JHUMPA LAHIRI’S NEW novel Whereabouts (Hamish Hamilton; 176 pages; Rs499) is the author’s first Italian novel, which she has translated into English. Set in an unnamed city with an unnamed protagonist, it tells of stasis and movement. In Whereabouts Lahiri has not only demolished her oeuvre, she has resurrected it (‘The Author of Anywhere’, Open, May 10th, 2021). Excerpts from an interview:
As someone who moves between Princeton and Rome, in what ways do you think location influences the cadence of your text?
Whereabouts was written entirely in Rome. I translated it in Princeton.
I tend to now separate the writing. My Italian writing usually is happening when I’m in Italy, that is when that writing is flourishing. The translation work I tend to do here in Princeton, where I have English as more of a centre of gravity.
When you translate your own work, how different is it compared to when you translate someone else’s work? How dispassionately can you do it?
As dispassionately as possible. And really recognising it is a different work by a separate part of me. If not by a separate author. It is a separate state of mind. I have to recognise that as objectively as I can.
Different state of mind, in what way?
Well, the state of mind that is Italian. The state of mind that is thinking in Italian, and feeling in Italian. And has only Italian as a form of expression.
In In Other Words (2017), you mentioned how when you write in Italian, you found yourself moving towards abstraction, away from specifics, and Whereabouts is a great example of that. Why do you think Italian has made you into a different kind of writer?
I can only speculate. It’s given me new keys to look at life in a different way. I’m thinking about things that are very specific. But in taking away the specifics, it’s both abstract and more concrete at the same time. I think in a place like Rome, where time goes back so very far, and there are still so many traces of time, that you don’t always have specifics to anchor. An object will say 2nd century. That is a long time, you know (laughs). We get used to thinking along very abstract terms that then again add a layer of specificity to something.
I am thinking also of different kinds of art and of painters like [Giorgio] Morandi and [Giorgio de] Chirico and of other types of representation. Morandi was the artist who painted the configuration of bottles and other objects, still lifes, over and over again, and the images are both very specific and very abstract. There are no labels, you don’t understand what these objects contain. You just know that they are containers. And Chirico is a surrealist artist who depicts those empty spaces so beautifully.
Not that there isn’t a lot of abstract art all over the world. But some of these Italian artists have really spoken to me in a way that has also influenced my writing in Italian.
Many of your previous works have dealt with questions of identity. In Whereabouts, we don’t know whether our protagonist is Indian, Italian or American. She could be any of those identities, she could be none of those, and it doesn’t matter.
Yes, exactly, and I think it speaks to more people than we think. So many people have hybrid identities, so many people have had different parts and they can’t pinpoint what they are, and even if they wanted to pinpoint what they are another piece of them will always slip out somehow. Because we are so complex and because so many of our life experiences create these composite identities. And why say, this person has 20 per cent this and 30 per cent that, and then also lived five years in this place and also picked up that language? I don’t understand why we need to constantly determine people’s origins, determine what their make-up is. Of course, it’s interesting, but on the other hand, sometimes, we get too weighed down by these questions. Why don’t we just speak and see what we’re to each other as human beings, and maybe I bring these experiences and these cultural references, and this background and these influences and maybe you bring another set. I just do think we are at a moment where there’s so much focus on identity. And certainly, I was raised in a bell jar of identity-laden questions; constantly, ‘What are you?’ ‘What do you feel?’ And you have to choose a side. There is no escape from it, but I think at least as a writer, I can start to position myself differently vis-à-vis this discourse.
My students use this word that I don’t understand. I do understand, but I never use it and it’s this idea of relatability; how literature has to somehow be relatable. You have to relate to the character, relate to the experiences. I find this a slippery slope,” says Jhumpa Lahiri, author
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You have mentioned previously how you’ve gotten tired of being labelled the ‘Indian-American’ author or someone who was born in London, grew up in the US and whose parents are Bengali and then moved to Italy. So, is this sort of a personal push back as well?
I don’t think this is personal. I think it’s just a different way of telling the story. My students use this word that I don’t understand. I mean, I do understand, but I never use it and it’s this idea of relatability. How literature has to somehow be relatable. You have to relate to the character, relate to the experiences. The experiences you put on the page have to be, somehow, you know, obviously connected to your experiences, your background, your ethnicity, your identity and I find this a slippery slope.
As a reader, as a teacher, as a writer, I just feel this will drive us into a corner in terms of what literature is and what literature has always been, and what literature should continue to do. Which is to open doors and create points of connection, in spite of the relatability question. I push back against that.
I don’t really care so much about how people talk about me. I really have no interest in how people define me or label me or write about me. It doesn’t matter to me because I can’t control that. What is of more urgent importance to me is the ways we read literature and this tendency we have now to seek out ‘our own’ in what we read or in the author’s work, which supposedly should be able to speak to us. That is what I find really perplexing. That is what I am trying to push back against.
Is the answer translation? Is that the best way to open doors?
I think so. Translation is essential to that activity of opening the vault. Without translation, Tolstoy would not have spoken to me. Chekov would not have spoken to me. Proust would not have spoken to me. My entire formation as a reader, as a writer, as a person, as a human being has been through literature and so much of that literature has been in translation. So yes, translation is essential, it is at the centre of that conversation.
Writing can be seen as a way of control, making the words heed what you want to say. In a ‘new’ language did it feel like you were relinquishing control?
I don’t think we’re ever in control. And I am not interested in being in control. I never felt in control of my English either. I think writing is actually diving into the chaos and writing is leaping into that unknown space. And even if you know a language ‘very well’, it is not a given that you can control it at all. That’s why not all books are successful. That is why not all stories end up being written. In English, for every book or story that I’ve published there are many more that I didn’t. That I wrote halfway or quarter of the way and realised I was not able to control the language. And the story was not going to function.
One has to understand that art is not about control; not in the same way as, you know how to drive a car, so you know how to control the machine. And even then, you can have an accident. I wrote in In Other Words about that feeling of learning how to write again, and that was disorienting and destabilising. But that was then. That’s not now. That was not the experience of writing Whereabouts. The aim is to have the words, the language in some form of ‘control’. But I wouldn’t call it ‘control’, I’d call it coherence. You cannot govern language and that is what is so powerful about it. Language is beyond us. We can only grasp at it, we can try and rein it in. But it is like the ocean, we cannot control it.
You’ve mentioned before that you found a home in Italian and in Rome. At a time like this, what do you miss most about it?
I never really left Rome (laughs). It is in my head and my heart. Barring the pandemic, I go there very often. I’ve been living between two places now for the last five years. I’m here physically, but I will soon be gone. I’m not permanently in one place at all. And I wonder if we are ever permanently anywhere. That is what the book is asking. The protagonist is reflecting on that, because her day-to-day movements are producing a deeper, more existential reflection on her part. She asks, ‘Aren’t we all passing through?’ That is something to think about vis-à-vis questions of nationhood, this disease of nationhood, if you will. It is very problematic for our world to cling to ideas of nationhood and not to see beyond that. To have it as defining containers as to who we are.
What I miss on a day-to-day level is that feeling of belonging and community, a certain connection to life, a certain sense of vitality that I feel over there, which I don’t feel here. I look forward to that.
There is really nothing I love more than thinking about words, and that is why I love translating. With language, it is like the ocean, it is full of secrets, says Jhumpa Lahiri
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As someone who learnt (mastered) a new language in adulthood, what has your relationship to the dictionary been?
I used it for my reading. So, the big change happened after living in Italy for a year or so and reading, reading, always in Italian, I realised there was a point when I didn’t have to bring the dictionary with me, if I were to go on a train trip and was reading a book. I didn’t need the dictionary anymore. So that was a sign that I had built up enough of a vocabulary and knew the syntax enough to understand what was going on. Now as a writer, as a translator, I’m constantly running to the dictionary in English and Italian, and now in Latin because I’m now translating from Latin to English with a colleague of mine. There I’m bound to the dictionary. There is really nothing I love more than thinking about words, and that is why I love translating.
I am going to the library in a little while and I will set myself up with two huge Latin dictionaries and start to translate the lines that I have for today. With language, it is like the ocean, it is full of secrets, there is no amount of comprehension that will ever enable you to understand the layers of meaning that are in language.
So even when I am translating, Ovid’s Metamorphoses with my colleague who is a trained Latin scholar, who has done nothing but study Latin for years, and is absolutely so knowledgeable about the language, even then there are moments when we are translating together and we have to stop to ponder a word. And she too is going to the dictionary, and we’re looking together at the meanings, the potential meanings of one word, to be able to consider, re-consider what it might be in English. How it might work best in today’s English.
Language is written at a certain time, and it is always changing, always evolving, it never sits still. And when you are translating you have to find a meaning for a word, written in its time, and you have to give it meaning in your time in another language. So, I am constantly surrounded by dictionaries. They are vital to my intellectual and creative life. And it doesn’t matter how well you know a language, a dictionary will always outpace you, always.
Why has Ovid’s Metamorphoses always been an important text for you?
Because it’s about change. Because the protagonist is change. And it’s the one work of literature that really slows down what change really means. It is always about a death into a new life.