Jhumpa Lahiri Has Found a Place of Contentment

From a Wall Street Journal story by Emily Bobrow headlined “Jhumpa Lahiri Has Found a Place of Contentment”:

When Jhumpa Lahiri decided to move to Rome with her family in 2012, it was partly because of her love of the Italian language, but also to flee her public persona as a writer in the U.S. She explains that her quiet, reserved fiction comes from a quiet, reserved place, and she had mixed feelings about losing her anonymity to literary celebrity after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her first book in 1999. “I think my natural inclinations are to be more of an invisible person,” she says.

Lahiri found in Rome “the deepest sense of security, well-being and rootedness”—a sentiment that she understands might seem strange given that she and her husband, the journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, and their two children knew almost no one when they arrived. But after a lifetime without a “sense of homeland”—growing up in Rhode Island left her feeling different both from her Bengali immigrant parents and her American peers—she sounds relieved to have finally found her place. “Sometimes people uproot themselves in order to find themselves,” she says in a library near Barnard College in New York City, where she teaches English and creative writing when she’s not in Italy.

“Roman Stories,” Lahiri’s first story collection since 2008, comes out next week in English; she originally wrote the stories in Italian, then translated most of them herself. Despite Lahiri’s gratitude for her life in Rome, the new stories feel distinctly melancholic, and quite a few view the city from the uneasy vantage of an outsider. In “Notes,” a widowed immigrant takes a temporary job in a school and finds nasty notes stuffed in her coat pocket, including one that reads, “We don’t like your face”—something Lahiri’s late mother experienced in Rhode Island.

In “The Re-entry,” a visiting professor meets a friend for lunch at a local trattoria and is unnerved by various snubs from the staff, such as when the owner calls her “la moretta” (which means “the brunette” but also refers to a dark Venetian mask), in reference to her relatively dark hair and skin. “She doesn’t just feel bad and embittered; she’s humiliated,” Lahiri writes.

Many of the characters in these stories are immigrants struggling with xenophobia, but nearly all seem disoriented in some way, uncomfortable in their marriages, in their relationships with grown children, in their often lonely lives. “All of the characters are ‘others’,” Lahiri says. “Even the Romans are completely alienated from their environment. They feel somehow that life has passed them by.” She says she hopes that by dramatizing the desires and disappointments of both immigrants and natives, her stories will help “blur the binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

In muddling, or perhaps bridging, these divides, Lahiri admits that she is reckoning with some of the challenges of her own past. She says her parents raised her to believe that Americans “are not us, and we are not them, and we’re never going to be them.” Yet she would often think: “I’m not completely ‘us,’ and I’m not ‘them’ either, so where am I? Who am I?”

Lahiri says her parents expected her to speak only Bengali at home in Kingston, R.I., where her father worked as a university librarian. She spent much of her adolescence feeling defensive of her immigrant parents but also frustrated by their critiques of her friends. “Alienation and judgment go together a lot,” she says. Lahiri tried to fit in and learned to gird herself against the disconcerting questions of strangers: “There was always someone saying to me or my family, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you in our supermarket?’”

Such feelings of dislocation can be unpleasant, but they are also powerful material for art. “That quandary, that intermediate space, that confusion is what I think gives birth to the writer in me,” says Lahiri. She quotes the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno: “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.”

Lahiri hadn’t planned on becoming a novelist. She studied mostly medieval and Renaissance literature as an undergraduate at Barnard, gathered several literary masters’ degrees at Boston University and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies in 1997. By immersing herself in the literature of the past, Lahiri says that she better understood “my sense of place in the world.” When she first began tentatively writing stories on the side, it was largely to make sense of the details of her own life.

Her acclaimed debut collection, “Interpreter of Maladies,” and her first two bestselling novels, “The Namesake” (2003) and “The Lowland” (2013), drew heavily from the lives of her parents. “They were my attempts to know them better,” Lahiri says. She adds that she hoped her books would help her parents understand her, too: “My mother, after reading “The Namesake,” said ‘I think I gave you a hard time sometimes,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, sometimes you did.’”

Lahiri recounts these works from a distance—“Those books were a long time ago,” she says. Although President Barack Obama awarded her a National Humanities Medal in 2014, she says that writing in English always left her feeling like she was chasing perfection and coming up short: “I felt a sense of failure to be a fully integrated American.” When she began writing in Italian, she felt liberated from these expectations. “The point of it is to do more with less,” she says.

Critics and fans are often asking Lahiri why she now writes exclusively in Italian. “I can’t answer the question to anyone’s satisfaction,” she says. Although her vocabulary is still richer and her tools are sharper in English, Italian is simply where she now feels most at home. “I can’t rationally pinpoint why because it could have been another language, but it wasn’t,” she says. “It’s like love.”

Instead of defending her self-imposed linguistic exile, she would rather just keep putting out her work at what seems to be a dizzying pace. In just over a decade, she has published a novel, a book of personal nonfiction, her first book of poems, translations of three novels by the Italian writer Domenico Starnone, and her new book of stories. “It’s an alchemical thing,” she says of her productivity in Italian, a language that she spoke only haltingly not so long ago.

Lahiri acknowledges that in Rome, too, she remains a kind of outsider: “People are always asking, ‘What brought you to this place?’” Yet she says the city is where she feels most accepted and where she is also most able to accept herself. She is grateful for the way that living “in daily contact with antiquity” keeps her own work in perspective. “You may be on the front page of every newspaper in Rome because you wrote a book,” she says, “but then you look out the window and remember, we are all just passing through.”

Emily Bobrow is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Review section, where she writes the weekly profile column Weekend Confidential. Previously, she worked as a staff editor and writer at The Economist, covering culture, politics and policy in New York, London and Washington, D.C.

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