Lahiri in Italian
For the last three years, Jhumpa Lahiri has written in Italian. In fact, aside from translating Italian work—including her own—Italian has been the only language she has published in since 2015.
For decades before the shift, she worked her way through lessons and half conversations with Italian friends, until moving to Rome to immerse in the language that has become her new medium. At first, she described the process of writing in Italian as, “as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with. It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.”
Lahiri writes about her process of moving into Italian in her first Italian book, In Altre Parole—translated into English as In Other Words. In the book, she addresses questions about why she’s moved away from English.
For practically my whole life, English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past.
The freedom that Lahiri feels writing in Italian has given her is on display in “The Boundary,” a new story Lahiri originally composed in Italian appearing in this week’s New Yorker.
“I think, see, and feel differently in Italian,” Lahiri claims. “I say things more simply but also more directly. And I tend to take more chances.”
Lahiri herself has translated “The Boundary” into English for publication. The story’s narrator, a teenage girl, speaks very directly. The narrator, whose family serves as caretakers of a country house, closely observes a vacationing family inhabit the space around her home. Though no geographical tags reveal the location of the story, Lahiri draws the setting from the time she spent living on the Italian Tuscan Coast. The narrator’s parents are immigrants, and as the story unfolds, the reader learns about the virulent xenophobia that drove this family from the city to this rural setting. Lahiri explains that “the rise of the extreme right in Italy…intolerance toward foreigners, and acts of brutal violence perpetrated against them” shape this story’s world.
Italy’s right-wing extremism did not die with Mussolini. In recent years, reanimate fascist ghosts have haunted the country. Italy’s Lega Norde (Northern League—named largely for its antipathy to the Southern half of the country) has gained momentum as a populist right-wing movement. Some of the party’s appeal comes from rallying Italians who fear increases in immigration. A xenophobic strain threatens to metastasize across the country.
In September of 2017, The Repubblica, one of the nation’s leading newspapers, conducted a poll to explore the rising vitriol leveled at immigrants. The poll found that 46% of Italians thought “migrants represented a threat to their personal safety and public order.”
Some Italians remain obsessed with questions of racial “purity,” and the country still dictates citizenship by blood, not place of birth. This blood-based citizenship requirement—Jus sanguinis—has exacerbated questions of belonging and identity, questions that Lahiri has often wrestled with in her work.
“The Boundary” is a stunning story that looks at these questions and observes life through the eyes of a young girl living in a place where she is made to feel other. In Lahiri’s hands, this story strikes similar emotional resonances to the masterful stories in Interpreter of Maladies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection that launched her celebrated career.
But there is also something about this story that is unmistakably different from Lahiri’s work in English, something that makes encountering the piece exhilarating like you’re witnessing a master of oil paints explore a new world in pastel. In a way, the story is about the narrator’s discovery of the world around her, a series of observations about how a family occupying space near her family lives a life she recognizes as different from her own. Lahiri talks about the ways her narrator is also “disconnected from the world her parents came from. She herself knows little about it. Her reality is what surrounds her.”
Perhaps that last bit, Lahiri’s description of her narrator’s reality as simply “what surrounds her” mirrors the way Lahiri has carved out her own new reality with the Italian language. And maybe this exploration of a new language is why the narrator in “The Boundary” is such a keen observer, so willing to discover the world in her immediate surroundings. In creating this world, Lahiri prefers that “the story is unrooted, that it is free to cross boundaries.” Perhaps this effect is achieved so beautifully because Lahiri has unrooted herself from English, and given readers the gift of observing a master shape new language in front of their eyes.
Image source: Dan Callister for The Telegraph.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.