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Jhumpa Lahiri: “Who isn’t on the outside?“

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author on Italy, immigration and why she thinks identity is a trap.

By Emily Tamkin

“I think identity is many things, but I think one of the things it is is a trap,” said Jhumpa Lahiri. “Thinking too much about it traps us in ways that are dangerous and limiting.”

For much of the past two decades, I might not have expected to hear those sentences from this author. Lahiri’s 1999 debut, Interpreter of Maladies, a dazzling collection of short stories focused on the lives of Indians and Indian Americans, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was followed by her 2003 novel The Namesake, about the life and family of a Bengali American named Gogol; her 2008 collection Unaccustomed Earth, also focused on Indians and Indian Americans; and her 2013 novel, The Lowland, told the story of a man and woman who immigrate to the US from India, bringing with them a terrible secret.

Her stories were grounded, in other words, in a particular identity. But then, in a 2013 New York Times interview, Lahiri politely but firmly pushed back against the idea of “immigrant literature”. After all, almost everyone in the US is related to someone who came from somewhere else – what wasn’t immigrant literature?

Lahiri, now 53, pressed home this same theme of belonging and not belonging when we spoke recently over zoom about her latest book, Whereabouts. But she did so in a different way.

“So much of my life and work in the beginning was about specifics,” she told me. “It was about specific places, specific people, specific languages, specific cultures, specific contrast between ‘culture, background, identity A’ and ‘culture, background, identity B’. And I lived all that. I did. I’m a product of that, I’m a creature of that conflict and that conversation.”

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Yet this approach changed as she grew older and had her own children. After leaving the US, where she grew up, and moving to Italy, where “foreign” had different meanings, she started to see identity and otherness as “a much larger, much more complex conversation”.

“I wanted to think about the themes that I’ve always been thinking about. Being other, being outside of something, being on the periphery of something. What does this mean on a more existential level? What does this mean for all of us? For each of us?

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“Who isn’t on the outside? Who hasn’t been on the outside looking in, or looking across the border of something? That’s what I’m trying to get at more in this Italian moment of my writing. Looking at the old questions but in a more distilled way. And I think that the way I can distil the question is to take away the specifiers.”

The Italian moment, for Lahiri, involved becoming fluent in Italian; living, for a time, in Italy; writing a book, In Other Words, about her love for the language in Italian (it was translated into English by Ann Goldstein); and now writing Whereabouts in Italian and then translating it into English.

In this latest work, the main character a female, single academic does not have a name. Her appearance is never described and, although the reader assumes that the story takes place in Italy, no town is ever identified.

In explaining how such an elusive character came about, Lahiri says that, unlike her earlier characters, “I think I came to her origins and her relationship to her parents in a secondary phase. I was really first trying to understand who she was as an adult, on her own.” In the past, the older generations had come to her first. Not here.

Even so, reading Whereabouts, one feels as close to the protagonist in her anonymous solitude as we did to Gogol in The Namesake. We see her refrain from turning a platonic relationship with a married man into something more, navigate a fraught connection with her mother, and make a career decision that shapes her. The chapters are short, but each one is its own story. The protagonist remains a technical stranger, yet I felt I knew her as well as any I’d ever encountered.

And although our nameless protagonist and her nameless town are apart from time and space, they are not divorced from the world. Did Lahiri, I asked her, think that a book dealing with immigrants and borders takes on heightened meaning in a moment when such topics are at the forefront of the political conversation?

“I wasn’t thinking consciously about the political echoes, but, of course, I [wrote] this book in an Italy that is struggling daily with the idea of people arriving at ports… This was something I was absorbing every day, and was very attuned to. I have friends, good friends, who are working on the vessels, the rescue ships. And so this is something that I think about, that I know about, that I hear about.

“There’s so much of the unconscious at play when you’re working on something, but certainly I was particularly attuned to the question of migration and the resistance, the tension around this very basic fact of border crossing, which of course has defined who I am and my family is from the very beginning.”

There are also themes in the book  loneliness, solitude and connectedness that have taken on new resonance because of the pandemic.

“I wrote the book in a period of hyper-movement,” she says; she wrote most of the book on visits to Rome from the US, where she now teaches. “I cannot tell you how many times the notebook that this novel exists in in handwritten form travelled across the Atlantic, literally in my handbag.”

Her edits to the English translation took place during the American lockdown, however, in an abandoned Princeton University; “I was booking my seat [at the library] and wearing three masks.” The book was written in movement, but edited in a kind of stillness, she explains, giving it a new resonance.

Of translating her own story, she said, “I essentially had to tell the story twice” something she is unsure whether she can “keep doing”. The effort of writing and translating one’s own work, of creating and re-living the story, may be too much to repeat.

[See also: Tom Jones: “I wanted to be a man – desperately”]

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die