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Lahiri talks ‘Roman Stories’ collection, translation and belonging

Spring Chenjp / Thresher

By Spring Chenjp     10/17/23 11:55pm

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri read from her newest short story collection “Roman Stories” through the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading series Oct. 15. Following the reading, she spoke on-stage at Congregation Emanu El with Rice English professor and Italian novelist Andrea Bajani, discussing the themes of immigration, otherness and translation present in her work.

“Roman Stories” is Lahiri’s first short story collection originally written in Italian, following her Italian novel “Dove mi trovo” (in English, “Whereabouts”) and poetry collection “Il quaderno di Nerina” (“Nerina’s Notebook”). After moving to Rome in 2012 to become more immersed in the language and culture, Lahiri has since said she will only be writing in Italian moving forward. Lahiri translated her collection into English along with acclaimed translator Todd Portnowitz. 

“Italian allows me to get a little closer and more directly at certain things that I, in English, haven’t gotten quite as close [to],” Lahiri said. “For example, in this story, there’s an act of racially motivated violence embedded in the story. I haven’t yet, in English, written about something like that.”

Lahiri was born to first-generation Bengali immigrants to the U.S. Navigating the culture of her parents and that of the U.S. became a central theme in her works, which often centered on the experiences of South Asian-Americans. Though “Dove mi trovo” and “Roman Stories” shift the settings of her work to Europe, Lahiri’s concern with belonging and the experience of being an outsider is present throughout.

Lahiri also spoke about her experiences growing up speaking Bengali and English. She discussed how though Bengali was her first language, she is much more fluent in English, which can be a source of tension between second-generation immigrants and their parents.

“I move outside to another language to … find, paradoxically, the deepest part of myself by freeing myself of that tension between the two pre-existing languages,” Lahiri said, “[and] also perhaps free myself from the strange, very muffled misgivings and emotions associated with the fact that I spoke English and learned English and functioned in English all my life, a language that I was taught to learn as an act of assimilation and survival in the United States.” 

Lahiri said the title of her collection, “Racconti romani” in Italian, is an allusion to Alberto Moravia’s short story collection of the same name. She draws on Moravia’s interest on those disenfranchised by society, such as the unemployed and criminals, and extends her focus to immigrants in Rome.

“Part of my interest in calling this book ‘Roman Stories’ is to … suggest that we are in a different moment,” Lahiri said. “There is a different way to understand who is Roman [and] what is Rome.”

Lahiri described the process of translating her own work into English as deeply challenging and disorienting, reflecting the themes of outsiderness in her work.

“[Translating it into English] made the book I wrote, in Italian, become a foreigner,” Lahiri said.

In an interview with the Thresher, Bajani said the shift to Italian led to a change in Lahiri’s writing style.

“‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ is so full of details,” Bajani said. “Reading ‘Roman Stories’ or ‘Whereabouts,’ you can feel that there’s much more space for silence [and] for thoughts. They are in a way more vague, and more poetic as a story, as if she could be free from one idea of writing, of American writing and … do whatever she wanted in the way she wanted.”

Bajani said he has developed a personal friendship with Lahiri through their working relationship. 

“She has this very quiet, gentle and listening attitude,” Bajani said. “It is a kind of wisdom without all the answers, so, a better wisdom.”

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