As a long-time fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction, I suspected I’d enjoy her first memoir, In Other Words. Although the description of the book as Lahiri’s experience moving to Italy so she could learn how to speak and write in Italian (her third language after Bengali and English) may not sound thrilling at the outset, I savored the sentences on each page. Lahiri herself describes the book as “a sort of linguistic autobiography, a self-portrait.” I think it’s also a love story about unexplainable passion, whether it’s the passion we might develop for a particular place, hobby, or even a person.
What’s remarkable about In Other Words is that Lahiri wrote it in Italian with Ann Goldstein serving as the translator for the English version. (Goldstein translated The Complete Works of Primo Levi and Elena Ferrante’s popular series.) The American version of the book has the Italian and English side by side. Lahiri explains that she had someone else translate her work because she wanted to avoid writing in English at all, feeling she could only learn to express herself in Italian if she abandoned English.
I loved Lahiri’s descriptions of keeping a notebook with the new phrases she was learning. We get to watch Lahiri learn a language from the beginning, including all the frustrating moments of not being able to complete a thought either verbally or in writing, a condition particularly aggravating to someone who writes for a living.
Lahiri herself can hardly explain why she developed such an intense drive to learn Italian. She says, “I don’t have a real need to know this language. I don’t live in Italy, I don’t have Italian friends. I have only the desire. Yet ultimately a desire is nothing but a crazy need. As in many passionate relationships, my infatuation will become a devotion, an obsession. There will always be something unbalanced, unrequited. I’m in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.”
Eventually, however, Lahiri knows that to master a language you must live where it is spoken and use it exclusively, and as her comfort with Italian ebbs and flows, she learns why she loves to write it all, no matter the language. The passages about her new self-awareness of her writing identity and passion are among my favorite lines in the book. She says, “I don’t have many words to express myself–rather, the opposite. I’m aware of a state of deprivation. And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light. I rediscover the reason that I write, the joy as well as the need. I find again the pleasure I’ve felt since I was a child: putting words in a notebook that no one will read. In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way. I’m always uncertain. My sole intention, along with blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.”
In Other Words is a quick read and one I highly recommend.
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