Familiar Strangers: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Whereabouts”

May 22, 2021   •   By Sharon Steel

Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri

WHEN WRITERS BEGIN to learn our craft, we’re told to write for ourselves. As one becomes further embedded in the creative process, it can be difficult to work with this pure impulse in mind. Write for ourselves, yes, but if the work never finds readers, what does that say about us? Do stories that exist in a one-sided conversation with their authors have as much value as stories that take on a life of their own?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s creative approach begins and ends with her own desires. She’s spoken of this many times over the years, from her love of filling notebooks no one else will read to her insatiable need to understand herself through language. Many other writers say similar things, but Lahiri is the rare writer who actually means them. Having an audience, a platform, and thousands of admiring readers are consequences, not goals, of her practice.

Although Lahiri set out to please no one but herself, she succeeded in pleasing everyone. Her first book, a collection of short stories called Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, The Namesake (2003), became a national best seller and was adapted into a film. Unaccustomed Earth (2008), her second collection, debuted at the top of The New York Times best-seller list, an unusual feat for a gathering of short fiction. In 2013, Lahiri’s second novel, The Lowland, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2014. Then she shifted course.

In recent years, thanks in large part to the international popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, books in translation have enjoyed a renewed surge of interest in America. Within that context, Lahiri and her family moved to Rome. She decided to stop writing in English, the language in which she has shown true mastery, and to write exclusively in Italian, the language she had privately studied for years. As Lahiri continued to work toward fluency, she published a memoir, In Other Words (2015), written in Italian and translated into English by Ann Goldstein, who has also translated Ferrante’s books. In April, Knopf published Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian, Whereabouts, in an English translation by the author herself.

Whereabouts is a book about metamorphosis, loneliness, the burden of being a child, the savagery of nature, the joys of community, food, and friends. It’s a book that Lahiri would probably never have written first in English. The spare, poetic tone of the translation marks a significant departure from Lahiri’s former prose voice, which was luminous and confident, composed of stately sentences that conveyed enormous amounts of emotional information and yet felt effortless to read. Near the end of In Other Words, Lahiri anticipated the raised eyebrows of her critics, noting that friends and colleagues had cautioned her not to disown her “dominant” language for one she felt more at home with, despite its foreignness. She knew, too, that some, including her own readers, might interpret her choice as a betrayal of sorts, wondering why she would do such a thing. Where was the next exquisite, expansive, expected novel, one that would continue to illuminate the East Indian-American immigrant experience? Those books certainly delighted her fans, but Lahiri wasn’t interested in resurrecting them, or the writer who wrote them. Whereabouts is a beautiful novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, but it wasn’t written by the same Jhumpa Lahiri. This is a book by a different writer, a different woman. And it displays, in place of all that she has given up, an incredible power.

“Solitude: it’s become my trade,” says the narrator of Whereabouts. “As it requires a certain disposition, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” The reader is introduced to the unnamed character slowly, over a series of meditative vignettes in which she reflects on her life and the world around her. Lahiri maintains a measured distance as we watch her protagonist watching herself at work, in bed, at the pool, in front of the mirror. We follow her to her mother’s house, to her father’s crypt, and to “his place,” the apartment her former lover occupies with the woman he’s now married to, where the narrator is summoned to feed the dog while everyone is away. There, she finds herself poking through “the private morphology of a family, of two people who fall in love and have children: an enterprise as mundane as it is utterly specific.”

The narrator’s daily wanderings around her unnamed city — which we can gather from Lahiri’s descriptions to be Rome — paints a vivid portrait of a middle-aged, single woman who sometimes dreads being by herself (“I eat alone, next to others sitting alone”), and at other times dreads the company of others. “Their movements and their chatter get on my nerves,” she says of her colleagues in academia. Constitutionally dissatisfied, she shows occasional flashes of taking pleasure in the moment, of being content with what is, rather than what could be. “I wax my legs at home while I watch something trashy on TV,” she confides at one point. A vignette titled “In the Sun” features euphoric interactions with familiar strangers in the piazza, bonded together by the modest indulgence of being outside on a beautiful day:

I hear the babble of people as they chatter, on and on. I’m amazed at our impulse to express ourselves, explain ourselves, tell stories to one another. The simple sandwich I always get amazes me, too. As I eat it, as my body bakes in the sun that pours down on my neighborhood, each bite, feeling sacred, reminds me that I’m not forsaken.

The woman’s search for identity and equilibrium amid the flux makes her a classic Lahiri character. What sets her apart is that, unlike the strivers and seekers of Lahiri’s previous books, this woman takes a perverse comfort in the air of melancholy that settles over her life. She accepts her own contradictory nature, and invites the reader to listen. She is caught between the need to stay still and to leave, to be by herself and among others, and to care for her aging mother without compromising her own freedom. Despite this constant oscillation, she’s seemingly at peace.

In Whereabouts, ordinary circumstances are described as extraordinary events. One stunning passage chronicles an errand to a favorite stationery store, where the narrator stocks up on supplies. There, she finds a spiritual satisfaction in the ritual of “organizing my life’s paper trail” and observing the family that owns the store: “The mother, a rotund woman with dark, dry hair, sits at the register. The father oversees the fountain pens stored in a glass case, as if they were precious jewels, bottles of ink lined up like costly perfumes.” In another passage, the narrator and “him,” the man she used to love, have a friendly encounter on the bridge they cross during their morning commute:

We stop in the middle and look at the wall that flanks the river, and the shadows of pedestrians cast on its surface. They look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another. […] We say goodbye, separate. Then we, too, become two shadows projected onto walls: a routine spectacle, impossible to capture.

“Italian is the language I have chosen,” Lahiri told LitHub in 2017, two years after In Other Words was published. “The language changed everything: it gave me an extra life. It has even more emotional impact at my age. Because I feel young again, I feel in love, and it’s incredible to not have this feeling for a person, but for a language: it’s even better.” Borne aloft by this love, Lahiri crossed a linguistic boundary. She dedicated herself to write in a language that wasn’t her first (Bengali) or her second (English), but rather a third — adopted, beloved — language. In Whereabouts, she wields her storytelling gifts in astonishing ways. By sidestepping a traditional plot, Lahiri is free to explore everyday rituals through fragments that emphasize voice over action.

“I fear I’m a terrible daughter who ignores her mother, whose fault is to be excessively alive,” the narrator admits during a visit, where she’s subjected to a litany of her mother’s various aches and pains. “Prepare yourself, she says every time we see each other. Prepare for the catastrophe.” Later, the woman finds herself arguing with her dead father, taking him to task beside his grave:

Here you are, in the heart of the city, surrounded by the dead: all those souls still wreathed and garlanded, lined up like boxes in the post office. You always occupied your own space. You preferred dwelling in your own realm, closed off. How can I link myself to another person when I’m still struggling, even after your death, to eliminate the distance between you and my mother?

These glimpses into the woman’s frayed relationship with her parents are at the heart of Whereabouts. She left home and made her own life, but she can’t escape what she was born into and whom she once belonged to. These dueling contradictions have always been Lahiri’s themes, but never before have they been expressed with such disquieting intimacy. The narrator loves swimming in the local pool, but afterward, in the locker room, she eavesdrops on the naked women who chat and confess their misfortunes, which robs her of whatever contentment she had found. “As I take in these losses, these tragedies, it occurs to me that the water in the pool isn’t so clear after all,” Lahiri writes. “It reeks of grief, of heartache. It’s contaminated.” A carefree vacation reminds her of her unhappy origins. A pharmacist encourages her to pamper her skin with a scented oil, and she buys pills for her headaches instead.

Lahiri is a fearless writer. She renders the details of her characters’ lives with dazzling precision, illuminating not only their hearts and minds, but their souls as well. It takes a kind of conjuring to write about people the way Lahiri does — deliberate yet emotional, unguarded yet mysterious, haunted by the burdens of life yet rarely without a secret hope for the future. She’s the first to admit that she lost some flexibility when she started writing in Italian. She could have chosen a safer, easier path, the one she was already on, but she didn’t. She chose the harder, more extreme path. She trusted herself and the language that inspired her. She wrote for herself, then offered her work to those who wanted to hear what she had to say. At one point in Whereabouts, the narrator also faces a decision that would require uprooting herself in order to begin again. “I might have said no, I might have just stayed put,” Lahiri writes. “But something’s telling me to push past the barrier of my life.”

The form of expression that makes a writer famous isn’t necessarily the best one, or the only one available. Sometimes artists are given no other choice but to adapt if they wish to go on. At other times, a voluntary abandonment occurs. Lahiri compares herself not to exophonic writers like Conrad, Nabokov, and Beckett, but instead to Matisse, who, late in life when poor health prevented him from painting, created a mesmerizing body of work in cut-paper collage.

Writing itself is a constant exercise in destruction and rebirth: sentences, characters, even entire manuscripts. Lahiri was inspired to demolish and reconstruct herself, a ruthless evolution that came with immense risk. Now, as she rebuilds herself, she has proven that the best writing, the best art, is created out of a compulsion to chase something that may forever be out of reach. If Lahiri discovered who she really is when she began to speak, think, and write in Italian, she doesn’t deny her readers anything. She gives us even more of herself.

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Sharon Steel is a writer living and working in New York City. She has written about books and culture for The New Yorker, the Boston GlobeNew YorkThe Millions, and other places. Her website is sharoncsteel.com.