FEELING AT HOME IN ROME. Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents. She grew up in the United States, taught at Princeton University, and currently teaches at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author, in English, of Interpreter of Maladies (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction,) The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland, which was a finalist for the Man Booker prize and the National Book Award in fiction. Since 2015, Lahiri has been writing fiction, essays, and poetry in Italian: In Altre Parole (In Other Words), Il Vestito dei libri (The Clothing of Books), Dove mi trovo (self-translated as Whereabouts), Il quaderno di Nerina, and Racconti Romani. Lahiri received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2014, and in 2019, was named Commendatore of the Italian Republic by President Sergio Mattarella. Her most recent book in English is a collection of essays entitled Translating Myself and Others. She lives between Rome and New York.
Jhumpa Lahiri, why have you decided to write in Italian and live in Rome?
Metamorphosis may be a good word to start with. I am in the middle of a new translation of Ovid‘s Metamorphoses from Latin to English. It is a poem I read parts of when I was studying Latin at university and it has always stayed with me. When I was going through my own series of changes – linguistic change, creative change, life change, coming to Rome and deciding to move my centre of gravity here – I thought back to Ovid. At times, he describes transformation as a kind of salvation from a previous condition.
Why did you need a metamorphosis?
I was certainly looking to resolve something. Whatever I was looking for was drawing me to Rome, drawing me into the Italian language, slowly, mysteriously. Whatever brought me here inspired me to start writing a book which slowly took shape and became In altre parole (In Other Words).
“English is not my language. It’s never been my language. That’s the issue.”
As a consequence of persecution writers in exile such as Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad change from their original language, but you are not like this?
No, I would align myself more with Beckett, who grows up in Ireland, studies French and Italian, moves to Paris, and then moves into French as his primary language; not because he was politically persecuted, but because he feels the impulse to do so. Or Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian writer who falls in love with Portuguese literature and writes an important novel in Portuguese, Requiem.
When you are a maestro in one language isn’t it a big gamble to start again from scratch in another?
I have never felt like a maestro in anything. If you say you don’t understand why a writer would change their language when they don’t need to, I would counter saying: I needed to. Tabucchi explains what I did: he says “I needed a different language: a language that was a place of affection and reflection.” That’s what he did. That’s what I did. It’s a need. I needed another language.
Even if one can write very well in another language, it’s not your language.
Nothing is my language. English is not my language. It’s never been my language. That’s the issue. I was raised by my parents to think of it as a language of the other. My mother insisted that English was a language that other people spoke, so it was not our language. But Bengali wasn’t my language either, because I don’t know how to read it or write it.
You had to find a new language because you didn’t feel Indian or American?
I’ve always been interested in the other, because I’ve always felt like the other. I don’t have any actual point of reference in terms of identity, culture or language. I’ve always been between and betwixt. English is the language that is most robust in my brain because of my upbringing, my education, many years of circumstances spent in the English language, and I became a writer in English, but it’s not my mother tongue. When I speak it there is a disconnect, because my entire childhood was spent inside of a bubble of another language. My parents had no English language speaking friends. People who spoke English very rarely came to our house. Far away from their country, my parents sought their own and handpicked the Bengali immigrant community one by one. They weren’t themselves when they spoke English. To me, they were like two different people.
Do you feel at home when you go to India?
No, but it feels very familiar. I’ve been to Calcutta more times than I can count, I’ve spent long periods of time visiting extended family and observing a world that was home to my mother and father, but I don’t feel at home. My parents would get off the plane and feel at home.
Why did you write about Calcutta?
I was trying to understand who I was, what my family was, and the world they came from. I was raised in the United States, a country where we had no relatives at all. Eventually I had a sister, who was much younger than I am, but my formative years were spent in an island of three people. That experience of intense isolation has marked the person I am.
Now you write in Italian. Do you also translate your own books into English?
It depends. I did not translate In Altre Parole. I translated most of the stories in Racconti Romani (Roman Stories). I translated my previous novel Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts).
How did your public react to a book of yours written in Italian and then translated into English?
There was a lot of bewilderment, feelings of betrayal even, when In Other Words, the English translation of Il Altre Parole, came out. I try not to pay attention very much to what people are saying about my work, because if I cared too much I would really be paralysed.
“Rome is a city in which it’s very easy to feel displaced because it’s a city that’s constantly changing, even though it seems to never change.”
What inspired you to move to Italy? Were you trying to leave something behind?
There was an acute sense of failure that I felt being raised in the United States. When I left, finally, and lived in Rome, that became very apparent to me. In a place like Italy, where it’s literally impossible to become Italian, it’s much more freeing, because I realise I will always be a foreigner. It’s not a country in which one becomes Italian.
Were you discriminated against in America?
I grew up with lots of discrimination in a very provincial place where my family and I were clearly foreign and treated as such. Going into a store was a terrifying experience for me as a child.
Do you resent America for this?
I don’t resent anybody or anything. America is an amazing country in many ways, and it’s contributed extraordinary things to civilisation. Sociologically it’s fascinating, and, for all of its problems, it has remarkable strengths as a place, as a country, as a culture.
You were very well received and awarded in America as a writer.
But that’s not my entire life. If I go and sit in a hospital where my mother is in an emergency room, I don’t have a badge saying I won a Pulitzer Prize and I teach at Princeton University. I don’t walk around with my resume in my hand.
But you said that in Italy you would never be accepted as an Italian, so is Italy even worse for you?
It’s a trickier proposition. It’s not worse, because it’s a liberation from the idea of the expectation to belong. My entire childhood upbringing was a struggle to try to belong to my parents’ intangible, portable version of Bengali culture, and I also felt deeply alienated from what it’s like to be an American child and an American teenager. In Italy I know from the outset. The project of writing in Italian is a gesture to say that I cannot hide the fact that I don’t belong here; because of my name, because of who I am, because of how I am, because this is a language I learned as a fully formed adult and writer. There’s no pretending.
Most people don’t want to write in another language because it’s very uncomfortable.
It is. It is very uncomfortable. You have to want that experience. As I said before, it’s a need. Writing is a need.
Is there a fil rouge in Racconti Romani, your stories about Rome?
The fil rouge is that everybody feels out of place. Everybody feels like a stranger, even people who are ostensibly Roman. Rome is a city in which it’s very easy to feel displaced because it’s a city that’s constantly changing, even though it seems to never change. You’re constantly made aware of the enormous passage of time, even in your daily peregrinations. You came to my house today and we were watching the murmurations of starlings outside of my terrace, and when Caesar was alive they were looking at these birds making their formations and asking, okay, what’s going to happen tomorrow in Gaul? I’m part of this continuum of history and of time.
“When my mother was dying and I was speaking to my Italian friends about what was happening in Italian, everything that was happening seemed to be more true than when I was talking about it in English.”
Where did you live before Rome?
Before I moved here I was in New York. Before New York I was in Boston. Before Boston I was in New York studying, and before that I was in Rhode Island, where I was raised. I was studying Italian for a long before I came to Rome, but I fell in love with ancient Rome as a child. I like to live in Rome. I love Rome. It feels like my home.
Have the things that touch your heart, your mind, your imagination, changed over the years?
No, there’s been no change. The stories in Racconti Romani and the stories in my first book are on a continuum and the themes are exactly the same: fundamentally, the theme of alienation. They are also Alberto Moravia’s themes— lack of ease, lack of comfort, lack of feeling of being in the right place – and they are what Roman stories have been about from the beginning, but my stories have a more pronounced sense of migration patterns – populations that flow, in, out, across – and also the lack of assimilation and exile.
Are you nostalgic for somewhere?
No, I have nostalgia in a very insular sense, within my family, for time that’s passed, but I don’t have nostalgia for any place. I suppose I have nostalgia for some places where I’ve been happy if I think back to them, but they’re not places to which I have any great claim. The only place I’ve ever really profoundly missed in my life when I’m not there is Rome. It’s the only place where I found my place. As I said, it feels like my home, even though I know it’s not my home.
What is so attractive about Italian?
I love that Italian is a relatively new language, and a hybrid one that emerges from and still exists alongside multiple regional dialects, which are of course all individual languages. So many writers in Italy come from one linguistic background and then write in another, like Pasolini, or Dante, who is absorbing Latin literature and French and Arabic poetic traditions and creating Italian, creating La Commedia, creating his poetry out of that and making it new. That’s exciting to me. So many Italian writers – Ovid, Dante, Pasolini just to name three – are talking about alienation and exile throughout their works. I find myself on a similar literary path.
Do you find the Italian language difficult or easy compared to English?
It’s just different. It’s about finding a part of myself, or understanding new parts of myself and therefore understanding life through a new language. Some things have more meaning for me in Italian than they do in English. When my mother was dying and I was speaking to my Italian friends about what was happening in Italian, everything that was happening seemed to be more true than when I was talking about it in English. This is very powerful.
You are translating Ovid, and Giulio Einaudi the publisher used to say that it was very good for writers to translate. Do you agree?
I absolutely do. It’s the best thing to do. Now, when I read Latin I’m also reading it with Italian. If I write the definitions of a Latin word, I write it in Italian not in English. I’m translating the poem into English with my colleague who’s a classicist, but the commentaries and essays on Ovid that I’m reading are Italian. Italo Calvino has an amazing introduction to The Metamorphoses, about how Ovid blurs borders in continuation, which I find incredibly illuminating.
Jhumpa Lahiri, who are you?
I am a person who writes. I am a writer who writes in Italian. I am a writer who writes in English. I am a writer who speaks Bengali, and some French and Spanish or some other languages, but there is no direct thread between who I am and language and therefore culture. That doesn’t exist. As Primo Levi says, we are centaurs, composites. These pieces of language that are in me – Italian, English, Bengali – circulate inside me.
Portraits of Jhumpa Lahiri by Marco Delogu.
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