Jhumpa Lahiri Has Always Been Able To Translate Suffering. Her New Book Helped Me Translate Mine.
“I've always felt that I'm in some sense an empty vessel, and I'm filling myself with other people's experiences and grief and life and dilemmas and conflicts.”
Despite using it for the better part of 20 years, Jhumpa Lahiri’s first name is actually a nickname given to her from her family — customary for South Asian children — and then used because it was easier for Americans to pronounce than her real name, Nilanjana. Plenty of Indians go by their nicknames in daily life (my mother changed her name completely when she immigrated to Canada), but few of these diminutives have become as synonymous with the pain and complexity of being human as “Jhumpa.” It’s also the name that’s always been able to explain my life back to me.
I avoided her debut novel, 2003’s The Namesake, for years, even after it was adapted into a movie starring Kal Penn and Irrfan Khan in 2006. I knew it was a book that would feel like someone reached into my chest to pull my heart out. I knew it would perfectly articulate how I had been feeling for so long, and I didn’t really feel like putting myself through that unique hell. Like its protagonist, Gogol, I was the child of Indian emigrants, a brat who rebuked my family’s simplest requests, a whitewashed first-gen kid who was slowly beginning to regret everything I ever said to my mother by the time I was 17. Who needs this kind of self-flagellating?
Me, it turns out. Once I read The Namesake, I read everything else by Lahiri in quick order. 1999’s Interpreter of Maladies twice, 2008’s Unaccustomed Earth on my honeymoon (a perfect time for unadulterated weeping), 2013’s The Lowland after that. After I read one of her stories, which ends with a woman losing her gold bangle — an emblem of her identity, of her fate in life — I put my own gold bangle back on, an heirloom from my grandmother, a talisman that I suddenly feared losing.
Lahiri’s latest novel Whereabouts, out this week, was originally published in Italian as Dove Mi Trovo in 2018. Whereabouts isn’t just Lahiri’s first novel since 2013’s The Lowland; it’s also her first big swing at translating her own work. At just over 170 pages, it’s still an epic assignment and a clear departure, both in plot and tone, from her other fiction. The book is cold; there’s something unmistakably sad about every sentence, and yet it’s not fully connected with its own sadness. Still, it will absolutely make you wish you were an aloof signora drinking cappuccinos in Rome.
About a week ago, 53-year-old Lahiri met me at a coffee shop near the Princeton campus, where she is the director of the creative writing program. She arrived in an orange and black tweed coat — a layer more than the late-April weather seemed to merit — a scarf, big black square Prada sunglasses, purple speckled tights, a collection of Italian coin jewelry, and a now-perfunctory KN95.
I felt heavy with grief throughout the week before our meeting. The COVID rates in India have completely overwhelmed the country, and a few of my own relatives had recently died while even more of them were sick (though most continue to be stable). I hadn’t seen my parents, who live in Canada, in a year and a half, and that wasn’t likely to change thanks to Canada extending its border closure. It was the most alone I’d ever felt. I knew I was coming to Lahiri looking for something. What exactly, I wasn’t sure: It seemed right, and yet absolutely absurd, that when I felt most distant from everyone I love, I yearned for connection with a woman who transmuted so much of my past disconnection into words. But what could she actually give me? And why should she give me anything at all? I was just another stranger making my pilgrimage to someone I saw as a sage, hoping to glean some kind of profound truth that could pull me out of my despair.
To those of us who don’t speak English, Bengali, and now Italian, who didn’t get degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative literature, along with a PhD in Renaissance studies, writing a book in your third language and then translating that book back into English might seem like a tremendous flex. But considering Lahiri’s fulsome career, it makes sense: All of her writing has translated pain into words, a decadeslong attempt to interpret a feeling into something more tactile. This time, as always, I felt like I was coming to her for help: Make sense of the last year for me. Put words to my sadness. Help me find meaning in the cruelty.
“I’ve always been a translator on some level,” she told me. “Even when I wasn’t technically one, I always was.”
Though she's such a deft communicator of the alienation and loss that comes with immigration, Lahiri has had a largely American upbringing. Born in London to Bengali parents, she moved to the US with her family as a toddler; her father worked as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island. “I’ve written a lot about people who have left their worlds and their comforts and their language and their people and their food and everything behind to build ‘better lives,’ and that’s loss upon loss,” Lahiri said. “Technically, I haven’t ever experienced that.”
In the late ’80s, she moved to New York, where she studied English literature at Columbia University, got married to journalist Alberto Vourvoulias, and had two children, Octavio, now 18, and Noor, 16. In 2012, Lahiri and her family moved to Rome, where she not only learned Italian, but did so with enough fluency to start writing in it. (“I was interested in Rome from a very young age,” she told me.) From there, Whereabouts was born.
“I’ve always been a translator on some level."
Whereabouts feels like it was written by a different version of the same person. And perhaps that’s by design: Lahiri told me that moving to Rome and learning Italian and writing in it exclusively has changed her in fundamental ways. Unlike Lahiri’s other fiction, we get remarkably little detail about the protagonist — no name, race, or exact age. All you really know is that she’s a woman in her forties living in Rome, walking from café to piazza, ruminating on her own loneliness and detachment. It’s a beautiful and brief novella, proof that Lahiri can do searing and intimate fiction rooted in the Bengali experience, as well as an aloof Rachel Cusk–type narrative about the despair of being alive.
It’s her first fictional work that doesn’t directly and clearly focus on an Indian person, and that’s intentional. Instead, she’s interested in how readers will visualize her protagonist. “If she’s an Italian woman, what’s to say if she’s brown, Black, or white? We know that she speaks Italian, but that’s all we know. Her parents could be from Bangladesh, they could be from China. They could be from anywhere.” And despite having been written a few years ago, Whereabouts also serves as a perfect pandemic book. The protagonist sees people in small groups while feeling disconnected. She dines outdoors. She follows a couple she knows while they fight, basking in the intimacy from afar. She never really gets too close to anyone, largely by choice. There’s no significant plot, mostly feelings and anxieties: She’s never outwardly sad, but she’s not really all that happy either.
But while Whereabouts might feel divergent from her earlier work, ultimately it’s still an extension of what Lahiri does best. “The theme of solitude has been present in my work from the beginning. The theme of dislocation, the idea of place. I’ve been continuously looking at that, investigating that.”
“It’s really like branches of the same tree, and the Italian is one branch, and all the Italian work is growing off of this one branch that’s extended from me,” she said. “The core is still me.”
Whereabouts is also a book that could’ve only been written in Italian, its inspiration undeniably Roman. “This book was born from the Italian language and my life in Italy. In some sense, it couldn’t have been born from any other source,” she says. “It’s all coming from a new source, literally. A new place, a new vocabulary, a new state of mind.” What is language but a toolbox? Naturally, a new language for Lahiri is another way to feel her way through literature. “It’s the language I learned later in life to understand and to think in,” she said. “It gives me a new way of thinking about everything, and seeing everything, because I see everything through Italian words. That’s constructing a new reality that I wouldn’t have constructed out of English words.”
At this point, Lahiri said she is pretty far removed from her English-language work — she hasn’t written fiction or poetry in English for 10 years. “I don’t even write in my diary in English anymore,” she said. She has other books drafted in Italian that she’s translating, possibly forthcoming this year.
“I don’t think writing is a career. It’s a need. You would do it no matter what. You write because you have to write.”
Working in translation is a surprising move for someone who already has an extremely successful writing career, although that presupposes that Lahiri looks at her oeuvre as being a career at all. “I wrote in Italian and everyone said, ‘You’re throwing your writing career away!’ I never had one, in my head,” she said. “I don’t think writing is a career. It’s a need. You would do it no matter what. You write because you have to write."
In any language, there’s a burden to being a writer who translates feelings well. You have a skill that’s much needed in and out of your community: an ability to make sense of the chaos and doldrums of being alive. It seems likely that people would always be coming to you with their own traumas; it’s so easy to mistake a good writer for a good therapist. “I think a writer is a receptacle. I've always felt that I'm in some sense an empty vessel, and I'm filling myself with other people's experiences and grief and life and dilemmas and conflicts,” Lahiri said. “There’s an interplay, I suppose, between one’s own experiences, accumulated from over the years, and also the experiences of others, observations, the world. There’s some kind of dialogue between those things.”
Certainly, on some level, I was one of these people coming to Lahiri in hopes of gaining some greater understanding about the current state of the world. She had, through her work, given me a balm for my suffering. I miss my mother terribly, and live in panic for when she calls crying because she can’t get a doctor’s appointment for a bad knee, or because someone in India didn’t make it through the night, or because she still can’t really leave her house, or because she misses me too. Overwhelming empathy for my parents is a relatively new experience for me, since I once felt largely estranged from them. I have, in large part, Lahiri to thank for that — her books always served as compassionate explanations for my parents’ rigidity or their panic or their fear. My parents were never able to explain themselves to me the way Lahiri could through her work. “I have been so deeply inspired by my parents,” Lahiri said. “Some form of one or the other of them is in almost every book I’ve written. I wouldn’t have been a writer if I hadn’t wanted to deeply, badly understand my parents.” When I asked her if writing about them for two decades has offered any clarity, she told me: “I felt closer to them by writing about them and thinking about them. But parents are always a mystery.”
Translation seems impossible to me, how the spirit of a text in one language finds its way into another, the original meanings still attached. But Lahiri seems to relish in it, in the little changes she can see happening when she dissects prose in order to put it back together again. Translation is now a sizable part of her work: not just her own books, but also the teaching and supervising she does in Princeton’s creative writing program.
The more I talked to Lahiri, the more I got a sense that it’s not so much the writing alone that thrills her but the translation of feelings into an entirely different language. And as she said before: she’s always been some kind of a translator, but it’s only been in her fifties that the work has become literal. Whereabouts has also forced her into a kind of reckoning with her own work, something she said she didn’t have to do with her previous titles. She told me she doesn’t usually read her own work, and generally puts it aside once it’s published, but this time, she had to go through every word with exacting care. “It requires a certain ability to just really own up to what you’ve done in a way that I’ve never had to do before. Own up to the book you wrote. Really acknowledge that I made this, and this is what I made. This and not anything else,” she said, tapping the tips of her fingers on our table with every word. “These are the words, these are the choices, these are the sentences, these are the actions, these were the descriptions. This.”
Lahiri relishes in how granular she can be with translation, and also how critical even the most mundane changes can be. “If you look at any one of the episodes in the Italian version, and then read in English, the same stuff is happening: she's here, she's at the café, she's meeting a friend, she's drinking a juice, whatever. But to me, the translator, I'm aware of the radical metamorphosis that is taking place on a sentence-by-sentence level, because each of the sentences is radically altered. That's what translation is: it's a radical state of change.”
On our way to Prospect Gardens on Princeton’s campus, right next to Woodrow Wilson’s former home, I asked Lahiri if there’s a book she consistently goes back to. She sat on a bench to touch up her makeup before our photo shoot, the first time I saw her without sunglasses or a mask, both of which she kept on for our entire interview, leaving me to mostly speak to my own reflection in her lenses.
Indeed, her beauty is striking, the kind you can imagine in one of her own books, all thick wavy hair that catches the sun just right, serious green eyes. “I only really read when I reread,” she said, pulling out a tattered copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, rubbing her hands over the cover like it was a religious text. “This is the book [my colleague and I are] translating. This has been an enormous part of my life ever since I read it as a college student. It’s a poem about change. It’s the greatest work ever about transformation. Change is the protagonist and it really does contain all of human experience in some sense.” For the briefest moment, Lahiri softened, looking like a girl in love. “It gives me so much strength. I think all my strength comes from literature.”
During our interview, Lahiri wasn’t inclined to share her feelings about much else. She didn’t offer many thoughts about COVID ravaging India, nor did she have a pull to write about the region in more political ways: “I think there are better people who are far more equipped to make more immediate change happen.” She also doesn’t seem interested in her inadvertent role as literary therapist. Midway through our interview, Lahiri reached into her bag and pulled out a second scarf, this one blue, and wrapped it around herself, even more armor between her and me.
“I think all my strength comes from literature.”
The way I wanted Lahiri to speak to me — to tell me why everything feels so bad right now and what I should do about it — isn’t how she works. Even if her writing provides a framework for understanding the context behind heartbreak, migration, the impact of colonialism, and the reason why you and your immigrant parents don’t see eye to eye, the reader has to do the rest of the work. To take her words and apply them to their own memories and experiences. Lahiri sees the world in a way I wish I could, with a clarity I yearn for especially now, but I know she can’t take me all the way there. What I wanted from her was more than what any human can offer, even if she had previously cured my grief over and over again without knowing it.
Hours before I met Lahiri, I visited a cousin who lives in Princeton, whom I haven’t seen in three years. We’re not particularly close, but neither of us had seen our family in more than a year, and we were desperate to see any face that looked like our own. I don't know her that well — for most of my childhood, she seemed fragile and breakable, so I kept my distance. But when I rang the bell that morning, she whipped the door open and pulled me in wordlessly for what felt like the longest hug of my life.
I had expected Lahiri to give me something in person that felt as profound as her work. But as I stood at the threshold, my cousin held me in a way I didn’t know I needed. The force of her body against mine was a surprise; she felt so much stronger than me. She was a vessel for everyone I love and miss. It wasn’t the answer I was looking for exactly, but it seemed to resolve something. She was telling me something in a language I hadn’t thought to reach for — and finally, I understood. ●