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Jhumpa Lahiri – My Indian heritage informs everything, she says as latest book is an English translation of her own work first published in Italian…

Jhumpa Lahiri – My Indian heritage informs everything, she says as latest book is an English translation of her own work first published in Italian…

📘Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel is a translation of her own original work in Italian and called, ‘Whereabouts

📘Widely regarded as one of the foremost literary voices of the 21st century, she moved to Italy and is now a fluent Italian speaker and wrote her first novel in the language, ‘Dove mi trovo’, published in 2018 which is now ‘Whereabouts’ in English. Her initial engagement with country and language came through study and stay in Florence.

📘‘Whereabouts’ is about an unnamed middle aged (40s) single, childless woman and her story is told through a series of episodes or vignettes and the setting is Rome, though it isn’t explicitly stated…

📘She says her Indian and migrant identity remains strong and still permeates all her work

📘Whereabouts’ was officially published in the US on April 27 and on May 4 in the UK

Jhumpa Lahiri recently spoke to the Southbank Centre in London about her new work…

MANY regard her as a great writer and an essential commentator who also distils the contemporary migrant experience with intelligence, literary flair and much artistry.

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the best known literary authors of our time and her latest work is unusual – originally written in her third language, after English and Bengali, she translated ‘Dove mi trovo’ from her own Italian herself.

The English translation, ‘Whereabouts‘ was published in the UK last Tuesday (May 4), and she has been talking about what led her to translate her own work, the latest book’s themes and resonances.

In conversation with Thea Lenarduzzi, from the Times Literary Supplement, as part of the Southbank Centre’s Inside Out series of literary conversations, this Zoom-style discussion dropped for the first time on the centre’s site on May 6 (see below for details of how you can still listen till Thursday). The two explored the origins of ‘Whereabouts’ and what it meant for Lahiri to write in another language other than English.

Lahiri first placed ‘Whereabouts’ in the context of her previous works without referring to them directly and said the creative impulse initially sprung from her own personal tussle of having two languages, two identities and whether one cancelled out the other, or the dialogue between them.

Then in 2017 ‘In Other Words‘ was published, documenting her relationship to Italian in Italian with an English translation by Ann Goldstein on the opposing page.

“Moving into Italian, it was my way, I think, in retrospect, of re-interpreting what it meant to be a foreigner,” she told Lenarduzzi.

She had started out with two languages – Bengali, her mother tongue and then English growing up in the US.

“Am I somebody or nobody?” she posed, asking whether it was possible to hold two identities. “How do I make this work?”

That process then acquired another layer with her love of Italian and her need to communicate in it and immerse herself in a language she loved.

Jhumpa Lahiri – Courtesy of the Southbank Centre
Pic: Elena Seibert

She starts explaining to Lenarduzzi, that her relationship to Italian was initially like a love affair and prompted by hearing people have conversations of which she could not be part of – but that passion dies and becomes something else.

Moving to Rome with her two school-going children and husband, from the US in 2012 was “completely transformative” she told Lenarduzzi.

Much of ‘Whereabouts‘ is about memories – old lovers, friends, solitary journeys and growing up and the city the narrator finds hersel exploring.

The chapters are titled, ‘In the bookstore’, ‘In the Hotel’ and ‘At the Beautician’ to name just a few and are made up of 46 in total.

During the Southbank Centre talk, Lahiri read a passage in which the narrator reflects on a candle left by the roadside which the marks the spot where a young man died in road traffic accident.

“The book is mindful of the passage of a life and what it means to appear and disappear,” Lahiri elaborated afterwards.

Lahiri said the book explores presence and absence and longing and belonging.

This is the first time Lahiri has penned a creative work where her characters have no Bengali or American connections.

Her previous novels have always explored what it means to be of two places, to be a migrant and cross borders and experience life in two languages.

In the final section of her Southbank talk, asked by a member of the audience about her relationship to her Indian American and Bengali identity specifically, Lahiri said: “I am from an Indian heritage. It informs everything I do and it doesn’t go away.

“It’s never gone away, in my book I am constantly thinking about the arc and consequences of migration,” Lahiri explained.

She also told listeners that her most recent work, ‘Racconti romani’ (‘Roman Stories’), which is not yet translated into English, has a number of tales about Bangladeshi immigrants who live in Rome.

“I don’t necessarily specify that that is where they are from – they could also be from other parts of the world,” she explained. “I was inspired, in some sense, by my observations and interactions with people from Bangladesh.” She clarified that some of these people she has written about were born in Italy and raised there and are not immigrants.

Lahiri was talking to Lenarduzzi from New York and is currently director of Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.

Previous works of which ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, (1999) was both her debut and breakthrough work and which won The Pulitzer (the US’ top fiction prize), is a collection of short stories; ‘The Namesake’ (2003) recounts the experiences of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, as they leave Calcutta for Boston, Massachusetts and raise a son in the US. Lahiri’s first full length novel was turned into a film by director Mira Nair in 2006. ‘The Lowland’ (2013) is a novel about two brothers who take very converging paths, one as a violent political activist in Kolkata and his brother, as a scientist who leaves India to study in the US. All these cover essentially migrant tales. first heard her talk about her plan to write in Italian at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2014. (See link below).

The talk is available till May 13
Whereabouts’ – Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury) UK
Jhumpa Lahiri at JLF in 2014

*The Southbank Centre in London opens its doors on May 28 and concerts in the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) begin on May 28. These include: Sheku Kanneh-Mason with Chineke!, family orchestral concerts with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Anoushka Shankar’s 2019 EP ‘Love Letters’ on May 30.
Last Friday (April 30) the weekly street food market behind the RFH returned alongside riverside pop-ups. The Hayward Gallery welcomes visitors back on Wednesday May 19 with free weekend entertainment outside the RFH Hall from Friday May 21-23.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture