaining a long-distance relationship with Rome. “I had two sets of keys. I had this other life, in this other place ”, he explains, until last year the coronavirus struck; her son was still in school in Rome at the time. On the shelves behind her, the only visible title is a book facing out with “ITALIANO” in large print. His previous book, In other words, was his first writing in Italian (translated by Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator) – “a kind of linguistic autobiography”, it is a passionate account of his “pilgrimage” to Rome and his quest to conquer the language. In the end he confesses a bit of shame for having written such a personal book “of love, of suffering”, and I suspect that he feels the same about giving interviews (which, along with the criticism, he never reads). She is as thoughtful and collected as you would expect when reading her fiction, with the same calm humor that could be easy to miss.

“I’m the least experimental writer,” Lahiri told the New York Times magazine in 2008 when her second collection of short stories, Unusual land, went straight to number one on the US bestseller lists, prompting Time magazine to declare a changing of the guard in American fiction. “The idea of ​​trying things just for the sake of going further has never really interested me.” And it is true that his elegantly melancholic tales, his first collection, Illness Interpreter, won the Pulitzer in 2000 when he was 33 years old, belongs to the realist tradition. Avoiding the striking irony of many of his American peers, or the exuberant prose and epic style typical of Anglo-Indian fiction at the time, he described the daily lives of Asian-American immigrants (often middle class) with the same compassionate scrutiny and moral complexity that distinguish the work of his literary heroes William Trevor and Alice Munro.

When in Rome ... 'There is this life happening right on your doorstep'
When in Rome … ‘There is this life happening right on your doorstep’ Photograph: Paula Solloway / Alamy

His first novel, The namesake, which follows the fate of “Gogol”, son of Bengali immigrants, on his way through New York, he was taken to the cinema by the acclaimed director Mira Nair; and his second Low land, a family saga that stretches from the Calcutta of the 1950s to New England decades later, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. Although Whereabouts is a novel, it could almost be described as a collection of connected short stories, so, in the way at least, Lahiri is very much at home. She may be a traditionalist, but surely there is no greater experiment for a writer than to adopt an entirely new language. As a 21st century Henry James heroine, she shunned America (Brooklyn’s brownstone literary ensemble, of which she was one of the most celebrated) for the old-world charms of Rome, in what she describes as nothing less than an act of “literary survival.” “It is really difficult to explain the forces of life that lead you to people, to places, to languages,” he says. “For me, to a language and then to a place and then to a new life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being. Those are very important things. “

She always felt that she existed in “a kind of linguistic exile” long before leaving for Rome. She was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and the family moved to the United States when she was two years old. Growing up in Rhode Island (his father, like many of his characters, worked at the university), with frequent trips to Calcutta, he felt that his story was “much more complicated” than that of his friends at school: “There was always’ the other place ‘and’ the other language ‘and’ the other world ‘”. Bengali, who spoke until the age of four, is both his mother tongue and” a foreign language “, because he cannot read or write: it is the language from her parents, “the language of her world.” Lahiri and her sister were brought up in English, which she came to regard as an intimidating “stepmother.” “Why am I running away? What is after me? Who wants to hold me? “she asks in In other words. “The most obvious answer is the English language.”

And yet he loved it, especially because of the world of books it opened. “I still love it,” he says now. “But at the same time, he emotionally represented this kind of impossible challenge. My relationship with English was always part of the desire to be a child to be part of that world. “Paradoxically, the fact that” it was not even a question of really belonging “in Italy finally freed her from being trapped between two languages,” is that is, having to choose between two ways of being, two ways of thinking ”, he explains.”In short wordsIn short, it has given me a true sense of belonging, fully acknowledging that it is ‘a sense’ ”.

Written in bursts every time I returned to Rome, Whereabouts It arose from his “living day by day in that city, mainly walking through it.” It is fitting that both the inspiration for the novel and the English title occurred to her in transit: the idea was “born” on a train in Italy when the author was intrigued by a middle-aged woman she saw sitting alone, “and a look in the window and maybe you see yourself. ” The title came to him suddenly, after months of deliberation, on a flight to Rome – “whereabouts” is “an incredibly English word: it doesn’t even have Latin roots.” And it is surely no coincidence that each of the enigmatically titled chapters – “In the trattoria”, “In spring”, “On the couch”, “By the sea” – begins with a preposition (he studied “a wonderful phrase” by Alberto Moravia to master Italian prepositions “once and for all”). It is a novel “of oscillation, restlessness and shadows,” he says. “I was thinking about that idea of ​​what it means to go through life, to be always on the go.” And yet, unlike Lahiri, who describes herself as “a nomad,” her narrator has never left the city where she was born. She is “always on the move in her world and yet she’s a bit trapped in her world, nervous about what’s on the other side of the border,” she explains. “The border, what does that mean today?”

Like his characters, who often “migrate, physically cross borders, find themselves at checkpoints,” much of Lahiri’s own experience has been “tied to things like green cards, naturalization, passports, and certificates.” On Whereabouts I wanted to imagine what it would be like for someone who has never had to consider these things and yet is still uneasy, to show that this conflict between feelings of being “rooted and rooted” applies to everyone.

The narrator is also a contradiction in other aspects: a teacher of almost forty years, is alone, but with many friends and lovers; sometimes she feels lonely, sometimes she is happy; she envies the privacy of others and is envied for her freedom. “She is at this crossroads. She is a woman who recognizes that she will probably not be a mother; You may have other relationships, but that will not be a part of your life. How are you going to accept that? “she asks. Much of the writing comes from imagining alternative lives, different paths, she thinks.” So what if I didn’t have this life? What if I hadn’t met the person I did, the day I did and this happened. And that happened and a child happened and then another child? “Although she wants to emphasize that she is not her narrator and that her Italian adventure was largely” a family experience “, the fact of traveling makes” one feel loneliness more “, He says. “It touches deeper parts of you. It makes you question who you are. “

The novel’s underlying sense of urgency or turmoil comes from the fact that it was written knowing they would one day leave. “I always had the return ticket,” he remembers sadly. “Sinking into that new place, there was always something that was going to call me back to this place.”

The past year has been “an incredibly intense time” as it has seen the pandemic unfold in two households: Italy and the United States. But it has also been one of the most productive: just finished a collection, Roman stories, again written in Italian, which includes some inspired by the Bengali immigrants he met in Rome; he is preparing a book of essays on translation (he recently translated the novels of his friend Domenico Starnone, Italy’s “best living writer”); and perhaps most notable is that his first book of poetry, in Italian, will be published in June. He had never written a poem in English before and “maybe I never will,” he says. Like she would never have written Whereabouts in English, he believes that writing in Italian made poetry possible. “When I started writing in English I felt like an intruder. When I started writing in Italian I felt like an intruder. When I was writing the poems I felt like an intruder. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. “

Lahiri hopes to return to Rome this summer, as her daughter is due to start high school there in September. Every time they visit it, they can’t wait to go out to the square, “to have that first coffee and see all those people, who are so happy that we are coming back,” she says with passion. “There is a life that is happening right on your doorstep that is always changing and it is always the same. I miss that. “He keeps in touch with friends he made among the many Bangladeshi immigrants living in Rome.” It’s the only place in the world where I speak English, Italian and Bengali on a daily basis. “This” little triangle “of language is part of the magic of the city for her, she says, “and she waits for me in the square.”

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