Last month, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Roman Stories was officially released to the world. Originally published in Italian, and translated by Todd Portnowitz and Lahiri, the collection of short stories feels like a years-long culmination of the celebrated author’s precise and loving exploration of language and how it bleeds into storytelling.
For those unfamiliar with Lahiri’s work, the 56-year-old Indian American author is nothing short of an icon. In a New York Times essay from September, acclaimed South Asian author Vauhini Vara wrote that “Lahiri was the only model [she] had.” I can relate. Though I consider myself somewhat of a literary dilettante, I find it unnerving to review Lahiri’s words. When writing this review, I realized that placing someone in such high regard, as I do Lahiri, can create distance from their work, and I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“Everything I read about her seemed to be about her background—the Indianness of it all—rather than her writing,” shared Vara. Lahiri, from the early 2000s, was initially heralded as the defining writer of the Indian American diaspora. She never set out to write the Defining South Asian Diaspora Novel, something akin to the Great American Novel, but with her writing tackling themes of belonging, straddling different worlds, and assimilation, her work has been deemed by many as such. From Interpreter of Maladies, her debut story collection, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, to The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland, which was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award in fiction in 2013, her books highlighted themes that were perceived as inherent to the Indian American experience and the diaspora at large.
This is an author who was so accomplished and acclaimed that while it felt like she had broken barriers, she had also paved a path that was extremely daunting for other South Asian women to follow. “While some of her depiction of Indian American life reflected my experience, I was becoming more aware of what didn’t,” wrote Vara. Having Lahiri as a role model has been inspiring, but it also somehow imposes limitations on what we are expected to write about. Our regard for her became less and less about her work and her art and more about her fixture as a South Asian woman in literature.
Which is why Lahiri’s departure from English came as a breath of fresh air. It was so unexpected and strayed from the expectations placed upon her. Since 2015, Lahiri has been writing fiction, novels, essays, and poetry in Italian: In Altre Parole (In Other Words), Il Vestito dei libri (The Clothing of Books), Dove mi trovo (self-translated as Whereabouts), Il quaderno di Nerina, and Racconti romani. In 2012, she moved to Italy with her family to pursue her love for Italian, giving up English for years. She wanted to write in a language that helped express a part of her that couldn’t be tapped into with English.
This celebration of multilingualism and Lahiri’s mastery of Italian in this new collection proves that her love for writing and language comes first. It illustrates some of what her prestige has led people astray from, that her strength as a writer is not just about her Indianness but truly for her eye and keenness for language. With this collection, Lahiri proves that there are no limitations that need to be placed on South Asian writers.
With this collection, Lahiri proves that there are no limitations that need to be placed on South Asian writers.
To my surprise, her recent work in Italian and in translation has also helped me feel closer to her as a storyteller. I had the pleasure of witnessing this love and tenacity for her work in person when I attended Lahiri’s talk with Ling Ma, facilitated by Cressida Leyshon, at the New Yorker festival last month. “Writing is not a matter of choice in any language. It’s a need. You go toward the light and what is calling to you,” Lahiri said, as she discussed Roman Stories and her passion for Italian.
Lahiri followed her curiosity about language, specifically Italian. She shared that Alberto Moravia’s 1954 Roman Tales inspired this collection, down to its title and first story, as Moravia’s novel helped Lahiri frame her stories. Moravia’s stories highlighted the people who were at the margins, in that historical moment. Like Lahiri, Moravia’s stories often explored themes of social alienation and loneliness, and it wasn’t exactly a surprise that an acclaimed author such as Lahiri would find inspiration from one of Italy’s most celebrated writers ever.
Roman Stories is the first Italian book of hers that anchors the story in a named city—her book Whereabouts centered a middle-aged woman in her day-to-day experiences without ever naming the protagonist or the city where she lived. Rome becomes not only the connective tissue for the stories but also an omnipresent character making its presence known through the experiences of the main protagonists, who themselves remain unnamed and unidentified regarding race, background, and ethnicity. Divided into three sections, Lahiri also never names the cities or countries that the protagonists are either from, choose to visit, or leave Rome for, but instead only anchors the setting in minimal detail.
The city, and by extension, the language, become the central figures in this collection, adding voice and depth to the individuals’ day to day experiences of discrimination, loneliness, and in some ways, helplessness. In this collection, we learn of the daughter who runs a house out in the countryside for visitors with her father, whose speech is impaired due to a violent hate crime. The professor who is treated differently at a restaurant than her white woman friend. A man who is infatuated with a woman he speaks with for five minutes at his wife’s friend’s annual party. In Part II, the sole story called “The Steps” shares glimpses of people from varying socioeconomic statuses who climb a particular set of stairs, and how their lives vary differently. In Part III, we meet a mother whose twin sons live far away from her and do not return when she experiences racism at their alma mater. A man who moves into his dream home with his family but is soon forced to leave because of neighbors who drive them out due to discrimination.
Lahiri shared during the talk that it was her editor who encouraged her to name the city in her collection. “Rome is historically a city of people coming from outside. It is that ongoing flux of others coming into Rome to build Rome combined with specific and sometimes restrictive notions of what is Rome and who is Roman. It is a city that is impossible to explain. It’s not about the physical qualities it can provide but the more existential awareness you have inhabiting the city. It’s hard to step out of it because you are so aware.”
What links Lahiri’s stories to Moravia’s is that they both evoke an alienating element to Rome despite its reputation—a historic city that can be seductive and beckoning for people to visit and stay. Much like how our role models can sometimes feel more distant.
Sometimes written in first person or third, the way the protagonists interact with the city in the collection shows how aware they are of their surroundings—the way I feel aware of my writing limitations in the presence of Lahiri. What links Lahiri’s stories to Moravia’s is that they both evoke an alienating element to Rome despite its reputation—a historic city that can be seductive and beckoning for people to visit and stay. Much like how our role models can sometimes feel more distant.
The stories feel eerily calm, and unconcerned with the outside world the way cities with such gravitas can feel sometimes. In “P’s Parties,” (which was also published in The New Yorker last summer) the protagonist goes to P’s house through “a road that swept you away, an urban road that ferried you toward the sea and put the frenzied city far behind,” not bothering to name the city of his destination. In “A Well-Lit City,” a man is so taken with his new apartment that he has with his family, that he is in awe of “the sky to spare on the city’s outskirts, a truly infinite sky; at times, despite all the construction and the heaps of cement, it felt more like [they] were in the country than in the city.”
The containment of Rome thus exists alongside immense social and racial tensions that Lahiri is incredibly well suited to exposing at the interpersonal level, as evidenced by her work in English. The Roman qualities in this collection allow for a more careful, almost patient study of the friction through her writing. In English, Lahiri’s observations are sharp and detailed. In Italian, and her translation of Italian, she focuses on the sound and feel of the language and emotion. Lahiri conveys the humdrum of human existence with an eye to inner turmoil. No one character feels out of place or like an anomaly in Lahiri’s Rome.
“In order to write [in] a language, you have to enter very severe and unforgiving rules, typically,” said Lahiri. “I write in Italian to feel free from English because it has taken me a while to understand what my relationship with English was about.” Lahiri mentioned that it feels more natural to write in Italian now that she uses it more than English.
Perhaps her background of straddling different worlds, cities, and now multiple languages allows Lahiri to portray each protagonist in their layered complexity. I can understand the characters and feel their turmoil. As a South Asian immigrant to the United States, I know what it is like to enter a new space and try to call it home while acknowledging the predetermined constraints. I know what it is like to live within the margins of both a city and immigration papers. Immigration papers ask for your name, home country, banking details, work history, and any other identity markers deemed relevant in determining your status. They do not however ask about family, friends, heartbreaks, passions, opinions, and fears, or the vigilance tied to the experience of being an outsider coming in.
By leaving the characters nameless, Lahiri fills the characters’ stories with all of this other information that makes up a person to allow the reader to get to know them more intimately. Even the main characters who are born in Rome remain unidentified. Their stories are compelling because they remind us that feelings of insecurity, loneliness, and alienation can happen to anyone under any circumstance. Lahiri’s work in Italian resonates with me more as it focuses on the alienation that occurs within a place, to anyone from a foreigner to a local, rather than the alienation of the migratory experience itself, which she focused on in her English works.
“Is Italian still allowing me into a place down a path I couldn’t find in English? Is it enabling me to write things I need to write?” Lahiri shared that she continues to question herself about her intimate love for Italian. With this collection, Lahiri proves that the conversation should evolve from discussing South Asian literature to literature by South Asians. The simple reframing makes all the difference, as echoed in the simple elegance of her writing and storytelling.
As Vara states later in her article, after reading “P’s Parties” in The New Yorker, “It was also nothing like my writing [...]. I slept well that night and, in the morning, went back to my desk to write.” With Lahiri’s decision to learn a new language, move, and spend significant time in Rome, as well as write and translate in this new language, she is evolving as a writer and growing in a direction of her choosing. She is demonstrating that there are no limitations that can be placed on literature by South Asians—beyond those we impose on ourselves. Like Rome’s presence in Roman Stories, Lahiri will always be a fixture in my literary life, and that of South Asian writers. This time around, it feels less lonely to have her as a role model.
Published on November 9, 2023
Words by Nimarta Narang
Nimarta Narang is a writer and journalist from Bangkok, Thailand. Currently based in New York, she is a graduate of Tufts University, the University of Oxford, and has received her master's from New York University. She has lived in Bangkok, London, Oxford, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York. She is part of the Autumn Incubator, the inaugural Gold House Journalism Accelerator, and a member of Gold House Book Club.