'My work has always been about looking at the shadows': Jhumpa Lahiri

The author is back with 'Roman Stories' - short stories written in Italian

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Interview / Jhumpa Lahiri, author

There are few writers that publishing pauses for; Jhumpa Lahiri is one of them. She burst on to the literary scene with Interpreter of Maladies 25 years ago. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, changing her life, publishing and the immigrant experience in English forever. Lahiri, however, has only grown since then. She migrated from English to Italian with Whereabouts (2018). She is back with Roman Stories—short stories written in Italian—that are evocative, elegant, intimate and, like with Lahiri, difficult to forget. 

I have never had a comfort zone. I have never been comfortable really ever in my life. I was raised feeling extremely uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons.
The artist is, by definition, an outsider. That is the only position in which art can be made―from the margins and from the outside.

Her canvas is vast. There is the true-blue Italian—in ‘P’s Parties’, a short story in the collection; the immigrant—the one looking to build a new home, and who will always be an intruder; the one who left Rome after an attack; and the woman who returns. Lahiri conjures up a city that is changing. Her Rome is not only of the sunny piazzas but of the shadows as well. And it is in these dark places that Lahiri’s writing shines. As she says in an interview with THE WEEK, “But every love story is so much more complicated than that wedding moment. That’s why we are sort of so obsessed culturally with weddings because it is this moment of pure joy, and we are not thinking about the shadows.” Excerpts:

Can you talk briefly about writing again in Italian?

The books are all glued together at the same time. They were siblings growing up at the same time. One follows the other in publication reality. I started writing these stories early on in the experiment of writing in Italian, and some of them predate the writing of Whereabouts.

Is it now the language that you are going to write in? How is it different from writing in English?

It is a language I have chosen now to work in for the past decade or so. But no one knows the future. 

It happened. I was inspired to do so. I continue to work in Italian as a writer, and as a thinker. The factors that led me to move out of English and into Italian are constantly in evolution. Italian represents other things, new things, different things, not the same thing. But in general, what I will say is that there is such a glut of literature [being] produced in English today that to be able to write in another as a sort of point of departure from my writing is attractive to me, because it just allows me to say, ‘Okay, I am leaving the big city to go to a language that is comparatively less trafficked on a global scale’. 

In the book, many characters are middle-aged, looking at life through a certain perspective. You claimed Italian at a certain point in your life, where you are looking to reinvent yourself. Is the Jhumpa in Italian different from the one in English?

Life is all about learning how to do things, never getting entirely comfortable. I like to challenge myself. That is the most exciting aspect of living in a way, to think about what is slightly beyond your grasp, and how you can get closer, get a bit better at something, whatever it is, whether it is a language or just being a human being. There is always so much room for improvement—in terms of our being, our bodies, our states of health, our attitudes toward ourselves and the universe.

Part of the narrative of my moving into Italian is [that] Jhumpa Lahiri is moving out of her comfort zone. My response to that would be, ‘what is my comfort zone?’ I have never had a comfort zone. I have never been comfortable really ever in my life. I was raised feeling extremely uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons. My earlier work points to that general discomfort of what it means to be an outsider, what it means to be raised neither here nor there, not having specific cultural, linguistic frames of reference. What does it mean to be the child of immigrants? These things are not comfortable things. These are not suitable experiences. I am moving from sort of one zone of discomfort to another, shall we say?

My father chose to leave India. He felt the impulse to explore outside of the place he was born [in]. That is what led to my entire existence and the circumstances of my upbringing. I did that on a slightly later clock. I was already married and had my two children, and then I decided to go to another place for the impulse of it. But in my case, the language also entered it, as a creative component.

You also talk about the fact that a lot of people told you, you don't need to do this. There was a lot of resistance.

Not so much [like] you don’t need to do that, [but more like] you shouldn’t do it, sort of like this is a really bad idea. Now 12 years later, I find it really fascinating—these reactions and admonitions and resistance to a writer or to an artist changing instruments. I am bewildered, given how much the artists I know and admire have moved, pushed, refused to sit still and crossed new boundaries in their creative trajectories.

Do you think that superstardom of writers—where they have to interact through social media and be part of that space—sort of restricts writers from doing something that is without a readership or without an audience? Do you think that the idea of what a writer should do does not allow you to go off on adventures like this?

This is an interesting question. There is an abyss from my point of view between who I am as a person, how I approach my day, my life, my work, a page and sort of what can potentially happen to a writer in terms of acknowledgment to the audience. Maybe [that’s] because I was met very early on with intense scrutiny and the gaze of the world because of the recognition of my first book. I was very young. I was young as an artist. There was a moment the spotlight was on me. I realised very early how fundamentally unrelated that is to what I do and who I am and to my work, and the apprehension of how that kind of attention could be quite damaging for someone trying to just sit in a quiet room and produce work with some of the imagination.

1347520402 Certified creative: Jhumpa Lahiri received an honorary degree from Francesco Ubertini, rector of the University of Bologna Alma Mater Studiorum at Teatro Duse in Bologna, Italy, in 2021 | Getty Images

The fact is that I really don’t want to do anything with my day, but read books. I always sort of worked to keep all of that noise at bay. I thought about it as little as possible. I would go out when they asked me to, and I would do the events, and I would sign the books, and I would [pull] through the pictures and things like that but as soon as it was over it didn’t exist anymore. It was like being on a course of antibiotics. That’s how it was for me. It is how it has remained for me. I am not on any kind of social media. I have always been on a different speed. But I feel now more than ever that I am still kind of like riding the bicycle and everybody else is zipping around high school.

The book is also about outsiders. In one story, the outsider feels like an intruder. How much of this aspect of your being an immigrant is different or similar? In Italy, you are no longer the intruder; you are a writer, right?

The artist is, by definition, an outsider. That is the only position in which art can be made—from the margins and from the outside. That is one premise.

But I have always felt like an intruder. I always felt that my family was sort of intruding into the landscape of the place where I was raised, where, incidentally, I am right now as I am speaking to you. I am here at my father's house. It is impossible for me to come back to this place even today and not recall. Yesterday, I was taking a walk. It is impossible for me to completely set aside a slight apprehension of someone looking at me and saying, “What is she doing here?” I literally cannot divorce that apprehension from my state of mind. We are made in our childhood. We are sort of formed in ways that we carry with us. 

A lot has been made of my moving to Italyshe is in love with Italy, she is in love, whatever. It is a clever narrative for a headline. But every love story is so much more complicated than that wedding moment. That is why we are sort of so like obsessed culturally with weddings, because it is this moment of pure joy, and we are not thinking about the shadows. That is what the stuff of my books has always been—looking at the shadows, looking at the reality, looking at the underside of the pretty surface.

Rome is an amazingly inspiring city, because it is so intensely beautiful, physically beautiful and powerful. And it is sort of historical resonance. But at the same time, it is complicated—there are so many things that, of course, the tourist who seeks only the sunny piazza is never going to seek out. They are actually not going to read the newspaper.

On the one hand, I did arrive as a writer, so I have my status as a kind of a writer that enabled me to meet certain people. But on the other hand, when I am walking through the streets, just going to a doctor's appointment, there is not a sign around my neck saying that she is a well-known writer. I am just a person who is brown walking through the space. That is also an education.

And you always will be a person who is brown, right?

I am. Regardless of where I go, I am that. So depending on where I am, that is going to be part of the reality of any given moment, also the apprehension.

In the book, there are stories about children and their loss. In ‘P’s Parties’, the narrator is torn about his son growing up. His wife, however, can’t wait for him to grow up. Could you talk about having children and being a writer?

It was more of a logistical challenge. For women, writing with children historically has been a challenge. Compromises have to be made. In the ideal world, you have the whole day to yourself, you can run to your desk or whatever. So many writers in the past were men, and usually very wealthy men. It is a hard thing to do when you have other responsibilities, whether the responsibilities are holding down another job or raising children. But fortunately, for me and for my generation, there were many examples of women who had figured out a way.

It is the discipline alongside some of the smaller sacrifices that, I think, allow that balance. Balance is a false word. Life is very tricky and out of balance most of the time. We have to kind of acknowledge that. I learned growing up as an artist, as a parent that it is not always going to be a great writing day. It is not always going to be a great writing month, or even a great writing year, because things happen in life that are going to make demands on your time. Whether they are wonderful things like raising two children who are small and who need to be taken care of, and they have been fed and played with and held, things like that, or whether it is the more unpleasant, inevitable experiences of life that take you away from things. You have faith that the writing will happen. After the rainstorms, the skies will settle, and it will be possible, again, to make the journey. 

Roman Stories

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz

Published by Penguin Random House India

Price Rs499; pages 224