The Not Belonging of Jhumpa Lahiri
“I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.”
No one writing today has more claim on the Berkeley Circle’s curiosity than Jhumpa Lahiri. Her very name suggests the wild ride through language to come. Let’s begin with Roman Stories, her latest book. The kicker is that she wrote it in Italian and published it in Italy in 2022. In October of this year her joint translation into English appeared.
It raised the question of just how native her North American English might be. Lahiri was born in London to Indian immigrants who took her to the USA at three. Her mother tongue was Bengali, the only language she heard till she was four. Then she learned the English of Kingston, Rhode Island. As an adult adept at literary English, she admits to being an American, "I wasn't born here, but I might as well have been."
Lahiri’s dalliance with Italian would take her through dictionaries of various shapes and sizes, some with Bangla bôrṇômala, lettering on their cover. It was as irrational as any affair of the heart. After all, English, unlike Italian, offered a writer world-wide readership. In 2012 Lahiri already had a solid English-language career behind her. It included an assortment of elite university degrees and both fiction and nonfiction published to critical acclaim and commercial sunshine. She had also acquired a husband, daughter and son. Yet to everyone’s astonishment, she moved the whole kit and caboodle to live in Rome.
Lahiri herself wasn’t astonished. She had been infatuated with Italian for years and it had become an obsession. In the New Yorker in 2015 she said in an essay translated from her Italian that she was now writing only in that language. Her first book in Italian was In altre parole of 2015. Ann Goldstein, the translator of Elena Ferrante, rendered it as In Other Words. 2018 saw the appearance of Lahiri’s first novel in Italian, Dove mi trovo. She would herself translate it into English as Whereabouts.
Reading the stories of Racconti Romani in English one notices the faint presence of Rome. Despite the book’s title we could often be in any large city of what’s called the West. It brings to mind something she says in the chronicle of her language switch, In altre parole/In Other Words: “In Italian I’m moving toward abstraction. The places are undefined, the characters so far are nameless, without particular cultural identity.”
In fact, outsiders not Rome or its natives are the subject of Roman Stories. Each of the nine tales tells us what it’s like to be a stranger in our privileged countries. Lahiri has set herself an original task. She wants to show that the migrants we brush up against in our daily life are not just ‘them’ a generic category that lets us form a simplistic view of the world. They also have a stream of consciousness full of thoughts, whims and yearning. Lahiri demonstrates that the aliens are human too. We don’t have a monopoly on a nuanced inner life.
Most of Lahiri’s outsiders are Indian migrants, letting her repossess what her parents lived through. But some are prosperous expats in Italy like herself and allow her to use her own experience of rooting herself in a foreign place and tongue. In her otherwise laudable endeavour, this pairing strikes a false note. Her stories of well-off Americans seeking excitement in Romantic Italy after a comfortable but not fully satisfying life in their home country isn’t comparable with the racism and servitude undergone by South Asians condemned to clean our toilets and other joys.
Not that Lahiri’s insight isn’t remarkable. In The Delivery the Indian home-helper who is shot with an airgun by a couple of teenagers on a motorbike is not resentful. She feels that’s how life is. As for the boys, they aren’t organisers of pogroms but are only acting in accordance with their cruel ambient culture. The elderly Indian widow in Notes, employed to look after preschool kids, can’t understand why some of them write hateful notes to her. She’s angry with the world because it’s incomprehensible to her, not because it’s evil.
As for the expats, in The Procession, a middle-aged woman taking her American husband to Italy fails to recapture the romance she lived there in her youth and fears that it may well all have been an illusion. In Dante Alighieri, another woman—“feeling orphaned in middle age”—has half given up on her connection to Italy. She prefers a good job in America for six months of the year. Rome has lost its sheen. She hears another expat remark, “This city is shit…But so damn beautiful.”
The recent stories bookend Lahiri’s first collection, the 1999 Interpreter of Maladies. It marked the beginning of a career that went on with consistency despite its twists and turns. Later in life Lahiri pointed out that her aim at the start was to provide solace to her parents. They lived alienated in America where she was at home. She wrote about India, a place she hardly knew, to give them back their beloved Calcutta.
A Real Durwan paints a picture of Indian domestic life Lahiri never lived. In the story Interpreter of Maladies, an average Indian male misunderstands to the point of farce a family of American tourists. The Third and Final Continent gives the best brief portrait of a centenarian one is likely to read. Lahiri’s first book also introduces a theme she will make her own. She portrays the offspring of Indian immigrants as living and thinking no differently from their American coevals. Shoba and Shukumar in A Temporary Matter are model American middle-class Millennials. Lahiri even goes further in Sexy where a princely young Bengali banker in Boston makes a handy only-on-Sunday mistress of an all-American young woman fresh from Michigan.
These early stories full of colourful detail are not especially novel in structure. But there are touches that look forward to the more lapidary and original Roman Stories. In those, Lahiri’s storytelling often consists of setting a placid scene that is abruptly overturned by a disorientating event, a narrative explosion. The trick can be seen taking shape in A Temporary Matter. The disintegrating marriage of the young couple is put back on track by an electricity blackout. The forced intimacy and pause for reflection bring about a fresh beginning. In Sexy, the hard-done-by paramour has a session of childminding imposed on her. The revelations of a seven-year-old induce her to end her one-sided liaison.
Lahiri’s passage as a writer from English to Italian remains intriguing and a shade mysterious to anyone interested in language and translation. In altre parole/In Other Words is worth a second look. Lahiri studied Italian for years like any other academic subject. Then a trip to Italy changed her. It was no longer only the beauty of the language that drew her but the feeling that she had to have “a relationship” with Italian or else be “unsatisfied, incomplete”. Returned to America, she missed Italian and had recourse to conversations with various Italian teachers. “The lessons with the Venetian teacher became my favourite activity….At a certain point I decide to move to Italy.”
She also decided to no longer read in English. Learning Italian become much more than absorbing lessons. “I don’t want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language….Thus true love can represent eternity.” She calls her notebook of new words: “A space where I can wander, learn, forget, fail. Where I can hope.”
A student of Italian 101 would with reason find bizarre this highflown desperation over mugging up a list of foreign words. Lahiri tries to explain it:
“…[M]y writing in Italian is a flight….Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me?…The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so much English in itself as everything the language has symbolised for me. For practically my whole life English has represented a consuming struggle. a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it.”
Plausibly as her explanation reads, we can’t help psychologising and wondering if her hard graft to write in Italian and settle in Rome wasn’t a way to relive the childhood Bengali speaker’s struggle to learn English and become American.
Lahiri finishes In altre parole/In Other Words with a disavowal. What she has been dramatising in high colour as an exile, her switch to Italian, isn’t an exile at all. It’s not an assault on body and soul like that met by the outsiders she will write about. They are depleted, suffering loss, while she is encumbered by an excess of possessions, including several languages. She comes to see that exile for her is only a loose metaphor for her peculiar situation as a writer.
“Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realise that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it.”