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Jhumpa Lahiri On Her Unique Use Of Place In 'Whereabouts'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel is all about small, intimate moments playing out in public places. We never learn the main character's name. It could be anyone in any place. The text is spare. The book is short, stripped of the usual details and specifics that authors use to build a plot and characters. And yet, improbably, there is a delicious sense of place. And just to make things a little more challenging, Lahiri wrote it in Italian first, then translated it into English. The novel is titled "Whereabouts," and Jhumpa Lahiri is with us now.

Welcome.

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you.

KELLY: So I believe I'm correct in saying you never come out and tell us where the novel is set. Am I also correct in thinking you might have had Rome, Italy in mind?

LAHIRI: (Laughter) Yes, I did very much so. The book was born in Rome and set in my head in Rome and written almost entirely on return visits to Rome.

KELLY: And why hold back on all the little, identifying geographic details? You tell us we're in the piazza. You never tell us its name. How come?

LAHIRI: This has been a choice that has been in place for more or less all of my writing in Italian. My previous body of work - all of the work in English - was so deeply entrenched in names, places, what it meant to be from Calcutta but living in Boston. And I felt that when I started writing in Italian, I had just moved to Rome, and I myself was displaced. I had voluntarily displaced myself. I was engaging with, absorbing a new world. So I was acutely aware of place.

And so I think that this book really - it distills for me so many of the themes that I've been working at and worrying over in my writing from the very beginning about place and about the meaning of place. But I think that if we take away the names of the places, the name of the city, it's more open. I find it more liberating. I think that identity can be a trap at times. I think we can become too fixated on who we are and where we're from. And I think this can actually - and does lead to a lot of very grave problems in the world and for our society and for the way we communicate and exist and coexist.

So that's the thinking behind it. Again, as I said, when I started writing in Italian, it just came out, and I didn't think to myself coherently, oh, I'm going to not write this character's name. I just didn't write her name. She was just a - she is opposed to a woman with a name.

KELLY: Let's talk about her, and let's talk about the...

LAHIRI: Sure.

KELLY: ...Unnamed narrator. You do give us a few identifying traits. She's middle-aged. She's Italian. She's a professor. She's also very lonely. I was struck over and over by how isolated, lonely she is. And sometimes she seems to resent it, and other times she seems to revel in it. Why did you want to explore that?

LAHIRI: Well, it was who she was, right? And I didn't know who she was in the beginning, so I was exploring over the course of writing the episodes, trying to understand who she was. But that's the process of writing, right? You write, and you discover the character as you move forward. And in my case, I started putting her in different places to better understand her. And I think that, as you say, she has a relationship with her solitude. And I think the book is about her relationship with her solitude. And I think it puts into focus for me the reality, I think, that we all have to have and have to acknowledge a relationship with our solitude. And in that sense, I think this book is really looking at sort of the more existential question of, who are we, and how do we proceed? How do we proceed through life with others and without others?

KELLY: I want to take note of something you just said. You talked about writing the episodes of this book. You didn't use the word chapters. They are very short chapters or episodes, but that maybe alerts people listening, there's not really much plot here. There's not - like, usually when I'm interviewing the author of a novel, I'm taking great care not to give away plot twists. There are no plot twists here, which is - it's a very brave thing to do in a novel.

LAHIRI: Well, you know, there's plot, and there's plot. I mean, plot is a sequence of actions. Plot is a sequence of actions that accumulate and affect some sort of change. And so in that sense, there is a plot, I would argue. It's much more interior in some sense. It's a first-person novel. There's a consciousness, you know, at the center, a character who's observing, who's moving through her days, through her weeks, through the course of a year. And she's actually in movement, right? She's actually very much in movement. She's moving literally from place to place.

KELLY: She is by the end of the book. Without giving away (laughter) a plot twist, she's locking up her apartment and heading for an adventure in yet another place that you don't quite name.

LAHIRI: Exactly. So she does change, right? And her circumstances change. And I think that's - I mean, that's plot, right? And that's what I convey to my students - that plot can be a very subtle thing as well.

KELLY: You've moved back to the U.S. You're living stateside again. Will you keep writing in Italian?

LAHIRI: Well, I am at the moment. I just finished a book of short stories in Italian that will come out later, probably at the beginning of next year. And I also wrote a book of poetry in Italian that was supposed to come out last spring and then was postponed because of the pandemic. I mean, I do go back to Italy very regularly, barring the pandemic, of course, when it's...

KELLY: Yeah.

LAHIRI: ...Been much more complicated. And when I go, it's become my creative space at this point. And things occur to me, and I am always inspired and surprised by what happens when I go to Italy at this point. And all of these books have been born there, needless to say. So we'll see. I mean, I think once the dust settles from the various books that are in various stages of completion and prepublication now, you know, things will go quiet again, and I'll move on to the next project. But I can't say whether it will be in English or in Italian, but it could very well be in Italian at this point.

KELLY: I love that. You change your location, and things happen.

LAHIRI: Yes. And that's very much what the book is in the end.

KELLY: That is Jhumpa Lahiri talking about her new book, "Whereabouts."

This was a pleasure. Thank you.

LAHIRI: Thank you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEN-MATE'S "NUNDS TOLLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.