'In Other Words': Jhumpa Lahiri's deep dive into Italian
February 28, 2016 12:00 AM
Author Jhumpa Lahiri.
"In Other Words" by Jhumpa Lahiri.
By Julie Hakim Azzam
On film screens or in novels, the exile might seem a romantic figure, but the reality of exile is brutal. Exile severs all ties to home, culture, and the past. For many exiled writers, language is often the only thing that remains. But what if you never identified fully with that language?
“IN OTHER WORDS”
By Jhumpa Lahiri Knopf ($26.95).
Jhumpa Lahiri’s fifth book, “In Other Words,” is about the author’s obsessive desire to learn Italian and the quest to find an authentic authorial voice. Written in Italian and published in a bilingual edition that presents the two languages side by side on the page, the book takes us through the process of how, after unfruitful self-study, Ms. Lahiri moved to Italy for a year to absorb the language fully. Several chapters narrate her struggle to acquire the language in order to read and write it. Nestled between these chapters is the author’s first short story in Italian.
Ms. Lahiri already had an established authorial voice, as manifested in the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection “The Interpreter of Maladies,” and the 2014 National Book Award nominee “The Lowland.” Despite her success, the author maintains she always felt estranged from both languages, which she describes as being “in exile from exile.” For this London-born child of Indian immigrant parents, learning Italian became a way to resolve the conflict between her native language of Bengali, the private language of her parents, and her acquired language of English, the public language of a world where she never felt quite at home.
“In Other Words” is not based on the author’s accomplishments but rather her feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and imperfection. Several chapters are devoted to these revelations, the most shocking of which is the admission that the Pulitzer Prize “seemed ... a mistake.” She describes how the more praise her work received, the more expectations felt burdensome.
Writing in Italian gave Ms. Lahiri a license to be imperfect. The author paradoxically reconnects with her craft by flailing around with the grammar and syntax of a foreign language. Buried “under all the mistakes, all the rough spots, is something precious. A new voice, crude but alive,” she writes.
Although she never comes out and says it, “Other Words” has strong feminist overtones, and it can be seen as a radical attempt to recuperate a female voice that has been crushed by obligations to others. The book includes brief asides that support this, such as critics’ insistence that her fiction about Indian immigrants is autobiographical or foreign, which marginalize the work of the female writer in categories such as “women’s fiction” or “immigrant fiction.” Ms. Lahiri also discusses her frustration when Italian store clerks either insist they can’t understand her or ignore her, which she suspects has more to do with her not looking the part of the white European than her linguistic skill. It is an example that demonstrates how others’ assumptions about race shape her everyday reality.
There is an odd compartmentalization in “Other Words” between Jhumpa Lahiri the novelist and the assiduous student of Italian. She barely mentions her former work. I was hoping she would write about how feelings of inadequacy or exile found their way into her fiction.
Ms. Lahiri’s writing in Italian is simpler than her English prose. Just the essential words, feelings and hints of scene remain. It seems that in giving up English, she also gives up realism and has moved on to more abstract writing. It’s not clear if Italian will be the new home for her writing, or if she will eventually resume work in English. Regardless of the language, I know I will want to read it.
Julie Hakim Azzam is a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh (Twitter: @JulieAzzam)
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