Jhumpa Lahiri’s point of arrival
Cut off from her adopted home in Rome due to the pandemic, Jhumpa Lahiri writes a letter to Italy filled with love and longing as she spends her days in the US
Dear Italy, yesterday I should have landed in Rome to reunite with my son, who goes to school there. I should have returned home and headed out to the piazza to shop for food. I would have undoubtedly run into a few neighbors and friends on the streets. I’d have said hello, and they’d have said, “welcome back."
It’s just that my son, along with millions of kids throughout Italy and elsewhere, doesn’t go to school anymore. A few days ago he unexpectedly and urgently returned to America, and shortly thereafter Trump banned travel from Europe, a scornful and already pointless gesture. On the one hand I’m truly relieved my son is back, and that both my children are under the same roof during this time of deep uncertainty. And yet not returning to Rome this morning, not setting out for the market, even at the height of this crisis, pains me. It’s the same distress a daughter would feel at not being able to run to her gravely ill parent and lend a hand, because she feels compelled to, because she can do no less.
For a week now I’ve done nothing but follow the news in Italy and reach out to Italian friends, both in Italy and in the United States. My friends in Italy tell me things aren’t looking too good. They send me photos of empty streets all shuttered up. They tell me that the market stalls in Piazza San Cosimato have thinned out, and that supermarkets have signs asking people to stay a meter away from one another. I can picture all of this, more or less. They tell me they’re afraid, that they’re stunned, that the situation is brutally serious. And up until a few days ago, when I was still planning to board that plane, many told me, “Jhumpa, don’t come."
I absorb their fear and feel equally stunned. At the same time, I absorb their courage, their patience, and their determination to battle and defeat this invisible enemy. Amid it all I laugh like mad, right along with them, when they share the hilarious memes spreading on social media. This is why Italy alone—which has already taught me so much—is now showing me how to face the coronavirus: with chin up, discipline, a touch of irony, and a healthy dose of optimism. And I’m gladly infected by their attitude. Here in America alarmism is on the rise and friends are telling me: thank god your son got out! They have a point, sure—it’s better the family can be together in times like this, otherwise things would have been even harder. And yet I’m nettled by such remarks.
Italy remains my point of arrival. For me, Italy is still a balm. A week ago, when I advised my son to come back, I told him Italy needs fewer people out and about right now, that we need to stand back and give the country the time and space it needs to recover. What I don’t understand is the attitude some people are displaying toward Italy now that it’s on lockdown, struck by an unprecedented crisis. It fills many with fear, even dread. Incomprehensibly, compassion is scarce—the US president expresses none whatsoever. I’m ashamed of it.
I still feel protected by Italy—even an Italy on its knees, bowed by such utter isolation. It’s precisely now that I feel Italy standing by my side, sharing—despite the ocean between us, despite Trump’s travel ban—its strength and dignity. It continues sharing its affection and advice, guiding and protecting me and my family. Yesterday, for example, my publisher, a gentleman from Milan who loves to stroll his city’s streets but is now cooped up at home, wrote me a serene email reassuring me that my next book would be released there in a few months. I had dropped him a line just to say, “I’m thinking of you all," hoping to offer some solace. And yet he was the one who, with remarkable elegance and composure, replied “this, too, shall pass."
And so, in my own world, and in its own way, the coronavirus has already healed a wound—or rather, cured a condition that has afflicted me for five years now: the condition of feeling sadly separated, exiled from Italy when I’m away, always eager to return. Even a few days ago when, at the very last minute, I gave up on the idea of returning to Rome for the time being, I cried for some time. But today, here in Princeton, where I’m following live news reports as if I were in my living room in Rome, I finally realize that there is no distance between me and Italy. And I’m astonished by the fact that Italy—even in such a critical, compromised state—is nevertheless right here with me, lending a hand. The closure of Italy’s borders makes those outside of them feel somehow protected, but they aren’t. Over the last few days we’ve all inevitably become Italian, and what is happening there is starting to happen everywhere. The coronavirus temporarily separating us has demolished all borders, destroyed all distance. Today will be the last day of class for my daughter, who goes to school in America. I’m relieved; according to my friends in Italy, they should have canceled in-person classes even earlier. Every morning I call friends in Italy so we can face the new day together. I follow their advice, and listen to them. When they say “don’t come," I understand, and consciously keep my distance. Soon, I hope, I’ll return to Rome and find a city back on its feet, a country transformed, forever marked.
Dear Italians, although I’m not on my way there today to lend a hand, please know that it’s not because I want to protect myself from you, but to protect you from me. I’ll never be afraid to stand by your side—only to fall out of touch with you.
I send, from afar, my deepest solidarity and affection. With these words, in the language we now share, I send you my heartfelt thanks for the gift of perspective you continue giving: an example of what to do, how to be, and how to get through this.
P R I N C E T O N , N J
M A R C H 1 7 , 2 0 2 0
This essay, originally written in Italian by Lahiri and translated by Alta L. Price into English, is excerpted from And We Came Outside And Saw The Stars Again, edited by Ilan Stavans and published by Penguin Random House. The book is available from 21 September.
Since her turn to Italian, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri has written three books, including In Altre Parole (2015) and the novel Dove Mi Trovo (2018). Editor of The Penguin Book Of Italian Short Stories (2019), she divides her time between Rome and Princeton. Il Quaderno Di Nerina, her first collection of poems in Italian, will be published in 2021, as will Whereabouts, the English version of Dove Mi Trovo, translated by the author.
Also read: How Writers Worldwide Are Making Sense of the Pandemic