Whereabouts | Jhumpa Lahiri #ITAfiction

In the mornings after breakfast I walk past a small marble plaque propped against the high wall flanking the road.

The short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts were originally written in Italian. Lahiri then translated them into English. Lahiri moved from the US to Italy in 2011 with her husband and two children. They live in Rome.

I was fascinated by this brief mention of a major change in direction for Lahiri’s writing, enough so, to research it a little.

In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach. I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for many years in America would, finally, give me the direction….It’s a sort of literary act of survival. I don’t have many words to express myself—rather, the opposite. I’m aware of a state of deprivation. And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light… 

In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way. I’m always uncertain. My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself…

By writing in Italian, I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself. I can join words together and work on sentences without ever being considered an expert.

The New Yorker | Teach Yourself Italian | Jhumpa Lahiri translated by Ann Goldstein | 29 Nov 2015

As someone who struggles to get beyond the basic hello, goodbye and counting to ten in pretty much any language I’ve attempted, I am in awe of Lahiri’s determination and ability. It also makes her achievement with Whereabouts even more impressive.

Whereabouts may start off like a short story collection. However, you quickly realise that the stories are about one narrator – an unnamed woman, a university lecturer, in an unnamed city, living alone. Each vignette places the narrator in a specific situation – in the bookstore, at the museum, on the couch. Some of the stories are only 1-2 pages long; others 4-5. They all celebrate the art of solitude.

The city may have been unnamed, but I felt like I was in Florence. Apparently, though, Lahiri had Rome in mind. I was also surprised to read that Lahiri was married with kids.

The woman may have been unnamed, but I felt like I was reading a memoir or a diary. The intimacy and immediacy of the woman’s responses felt very genuine. As someone who spent a large part of her younger adult years living alone, the push me/pull me relationship to solitude in Whereabouts was painfully true to life. Perhaps this is part of the art of writing in a new language – with less words at your disposal, a closer connection to emotional truth becomes possible.

Lahiri’s writing was clean and uncluttered, yet elegantly reflective and poetic. I’m reminded of the word used by Rachel Cusk and Gail Jones to describe their own writing – interiority. Whereabouts is an inner journey, an inner dialogue, even as a distinct European flavour infused each page. Our protagonist may have been solitary by nature, but she lived in a cosmopolitan city, and stimulation and variety were never far from home, if she so chose.

I read Interpreter of Maladies when it first came out, with a great deal of pleasure. I loved its exploration of cultural mores and boundaries, what it meant to belong and how to create a new identity in a new country. This is different. Twenty-odd years later, Lahiri is a more confident, mature writer. The connected short story cycle is familiar, however in Whereabouts the connectedness is more complete and satisfying.

Epigraphs:

Whenever my surroundings change I feel enormously sad. This is especially true if the place I leave behind is linked to memories, grief or happiness. It’s the change itself that unsettles me, the same way liquid in a jar turns cloudy when you shake it.

Italo Svevo, Essays and Uncollected Writings

Facts:

  • Lahiri has multiple degrees from Boston University
    • M.A. in English
    • M.F.A. in Creative Writing
    • M.A. in Comparative Literature
    • Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies

Favourite Quote:

Nor can we escape the shadows our families cast.

Book 3 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

Books: Whereabouts (Dove mi trovo)
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Translator: Jhumpa Lahiri
ISBN: 9781526632982
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Date: 4 May 2021 (originally published in Italian in 2018)
Format: Paperback

13 thoughts on “Whereabouts | Jhumpa Lahiri #ITAfiction

  1. I am utterly intrigued! I’ve only read Unaccustomed Earth, also a collection of short stories, but Lahiri is amazing. I may just skip to this one. I love Italy and have been “learning” Italian via Duolingo for 18 months now, and I would love to hear what she says about Italy, Italian, writing, etc.

    Wonderful review–you hooked me.

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    1. I’m pleased to have hooked you Janet. If you’re already a fan of Lahiri’s writing, you’ll love this too, I’m sure. You may even be able to read it in the original Italian!

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    1. This is lovely, but slight. Save it for when you want something quick. I spent last weekend reading half of Benang. During my work week I needed something easier to manage. Whereabouts was the perfect fit. But I’m hoping to spend more time with Benang this weekend.

      Have you ever read The Parisian by Isabelle Hammad? It was my favourite read of last year. I wonderful, rich, multigenerational story set in Palestine between the wars. It won the Palestinian Literature prize a couple of years ago. I cannot recommend it highly enough to someone who wants a really good novel to sink their teeth into.

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        1. Our online shop is not quite live. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks. Thank you for thinking of us, but I’m always happy to see any independent bookshop get a sale!

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  2. In connection with Lahiri writing in Italian which she knew only imperfectly, Murakami makes the same point about writing in English first and then translating it back into Japanese for publication (and then someone else translating the finished work back to English).

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  3. I enjoyed this one but was a little surprised by it too; the last I read by her (The Lowland) was so dense, so immersive, and I loved it, whereas this felt completely different. It took me much longer to read than I expected, and I agree that it did have the feel of a memoir to it. (Ohhh, that couch! I couldn’t believe the child’s parents just let that go. LOL)

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