Jhumpa Lahiri: “I have always lived in a kind of linguistic exile” | Books

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Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel is the triumphant culmination of her 20-year love affair with Italian, an obsession that led her to settle in Rome with her family almost 10 years ago. She gave up all reading in English and began to write only Italian. Published in Italy in 2018 as Dove mi trovo – “Where am I” or “Where am I?” »- this is his first novel written in Italian. Now she has translated it into English under the title Or.

The story follows an unnamed woman in an unnamed town over the course of a year, each chapter being an espresso of regret and loneliness. In the second chapter, “In the street”, the narrator meets a man, the husband of a friend, with whom she “may have been involved, perhaps shared a life”: they enter a lingerie store. because she needs to buy a pair of tights, leading 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 conversation with a barista; an ephemeral meeting. The novel asks: “How does a city become a relationship in itself for the female protagonist?” she said now. This is a book about belonging and non-belonging, place and movement – questions of identity that Lahiri has explored throughout his fiction, whether they take place in New England, in Calcutta or now (we’re guessing) in Rome. After a year of forced isolation for so many, especially in Italy, this “portrait of a woman in a sort of urban solitude”, as she describes the novel, has taken on an unexpected and timely resonance.

Today Lahiri is at home in New Jersey: “Mi trovo Princeton, ”she says. She returned to teach at the university in 2015, while maintaining a long-distance relationship with Rome. “I had two sets of keys. I had this other life, in this other place, ”she explains, until the coronavirus hit last year; her son was still in school in Rome at the time. On the shelves behind it, the only visible title is an outward facing book with “ITALIAN” in large print. His previous book, In other words, was her first written in Italian (translated by Ann Goldstein, the translator of Elena Ferrante) – “a kind of linguistic autobiography”, it is a passionate account of her “pilgrimage” to Rome and her quest to conquer the language . At the end, she admits to being slightly embarrassed to have written such a personal book of “love, suffering”, and I suspect she feels the same about giving interviews (than she is reading never, with the reviews). She’s as thoughtful and composed as one would expect from reading her fiction, with the same quiet humor that might be easy to miss.

“I’m the least experimental writer,” Lahiri told The New York Times magazine in 2008 when her second short story collection, Unusual land, went straight to No.1 on America’s bestseller lists, prompting Time magazine to declare a changing of the guard in American fiction. “The idea of ​​trying things just to push the limits, that never really interested me.” And it is true that his elegantly melancholy short stories – his first collection, Disease Interpreter, won the Pulitzer in 2000 at the age of 33 – belongs to the realist tradition. Avoiding the showy irony of many of her American peers, or the lush prose and epic sweep typical of Anglo-Indian fiction of the time, she portrayed the daily life of Asian American immigrants (often from the middle class) with the same moral complexity that distinguishes the work of its literary heroes William Trevor and Alice Munro.

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

His first novel, Namesake, which follows the fortune of “Gogol”, the son of Bengali immigrants, as he travels to New York, has been adapted for the cinema by famous director Mira Nair; and his second The plain, a family saga stretching from 1950s Calcutta to New England decades later, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. Although Or is a novel, it could be described almost as a collection of connected short stories, and so, at least in form, Lahiri is really on his ground. She may be a traditionalist, but surely there is no greater experience for a writer than adopting an entirely new language? Like a 21st century heroine of Henry James, she fled the United States (the Brooklyn Brownstone literary ensemble, of which she was one of the most famous) for the old world charms of Rome, in what she describes it as nothing less than an act of “literary survival.” “It’s really hard to explain the forces of life that push you towards people, towards places, towards languages,” she says. For me, to a language, then to a place, then to a new life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being, these are very great things.

She always had the feeling of existing in “a sort of linguistic exile” long before she left 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 (her father, like many of her characters, worked in college), with frequent trips to Calcutta, she felt her story was “much more complicated” than that of her school friends. : “There was always ‘the other place’ and ‘the other language’ and ‘the other world.’ Bengali, which she spoke until the age of four, is both her mother tongue and “a foreign language” because she can neither read nor write it: it is the language of her parents, “the language of their world.” Lahiri and her sister were educated in English, that she came to think of it as an intimidating “mother-in-law.” “Why am I running away? What’s chasing me? Who wants to hold me back? She asks in In other words. “The most obvious answer is the English language.”

And yet, she loved him, especially for the world of books he opened. “I still love him,” she says now. “But at the same time, emotionally, it was that kind of impossible challenge. My relationship with English has always been part of a child’s desire to be a full part of this world. Paradoxically, the fact that there is “not even really a question of belonging” in Italy has finally freed her from being caught between two languages, “ie having to choose between two. ways of being, two ways of thinking, ”she explains. . “On parole, in a nutshell, it gave me a real sense of belonging, fully recognizing that it is a “meaning”.

Written in bursts on each return to Rome, Or was born from her “living from day to day in this city, mainly by crossing it”. It is fitting that the novel’s inspiration and the English title suggested to her in transit: the idea was “born” on a train in Italy when the author was intrigued by a middle-aged woman whom she saw. sitting alone, “and we look in the window and maybe we see each other”. The title came to him suddenly, after months of deliberation, on a flight to Rome – “whereabouts” is “an amazingly English word: it doesn’t even have Latin roots.” And it is surely no coincidence that each of the chapters with the enigmatic title – “At the Trattoria”, “In the spring”, “On the sofa”, “At the seaside” – begins with a preposition (she studied “A prodigious sentence” by Alberto Moravia in order to master Italian prepositions “once and for all”). It is a novel “of oscillations, instability and shadows,” she says. “I was thinking about this idea of ​​what it means to go through life, to be always on the move.” And yet, unlike Lahiri, who describes herself as “a nomad,” her narrator never left the town where she was born. She is “always on the move in her world, and yet somehow stuck 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, end up at checkpoints,” much of Lahiri’s own experience has been “tied to things like green cards and naturalization, passports and certificates ”. In Or she wanted to imagine what it might be like for someone who has never had to consider these things, and yet still feels restless, to show that this conflict between the feeling of being ‘rooted and uprooted’ takes place. applies to everyone.

The narrator is also a contradiction in other respects: a teacher in her late forties, she is alone, but with many friends and lovers; sometimes she is alone, sometimes she is happy; she envies others for their privacy and is envied for her freedom. “She’s at this crossroads. She is a woman who recognizes that she is unlikely to become a mother; she may have other relationships but that will not be part of her life. How is she going to accept this? she asks. Much of the writing comes from imagining alternate lives, different paths, she believes. “What if I didn’t have this life?” What if I hadn’t met the person I met, the day I did and it happened and it happened and a child came along, then another child ? Although she is keen to stress that she is not her narrator and that her Italian adventure was truly “a family experience”, the act of traveling makes “one feel more lonely,” she says. “It touches deeper parts of you. It makes you wonder who you are.

The novel’s underlying sense of urgency or turmoil comes from the fact that it was written knowing that they would one day leave. “I still had the return ticket,” she remembers sadly. “As I sank into this new place, there was always something that would remind me of this place.”

The past year has been “an incredibly intense time” as it has seen the pandemic unfold in two outbreaks – Italy and the United States. But she was also one of the most productive: she just finished a collection, Roman stories, still written in Italian, some of which are inspired by the Bengali immigrants she met in Rome; she is preparing a book of essays on translation (she recently translated the novels of her friend Domenico Starnone, Italy’s “best living writer”); and perhaps most noteworthy, his first book of poetry – in Italian – will be published in June. She’s never written a poem in English before and “maybe never will,” she says. Just like she would never have written Or in English, she 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 wrote the poems, I felt like an intruder. But that might not be a bad thing.

Lahiri hopes to return to Rome this summer, as her daughter is due to start secondary school there in September. With each visit, she looks forward to stepping out into the plaza, “to have that first coffee and see all these people who are so happy we’re back,” she says passionately. “There is this life happening right on your doorstep, always changing and always a little bit the same. I miss that. “She keeps in touch with friends she has made among the many immigrants from Bangladesh living in Rome.” It is the only place in the world where I speak English, Italian and Bengali on a daily basis. little triangle “of language is part of the city’s magic for her,” she said, “and he’s waiting for me in the square.”


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