The other night I walked from the Vatican San Pietro down through the gathering dusk to a presentation in Arenula, at the Center for American Studies. I had half an hour, so I decided to stop for a Spritz Aperol in Campo Di Fiori and enjoy the sun’s warming rays. Spring arrived to Rome this week, along with a famous Pulitzer Prize winning author and Italophile, Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri.
She has a new bilingual book, In Other Words, about her journey learning Italian. It is impressive, much loved by Italians, as she came here having learned the language in the USA as a hobby and now claims to only want to write in Italian. I went along because her short stories in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ remain some of the best that I have ever read on cultural dislocation. I was curious. Her name popped up before at literary events in Rome, because it is rare that an author with her prestige and background decides to write in Italian.
The talk took place in an old marble-floored room with an imposing fireplace, wooden ceilings, paneling and a raised podium. Judging from the accents and looks of those around me, half the audience were Italian, half American. Many wore expensive jewelry and heels, their hair lacquered in spray, necks doused in perfume. A high class, well heeled crowd then, aside from the smoker behind me who cleared his throat frequently and in the most disgusting manner. He had a flat, scratchy New Jersey accent.
The talk began: She was heartbroken that she had to leave Rome. Her sense of surprise at how she belonged in Rome after a life of cultural dislocation: ‘I never felt at home in the USA because my parents were at war with the country’. I know, from her writing, what she referred to. The clash of cultures found in so many South Asian households in the West, a universal experience of migration. She described herself as a language ‘orphan’. My mouth fell open, an then I smiled. This, from an author who won the Pulitzer? She learned English at school but spoke only Bengali at home. English was never spoken in her house, yet her own Bengali never surpassed childhood level. (Lahiri cannot read, or write Bengali, a surprise to me). ‘I am like a child when I speak Bengali.’ This reminded me of my parents. Their Swedish remains locked in the idioms and language of the late 1960s. She said, ‘When my son was born, I spoke to him in Bengali, but by the age of seven, I could no longer express myself properly.’ So English, therefore, must surely be her mother-tongue, giving her a sense of home? No, she said. English is still the language of the outside, a language that excluded her own kin. This left a cultural space in her life.
This reminded me of British disappointment (expressed in the media) with South Asian origin, first generation, British-born citizens. If Lahiri, a feted author, winner of prestigious prizes and university fellowships felt this way, what about other children of immigrants? How often we hear the refrain, ‘But how could he have joined them/ fought against British soldiers in Afghanistan/ blown up the bus? He was one of ours, he was born in Britain, went to British schools.’ I thought about this sense of not belonging and how much language plays a role. Her sense of belonging in Italy took no one by more surprise than Lahiri herself. The quintessential feeling of happiness this gave her, surpassed all her expectations. I felt happy for her.
Lahiri’s book was written in Italian, and translated into English by someone else. Side, by side, the two languages on opposite pages. She recorded it as an audio book in both languages. I loved the idea that spoken out loud, Lahiri had to acknowledge that she was still no expert in Italian, it did not come naturally to her the way English does. Yet, the English version, translated by someone else, did STILL not feel like her writing. Delicious irony.
Finally, the ‘elephant in the room’, so I saw it. By her own admission, Lahiri is a person of high status, with access to the American Center Library etc. She rented an apartment in the old center and important people wanted to know her. They sought her out. She hung out with ex-Ambassadors and other elite types, peppering names in her ‘Italian Life’ anecdotes. I thought of all the other ‘culturally dislocated’ people in Rome, the Afghan refugees I work with, the economic migrants from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, desperately trying to assimilate, failing every day. I thought about others I know with good jobs at the UN, treated with disdain outside the workplace. The Indian husband of a friend working in London who whispered, ‘It starts as soon as I leave Leonardo Da Vinci Airport.’ They might learn Italian fluently, but will still fail to fit in. I thought about the daily rejection they face for jobs, for friendship. Their struggle to find a voice.
I sat there as the talk ended, swathed in disappointment, and I realised, I had waited in vain for a moment that never came. Not even one word alluded to it. I hope Lahiri realises that racism may not touch her in her gilded tower, but it blights the daily existence for many people in this city. Is she so far removed from their reality? Her head, buried so deep in her Italian dictionary? Far from ‘happy’ in Rome, they are, by turns, frightened, sad, dejected and humiliated. Does she know that her experience is unusual for a foreigner of South Asian origin here? Perhaps she is tired of talking about these issues in the USA and sought a new, less political voice here as well as a new language. I couldn’t help feeling though, that in not acknowledging these issues during her book presentations, she wasted countless opportunities for discussion and change, failing those for whom she has so often claimed to speak. It was a terrible letdown.