Jhumpa Lahiri is famous for her fiction that documents the Indo-American immigrant experience in works such as The Interpreter of Maladies — her debut work that won the Pulitzer — The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland.
In 2015, having moved to Italy, she began writing fiction and non-fiction in Italian, translating famous Italian writers, and also translating her own works into English. She famously noted that she wrote in Italian to be free. Her mother-tongue, Bengali, felt awkward and English felt alien, but Italian unleashed her creativity because it freed her from the Bengali or English dichotomy.
Her latest collection, Roman Stories, demonstrates that she thrives in this adopted linguistic universe. In writing in a third language, she returns to themes familiar to her readers: alienation, belonging, and the everyday life of ordinary people.
Roman Stories is divided into three sections. Parts one and two have four stories each, and the second is a series of interlinked vignettes that explore the lives of people who climb up and down ancient steps that connect two parts of their neighborhood.
Most of the characters in this book are unnamed and we get to know them intimately — their feelings, observations, desires, sorrows, and joys. Lahiri’s stories capture what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being” and so much of Lahiri’s ability to depict the textures of psychological life are reminiscent of Woolf.
What unites this collection is that the recurring central character is the city of Rome, Italy. The people who inhabit these stories are Romans and those who visit the city. They are long term residents, expats, sojourners, tourists, migrants, rich, poor, men, women, and youth who populate these stories. Lahiri offers a richness and heterogeneity of perspectives on Rome, anchoring the identity of her characters.
In the opening narrative, “The Boundary,” we observe a family who have rented a vacation home through the eyes of the caretaker’s daughter. In “P’s Parties,” we glimpse the life of P, who throws great parties from the viewpoint of a writer who destroys his marriage in pursuit of an ephemeral relationship.
In “Notes” and “The Delivery,” Lahiri writes poignantly of the immigrant who experiences xenophobia and violence. The national origins of the immigrants in these stories are less important than their experiences of racism, and while characters might be objectified by native Romans, their humanity triumphs.
These stories remind us that Europe, including Italy, is experiencing a massive social transformation as refugees and migrants arrive on its shores daily. The six vignettes that comprise “The Steps” are poetic, with brilliantly created characters with whom we become intimate in a few short pages.
Lahiri’s ability to write in a third language is remarkable. Her protagonist in “Dante Alighieri” makes a transition from America to Italy like Lahiri herself, and the story documents the character’s embrace of Italian language and culture spurred by an adolescent romance. Embracing a different language and culture makes that character, like her creator, one who constantly travels and traverses oceans and borders not just physically but through her stories.
As the character notes: “Certain stories are hard to bear… They transmit an energy that extends beyond the disposable day-to-day.” That observation sums up this short story collection, which brings the richness of Rome and its inhabitants to life.
Jhumpa Lahiri will be in conversation with Sonora Jha on Oct.14 at 7 PM in Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium. This event is co-sponsored by Elliott Bay Books and Seattle University and tickets are available on Eventbrite.