In 2012, after a run of successful story collections and novels, including 1999’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri embarked on a daring experiment. Having studied Italian off and on since graduate school, she decided to move with her husband and children to Rome, where she would immerse herself in the language and, eventually, write a book in it.
Many people in Lahiri’s life, understandably, advised against this plan. By jettisoning English, she was effectively laying down the tool of her trade, exchanging it for one that would be far more cumbersome. It was as if a tennis star had opted to compete with a ping-pong paddle.
At first, the going was indeed tough. As Lahiri recalled in her 2016 memoir, In Other Words (written in Italian and translated into English by Ann Goldstein), “In spite of my great enthusiasm for living in Rome, everything seems impossible, indecipherable, impenetrable.” Writing in Italian, she says in the book, made her feel “like a child, like a semiliterate.”
Over time, though, Lahiri made enough progress to speak, think, and compose in her adopted tongue. Besotted by the country and language, she ended up staying in Rome for three years. By the time she returned to the U.S. in 2015, she’d started a novel in Italian. That book was published in Italy in 2018 as Dove mi trovo; Lahiri’s English translation of the work, titled Whereabouts, is being released by Knopf in May.
“When we first moved, I thought, ‘I’d like to live in Rome for a year,’ ” Lahiri says via Zoom from her home in Princeton, N.J. “Instead, it’s had this completely profound, ongoing influence on my personal life, on my family life—on life.”
Lahiri’s experiment has also had an influence on her writing. Fans of her fiction will be glad for Whereabouts, her first novel in eight years, but they may be surprised by the book’s subject matter and style. Traditionally, Lahiri’s fiction has centered on the experience of Indian immigrants in the U.S. and their descendants. Her work has also tended to sport all the accoutrements of realist fiction: named characters, defined settings, glimpses of a larger, outside world.
Whereabouts, by contrast, is about an Italian woman—a person itching to leave her birthplace, rather than one struggling to adjust to an adopted home—and, at just over 150 pages, is unusually brief. The book, divided into 46 chapters, is deeply inward looking, and it contains little in the way of personifying or geographic detail. The reader is not given the narrator’s name, for example, and, were it not for a few telling words, such as piazza, one might not know it is set in Italy. Near the end of the book, when the narrator, a middle-aged writer and professor, tells her mother she’s leaving the country for a fellowship, she describes her destination simply as somewhere “on the other side of the border.”
Lahiri, who directs the creative writing program at Princeton University, has “always been interested in space and place,” she says. That interest has roots in her biography. She was born in London to Indian immigrants and raised in Rhode Island, where she felt the dissonance between her Bengali household and her American environs acutely—a dissonance she would go on to explore in her work.
“Are we in India or are we in New England? That’s always been a preoccupation of mine,” Lahiri says. In Whereabouts, though, she “wanted to look at place differently” and to “render things in a more abstract way.”
That decision may have been informed by the circumstances of the book’s composition. After she returned to the U.S. from Italy, Lahiri embarked on a period of dizzying peregrination. For a while, she commuted regularly from Brooklyn to Princeton, where she’d started teaching. On top of that, she flew back to Rome every six to eight weeks, as if carrying on a long-distance relationship with the city. It was there that she’d work on the jottings that, over time, became Whereabouts. “I think one of the reasons I didn’t want to specify the place was that I, in the writing of this book, was in no specific place,” Lahiri says.
For all its geographic abstraction, Whereabouts does emphasize place on a more local level. The chapters are headed by prepositional phrases (“At the Museum,” “On the Balcony”) that provide concrete backdrops for the narrator’s meandering reflections—about her foredoomed attraction to a married friend, about the trauma of her father’s early death.
Lahiri started out using these titles intuitively. But she observes that, for a language learner, prepositions—those words describing our proximity, our positionality, our place—can pose a special challenge, and thus attain a special meaning. “Unless you’re born with the language, they can escape you,” she says.
After years of studying and writing in Italian, does Lahiri now feel like a native speaker? In In Other Words, she writes, “I can write in Italian, but I can’t become an Italian writer.” Nevertheless, she feels that, at this stage, her “center of gravity” has moved to someplace between English and Italian.
For example, when she was first immersing herself in the language, Lahiri found it “impossible” to write in Italian while in the U.S. But she recently completed another book in Italian while in Princeton, having been grounded stateside by the pandemic. “That feels like a real shift for me,” she says. And, after Whereabouts was published in Italy, she felt she’d come far enough in her linguistic journey to attempt to translate it herself. “Something told me I should try.”
In attempting this feat, Lahiri joins a rarefied group of writers—including Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, and Argentine writer J. Rodolfo Wilcock—who have learned new languages, composed texts in those languages, and then translated them into their principal tongues.
Initially, Lahiri had apprehensions about the task. “I was worried I couldn’t hear the book again in English,” she says. But she found it “pleasantly challenging.” She likens the experience to suiting up for a walk in the snow only to find that the weather is warmer than you’d expected. “I put on all of my layers and braced myself and walked out the door and then—‘Oh, it’s actually a nice day.’”
Still, Lahiri values the difficult, early days of her apprenticeship. If she feels remade as a writer, it’s because learning Italian has forced her to part with some of her certainty and some her authority. “I’m always trying to get back to that place where I really wasn’t sure of anything,” she says. “To make art, you’ve got to be in a very precarious place all the time. You really have to realize that it’s a dangerous thing you’re doing, and the stakes are very high.”
Lahiri doesn’t know when she’ll able to return to Italy. After years of traveling there so frequently, she’s found the pandemic “devastating.” She’s compared learning Italian to falling in love, and even over Zoom her grief at not being to reunite with the country and its language is palpable. When asked, “Why Italy?” she fumbles for words. Who can explain why they fall in love with a certain person?
“It’s very mysterious,” Lahiri says. “All you know is that you have to be with that person. There’s something about them that makes you makes feel safe, and loved, and alive.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.