In Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book, Rome is a main character
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri considers Rome, Italy, her home.
She wrote her latest short story collection first in Italian. Then, with editor Todd Portnowitz, Lahiri translated her work into English.
Roman Stories captures what it's like to live in Rome, if like her, you're seen as an outsider.
"The title is borrowed from Alberto Moravia, an Italian - great Italian writer, novelist, short story writer, public intellectual, man of many talents and an enormous reputation and legacy in Italy and in the world," Lahiri told NPR's Morning Edition. "He wrote two volumes of what he called 'Racconti Romani' – Roman Stories."
Moravia's stories explore lives lived largely on the margins during the economic boom of the 1950s. Inspired by him, Lahiri presents a new picture of Rome.
Lahiri spoke with Morning Edition host Leila Fadel about her new book, Roman Stories.
Leila Fadel: Tell me about the Rome you present in these stories.
Jhumpa Lahiri: Some of these stories are reflecting a changing Rome, with recent waves of immigration and recent changes in government, in policies, in sort of ongoing debates on citizenship and who becomes Italian and for what reason and really sort of looking at the situation of children of immigrants in Rome. So all of these things were very much at the forefront of the Rome I came to live in and to discover. And it was interesting to me, having grown up as a child of immigrants in the United States, to think about a new generation in a new place and their experiences.
Fadel: So many of your characters in Roman Stories are originally from somewhere else, or their parents are from somewhere else, people who are made to feel "other." And it's a theme that runs through your work, beginning with your Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Interpreter Of Maladies. How much, even in this book, is drawn from your own experiences or searching for that in other people's?
Lahiri: It's a continuum, as you say. I think I became a writer because I needed to be in dialogue with this very complex theme of being an "other" or feeling on the outside of something, never finding one's way into the center of things, always being questioned and always questioning oneself. So I think it's both things.
I always questioned who I was and where I belonged, if I belonged anywhere.
Fadel: The thing that struck me, too, is that your characters don't have names. Why did you choose to do that?
Lahiri: All of my Italian work has had this trait of not having specific names associated with the characters. Names are identifiers, as we know. And I wrote my first novel very much sort of looking at this question, this fact. What do names mean? How do names mark us? How and why do we struggle with them, those of us who struggle with them? And it's all connected to the question of identity. Because the name is the heart of identity in some sense.
Your name is you. And yet there can be so many nuances to this question and so much conflict associated with this or born from this label that you are given. But my Italian work, instinctively, I began withholding the name. And I think that the more I write in Italian, the more it interests me because it opens up the potential reading of who the character is. And I think that the issue is, as soon as you name a character with a so-called Italian name, then it's limiting. Because then the reader thinks, oh, this character is Italian.
I'd like to push against that and ask, what constitutes being Italian? What constitutes being anything? So we can also flip it and say, what constitutes being American? Because of my name, Jhumpa, I never felt American. When I was growing up, it marked me as someone who came from, or whose family came from, a very far away place. My name was not part of the language of this country and its names. And that is still the case.
Fadel: Rome is at the center of every one of these stories, the new Rome, the Rome that you discovered. And I know we're speaking to you from New York, where you live part of the time. But I wonder if you think of Rome as home now, as well.
Lahiri: I think of Rome as my home, period. I think of it as my principal home. I also have a home in New York, and I'm very fond of my home in New York. And just today, I passed the hospital where I gave birth to both of my children. And I was thinking about how important the city has been in my growth as a human being. And so this city, New York City, is really part of me and who I am.
But having said that, if I had to choose, I would choose Rome because Rome is where I feel more at home. And because, for me, home is always and only a state of mind. I will always be questioned wherever I go. Those questions surround me in Rome, as well. But something about Rome overrides that question.
And the feeling of being part of a place, it boils down to inhabiting a neighborhood, my neighborhood, for example, and the people who surround me there, the people I see on my walks and my day-to-day excursions. My friendships there are homes for me. The language is a home for me. The Italian language is a home for me in which, yes, I travel through it with moments of discomfort but not alienation. I don't feel alienated.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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