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'In Other Words' traces Jhumpa Lahiri's love affair with the Italian language

'Words' is Lahiri’s first nonfiction work, her first truly autobiographical writing.

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In Other Words
By Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by Ann Goldstein
Knopf
256 pp.

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A few days before Christmas 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri made her first trip to Italy. She left a week later, in “[l]ove at first sight” not with a person, but with the Italian language. Over the following almost-two decades, her “infatuation will become a devotion, an obsession.” Countless lessons and multiple teachers later, Lahiri moved to Rome in the fall of 2012 with her husband and children.

In less than a year, Lahiri – who won the 2000 Pulitzer for her debut, “Interpreter of Maladies” – was writing only in Italian. What began as “private, fragmented, spontaneous” notebook entries morphed into Lahiri’s fifth book.

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Her complete immersion into the language prevented her from rendering its English version: She left that task for “another translator, one with more experience and with greater objectivity,” acclaimed Italian-to-English translator Ann Goldstein. “These few words,” Lahiri explains about her need to “protect [her] Italian” in her opening “Author’s Note,” “are, in fact, the first formal prose I have composed in English since my last book, ‘The Lowland,’ was completed in 2012.”

Over the course of six months, Lahiri wrote brief personal essays “in order, one after the other,” and two short stories. The slim collection, “In altre parole” – In Other Words – arrives in the United States with an important prize, the Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia, already awarded for its original 2015 Italian debut.

“Words” is Lahiri’s first nonfiction work, her first truly autobiographical writing – even the stories, “The Exchange” and “Half-Light,” originate from personal experiences. What she describes as an “experiment” in writing is also an experiment in reading: Presented in bilingual format with Italian on the left and English on the right, most of the book’s audience will read just half a book. Bottom line? Half a Lahiri text is better than no Lahiri text.

Lahiri, the daughter of immigrants from Calcutta, India, by way of England, was born in London and raised in Rhode Island; her mother tongue is Bengali. English was demanded when she went to nursery school: Her “first encounter ... was harsh and unpleasant.” She adapted to English at age “six or seven” when she discovered books: “I became a passionate reader by getting to know my stepmother” – as she describes her relationship with English – “deciphering her, satisfying her.” Lahiri lived “suspended,” expected “to speak both languages extremely well: the one to please my parents, the other to survive in America.”

Unlike Bengali and English, which she describes as “incompatible adversaries” thrust upon her, Italian was her choice.

“There was no need to learn that language. No family, cultural, social pressure.... It comes from my desire, my labor. It comes from me.” As facile as she becomes in Italian, however, Lahiri also recognizes “the border [she] will never manage to cross.... [Her] physical appearance.”

Her Spanish-fluent, Guatemalan Greek American husband who still asks her the meaning of Italian words is often granted native status by locals. Her frustration is palpable, her vulnerability fragile enough that four English words offered by Italians in a gesture of politeness – “May I help you?” – can break her heart.

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Being viewed as foreign – in India for not being Indian, in the US for not looking American, in her chosen temporary home for being other – “[n]o one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are part of me,” Lahiri wryly observes.

Writing is how she makes sense of her life: “If I didn’t write ... I wouldn’t feel that I’m present on the earth.” Writing gives her both anonymity and identity: “When I write, my appearance, my name have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter. I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me.”  

Using the metaphor of learning to swim in a lake – initially staying close to the shore, then building the skill and confidence to reach the other side – Lahiri records her linguistic journey with unblinking honesty. The result is hardly perfect, as Lahiri openly and often admits her limitations: “In Italian, I write without style, in a primitive way.”

To compare “In Other Words” to her English works – her previous titles – seems inevitable, even as such a comparison feels unjust. Unsurprisingly, her short stories are the collection’s standouts, but the raw intimacy of her essays offers an illuminating gift with which future titles can and will be read through a shifting lens.

Her unwavering determination will never make her an Italian writer, she realizes, but “I am, in Italian, a tougher freer writer, who in taking root again, grows in a different way.”

Terry Hong, a frequent Monitor reviewer, also writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.