Lahiri’s Metamorphoses

Over eight years have passed since Jhumpa Lahiri announced her intention to leave behind the terrain of English letters and write only in Italian.

“Chameleon-skinned, I discover my material over and across the country, and up and down the social ladder,” wrote Bharati Mukherjee in her 1988 essay “Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!” Mukherjee had lived in West Bengal, the United States, and Canada, and she took pride in her ability, as someone used to viewing herself from the perspective of others, to inhabit her characters in fiction. She believed that immigrants to the US had unique access to “some of the richest material ever conferred on a writer.” But when she visited writing classes across the country, she noticed an emerging cohort of “Asia-born and United States–raised writers” who, unlike her, focused not on the United States but, instead, offered only a faint, quaint, diaspora-diluted memory of their countries of origin in their writing. “Third-world material will never be harshly received, that’s true,” she advised them. But, she warned, “Your wit and poise and delicate beauty will always be warmly applauded. Editors and classmates will indulge you, and faintly condescend. And your material is dead.”

Keep your focus on North America, she implored such authors, a terrain that had not been fully explored by Asian immigrant authors. “We mustn’t be seduced by what others term exotic,” she wrote in the final lines of the essay. “Don’t choose to be an exile out of fear, or out of distaste.”

Mukherjee’s essay appears dated in the case of Jhumpa Lahiri, who has written about North America with wit, poise, and delicate beauty and received warm applause for it. And yet, even she still chose exile.

Over eight years have passed since Lahiri announced her intention to leave behind the terrain of English letters and write only in Italian. In that time she has penned essay collections, a novel, and several short stories, now assembled in a collection, Racconti romani (Roman Stories). Lahiri’s urge to escape English has many origins, but in part stems from her rebellion against contemporary publishing’s subsidiary plan for nonwhite authors, which incentivizes them to write about the persecution and difference they experience. She had perfected the dictates of the MFA and received all the promised rewards. And yet, she concluded, she felt stifled. Lahiri’s discontent is the symptom of a spectral framework that Elif Batuman writes about in “Get a Real Degree,” where she points out laws like “write what you know” that have taught young authors “to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.”

When Interpreter of Maladies was published in 1999, Lahiri may or may not have been cognizant of the identity-shaped void that she would fill. Either way, however, her work came to represent South Asian diasporic fiction. Indeed, its success seemed to prove the hunger for a nonwhite writer to bend the form of the highbrow, realist short story—whose finest architects, to Lahiri, were Anton Chekhov, William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant—so it could make room for immigrant characters with arranged marriages, ties to a colonial history of displacement, and other curiosities for the white reader’s eye. Moreover, Lahiri’s propulsion to the upper ranks of the literary world made her an icon before whom aspiring South Asian writers, especially those in the diaspora, were fated to stop and pay dues. “Coming first meant that [Lahiri’s] became the way to write brown books,” recalls Sanjena Sathian, author of Gold Diggers, “a fact that loomed over me while I was writing my novel.”

But perhaps Lahiri’s canonization confined her more than any of the writers who came after her. The model for a model minority, she felt an unspoken restriction on what and who she could write; she longed to restore writing to what she saw as its principal purpose, which was its offer of freedom. In a 2021 interview, after describing the pressure she still feels to continue writing about South Asian immigrants, she said, “I think that can become problematic because one writes to be free. One writes to feel free. We’re actually not free, but writing is a form of freedom.”

Lahiri’s search for freedom, however, seems somewhat elliptical. Although she abandoned the South Asian characters of her earlier short stories, Lahiri continues to write about racial difference and the pitfalls of immigration in Roman Stories. (The key difference is that the setting is Italy, not the United States, and her immigrant characters are not specifically South Asian.) She taught herself Italian and translation in preparation for her own self-effacement. And yet, she still continues writing about the same fractured miseries of migration.

What, then, is the freedom that the stories of Roman Stories offer?

“Some people ask me, Why Italian instead of an Indian language, a closer language, more like you?” wrote Jhumpa Lahiri in her 2022 essay “Why Italian?” “The short answer remains: I write in Italian to feel free.”

Moreover, Italian granted her the opportunity to write less polished sentences. While writing in English, Lahiri had an eye to appearance (“I rewrite everything like a lunatic until it satisfies me”), she was scared of the mistake, the word that is out of place or is improper or takes up too much space. Her sentences had come to resemble the suburban streets that many of her characters roamed: groomed, uncluttered, bourgeois, well-lit even in the dark, and of course, beautiful and elegant.

Then, she wrote a short story in Italian. Even its difficulties only confirmed the allure of exile. “I know there will be many things to correct, to rewrite,” she reflected afterward: “I know that my life as a writer will no longer be the same.” She couldn’t say if the story was good or not, but, she says, “I’m sure of only one thing: I would never have written it in English.” The short story itself was indicative of her urge for metamorphosis. It began:

There was a woman, a translator, who wanted to be another person. There was no precise reason. It had always been that way … When she thought of what she possessed, she felt a mild revulsion, because every object, every thing that belonged to her, gave proof of her existence. Every time she remembered something of her past life, she was convinced that another version would have been better. She considered herself imperfect, like the first draft of a book. She wanted to produce another version of herself, in the same way that she could transform a text from one language into another. At times she had the impulse to remove her presence from the earth, as if it were a thread on the hem of a nice dress, to be cut off with a pair of scissors.

No wonder, then, that she chose Italian—a language where, Michelle Orange writes, “pronouns commonly disappear into their verbs.” When she came across Italian, she compared it to “a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.” Against the language of her parents (Bengali) and the lingua franca of the literati (English), Italian was the uncouth boy from the movies who showed Lahiri how to trade in manners for mistakes, swept streets for rancid ones.

In 1948, James Baldwin left his native New York City for France. Despite the difference of almost seven decades between their retreats, Baldwin and Lahiri share a fatigue with the peculiar American attitude toward race.

For Baldwin, the distinguishing feature was the hardened nature of identity for Black Americans, their inability to be unknown. “Despite the cruel and totally inescapable ambivalence of [the Black man’s] status in his country,” he wrote in “Stranger in the Village,” “the battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him.” This citizenship did not guarantee equality, but rather was the requisite condition for what he called a “more terrible, more subtle, and more meaningful” state of inferiority.

Similarly, Lahiri grew disillusioned of the spotlight shined on her Bengali background. “I used to look for an identity that could be sharp, acceptable, mine,” she admitted in a 2017 interview. “But now the idea of a precise identity seems a trap, and I prefer an overabundant one: the Italian piece, the Brooklyn one, the Indian one. Identity is a completely fluid thing, and metamorphosis has this concept in it.” Still, like Baldwin, Lahiri could not escape being seen as a foreigner in Europe, and the sensation of foreignness permeates her Italian writing.

In In altre parole (In Other Words), she describes the ease with which her husband, who looks Italian even though he isn’t, blends in with locals while she—who loves the language, who has devoted enough time to it to be able to appear on live radio shows and keep a diary—collides with the assumption that she can’t speak Italian. A similar dynamic plays out in “The Steps,” one of the stories in Roman Stories, when two brothers recall their childhood: “Paradoxically, it now dawns on them, their mother, who wanted so desperately to live in Rome, to do her research and write her book, was the one who seemed more often sad and on edge, while their father was mostly cheerful.” The mother leaves Italy in the end, while the father’s life further flourishes; he develops a romance with another father and they move into a house in the lavender-scented countryside.

In Roman Stories, the interplay between expats and locals, between immigrants and emigrants and those who stay put, is at the heart of each story. At times, the result is an explicit indictment of discrimination; “Well-Lit House” features a mob of raven-looking women chasing an immigrant family out of a neighborhood where they were granted affordable housing, while “Notes” is a testament to the tragicomic bluntness of children’s racism. In other stories, though, xenophobia and -philia are not the sole crux of the story so much as they are interwoven into the text. “P’s Parties” and “Dante Alighieri” cloak the question of foreignness under cross-cultural love affairs and far-flung family members. “The Boundary” glides between a young girl’s observances of a vacationing family and the backstory of her parents’ immigration first to Rome, then to the Italian countryside. “The Procession,” meanwhile, is the closest the collection gets to the Lahiri of Interpreter of Maladies, with its patient study of a couple who cannot quell the open secret at the center of their relationship.


Phantoms of Patriarchy: On Ditlevsen & Bachmann

By Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg

Lahiri’s early work resembled a guidebook of South Asian culture. But now, in Roman Stories, she embodies the weariness of someone who has seen the same things so many times that they have become outlines, opaque nouns.

The narrator of “P’s Parties” is a man who grew up in Rome, continues to live there, and finds wonder only in the annual party thrown by a friend of his wife. He describes his apartment, where “every book, every spoon, every shirt had its proper place, where I knew every shelf and hinge … A house whose windows looked out only on other houses, other windows, other lives like ours.” The people around him are either truncated names (P, L) or anonymous titles (wife, foreigner, kid); he mentions that they work as lawyers or journalists or in business, but spares us the details; he does not name the country where his son—a point of care and affection for his otherwise bleak self—lives. His gaze hollows out even Italian food into a heartless affair: “slices of bread, slivers of cheese,” “the shawl was there, hanging limp as a fresh sheet of pasta.”

The glazed voice of “P’s Parties” would seem to be distinct to its first-person narrator, but it pervades the entire collection, shearing characters of first names, last names, and countries of origin. The reader never learns which country—or even which war—the family of “Well-Lit House” left behind for Rome. This is because Lahiri allows no details into the story, other than the hijab that the narrator’s wife wears. Often, Lahiri finds even “Rome” to be too specific a word and spends entire stories referring to it as “the city.”

Free from the expectation of writing elegant sentences about variably uneasy or distressed South Asians, she writes in the broad strokes of a landscape painter, a single sentence sweeping over groups of people at a time. Gone are the precise names (Twinkle, Boori Ma, Ashoke) that pierced through her characters, gone are the signifiers rooted in culture and place (1971, the music of Mukesh on a Grundig reel-to-reel, egg curry and rogan josh and chopped red onion), gone are the MIT engineering degrees and the dissertations on Irish poets or Indian history. Perhaps she has grown tired of writing from the perspective of someone with a five-day itinerary and an eagerness to try local, exotic food.

Now, instead, her sentences are gates. They can be seen by the reader, in all their simple glory. But she does not allow one to see much of what lies beyond.

What one is certain to glimpse through the mesh is a division between locals and foreigners. The narrator in “P’s Parties” sees foreigners as the “counterpart” to the natives of the city; they are “two distinct groups, like two opposing currents that crisscross in the ocean, forming a perfectly symmetrical shape only to cancel each other out a moment later.” That cancellation is key to Lahiri’s understanding of foreignness, which aims to undress the term and expose its relativity. The stories in Roman Stories make clear that “foreigner” is a slippery category of person, one that can descend on characters in one moment and abandon them in the next.

In “The Boundary,” the narrator recounts a week of brief encounters with an Italian family who break free from their routine in Rome by absconding to a countryside cottage. The narrator, a young girl, stays in the neighboring cottage with her immigrant parents. The country from which they immigrated is (once again) unspecified, but it is foreign enough from Italy for the narrator to recognize that she doesn’t look like her classmates. Her parents first lived in Rome before coming to rural Italy, where the father works as a caretaker at the next-door cottage; a new family comes to stay there each week.

The father and daughters of the guest family in the story make use of their rural escape by heading to the beach every day, while the mother spends most of her time at the cottage doing household chores, similar to the narrator’s daily routine. But she also writes. The hills, the local honey, the sky, the domestic work, and even blackberry stains—all seem transformed by the woman’s gaze. “She looks at everything I look at every day,” the narrator recounts. “But I wonder what else she sees in them.”

Yet the narrator recognizes that this transformation is incomplete, leaving untouched “the loneliness here,” “the identical days in our dilapidated cottage,” “the nights when the wind blows so hard the earth seems to shake.” Perhaps she is aware of travel’s blind spots because she has seen them creep up on her own parents. After immigrating to Rome, they sold flowers at a shop until one day a group of men stole from the father, taunted him to go back to where he came from, and permanently damaged his jaw; ever since, he dreams that his daughter will be able to go abroad. Relationship to place is far from fixed in the story, with each character—down to the absent owner of the two cottages, who is abroad more often than he is at home—in a seemingly perpetual state of departure.

Against the language of her parents (Bengali) and the lingua franca of the literati (English), Italian was the uncouth boy from the movies who showed Lahiri how to trade in manners for mistakes.

As the guest family’s stay comes to an end, they treat their exit as a solemn, weighted occasion. The mother tells the narrator that she will remember the pure air and sunset in order to feel less stressed at work. But for the narrator, the family’s leave folds into a familiar routine: making the beds for the next guests, cleaning the rooms, sweeping dead flies off the floor. And also, sorting through the family’s left-behind belongings, which include “shopping lists in the faint, small script that the mother used, on other sheets of paper, to write all about us.” The story ends here, leaving the mother’s writing as speculation for the reader, an empty slate of anthropological observation on unseen—imagined, maybe—pages. Form without substance, the mother’s writing matters because it exists and thus suggests the entanglement between being in a new place and writing about it. Note also that the narrator of “The Boundary” tells a story about a peculiar guest rather than her own life, or that the narrator of “P’s Parties” transcends his writer’s block only by going to an island. Writing is pure fantasy in these stories, with unfamiliarity as the flint and steel for creativity. Reality is a threat to literature, which the narrator of “P’s Parties” realizes when he must return home: “I abandoned the short story—with those pages, I realized, I’d been luring myself onto a precipice.”

Unlike the mother-writer who must return to routine or the narrator who must return to a marriage fractured at its core, Lahiri allows herself to linger by that precipice of unreality. Yet often, the stories of Roman Stories hardly tell us more about their characters, immigrant or otherwise, than the sheets of paper that the narrator of “The Boundary” never gets to see. Lahiri seems content with the plain fact of a character’s existence. The narrator of “The Boundary” is the sum of her externalities—daughter of immigrants, doer of chores, endurer of monotonous rural winters—while her defining emotion is either ambiguity or blankness; it’s an unyielding line of inquiry to ask what she thinks about the mother’s writing of her and her father. Perhaps because she is too accustomed to the doctrine of “write what you know,” Lahiri ventures into her non–South Asian characters with irresolution. She remains at a distance—pointing to this waitress at the trattoria or that glass of grappa—without the brashness required for full immersion. Each story is awash in vagueness, lacking a historical ground, as a result.1

Certain stories in the collection make more successful forays into the grand topics of humanity and marginality because, like the narrator of “Dante Alighieri,” they lift up rocks and study the otherwise invisible, wriggling worms underneath. In that story—the only one other than “P’s Parties” to give a character a name, or rather an initial—the narrator suffers from a malaise that’s familiar in Roman Stories: a sense of stagnancy at home that propels her to another country. Migration status is not an all-consuming identity for the characters, but rather one trait among many. The story includes at least one proper noun, along with memorable details (the narrator’s habit of damaging new belongings, or her cravings for grapefruit, salt and vinegar chips, and coffee ice cream) and untranslated sentences in Italian—all welcome rarities in the collection.

Yet the story is not immune to the flat truisms of the rest of Roman Stories. “This city is shit,” one of the narrator’s friends says in the last paragraph, “But so damn beautiful.” In attempting to transcend a binary, the statement manages to say both everything and nothing altogether.

Even though she freed herself up to write about new and expansive topics by trading English for Italian, Lahiri returns in Roman Stories to her usual themes of migration and racial otherness. However, the stories here are an ocean away from the subtle precision of Interpreter of Maladies or The Namesake. Those works may have been too abundant in fictive detail—Sathian likens them to “PBS-quality cultural instruction”—but at least they contained real-seeming characters in real-seeming places.

Now, Lahiri writes with the limitations of an expat. She writes with a remove from her characters, and a willingness to overlook the material realities of place.

“Italian is an unusual path, an unexpected one, and comes from me only,” she said in an interview. It is this false promise of individualism that guides her throughout Roman Stories and makes each story most memorable for what it lacks. That lack will persist until Lahiri is able to recognize Italy as more than a place for escape and abstract migrations. icon

This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín and Bonnie Chau.

  1. The apoliticism of Lahiri’s Italian writing has been noted before; Sigrid Nunez wrote of Whereabouts that the novel contained “nothing about the migrant crisis, for example, or about the politics of the EU, or the continent’s overwhelming economic concerns. The narrator has only one subject—her personal life and her own intense feelings about it.” But Whereabouts at least admitted to navel-gazing, with one of its book covers depicting a solitary woman turned away from the viewer. Roman Stories, on the other hand, purports to be about “the frailties of the human condition” and “lives lived on the margin.”
Featured-image photograph by Irena Carpaccio / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)