[Photo Source: Facebook/Jhumpa Lahiri]
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book, “In Other Words,” the author takes on a new challenge by writing entirely in Italian. The book is Lahiri’s first (mostly) autobiographical piece, a sentiment she wants to emphasize because many assume her previous work to be semi-autobiographical since they deal with South Asian characters that can be deemed similar in nature to her. Written in the first person, “In Other Words” is essentially a look into Lahiri’s diary, her innermost thoughts, her fears, her deep love for the Italian language, and her search for a home.
Lahiri first encountered Italian in 1994 during her college years. She took a trip to Rome but soon realized Italian classes and a pocket dictionary were far from enough to learn the language. Upon her return to America, she took lessons with multiple Italian tutors over the years and with each trip back to Italy, she learned a little more. In 2012, she finally moved to Italy with her family to fulfill her dreams of fluently speaking Italian.
In the chapter, “The Story” she explains her struggle of essentially starting over as an author in Italian.
“I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic,” Lahiri writes. “I have to start again from the beginning as if I had never written anything in my life. But. to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor, Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”
Wordsmith that she is, Lahiri is still able to beautifully create comparisons and images to express her emotional turmoil—even in another language. She initially likened her love of the language as a physically trying swim across a lake to the shore of the Italian language. Later, it turned into a romantic love story; then as a parent and, finally, it transformed into a young child. Lahiri spoke of feeling like an outsider her whole life no matter what language she tried to adopt, a feeling many children of immigrants can relate to.
Her first language was Bengali, a language inherited from her parents. She was never able to become fully Bengali because she grew up in the United States—thus, English became the dominant language, the most stable. Italian was an adopted language, one that was deeply desired—but she could never become completely Italian either.
“When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveler,” she writes. “Nevertheless, what I’m doing seems legitimate, acceptable task. When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.”
However, her appearance or accent keeps her from becoming completely American or Italian. This lack of a homeland, of a mother tongue, of finding a place you belong, is a sentiment many people can understand. Lahiri identifies the similarities between all three languages attempted to join the three parts of herself but the languages are also at war. The first fictional story she wrote in Italian, “The Exchange,” is reflective of her inner turmoil with finding a language that fits like the lost black sweater of her character. Lahiri shares that it is the craft of writing that gave her an identity—and that she writes to escape, and to tolerate, herself.
This story is essentially a story of filling the void of her identity—simple yet complex at the same time. As she takes us on this journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance it is as if a mist is slowly rising from our view. With each chapter Lahiri’s metamorphosis takes shape and by the end, the reader can understand themselves, and Lahiri, a little bit better. “In Other Words” published in Italian last year and —with a side-by-side translation,—in English this year. Although some may say much is lost in translation because Lahiri’s book was translated from Italian to English, the emotions presented come across clear enough to touch readers.
Lahiri ends her book with her return to America and a question in her heart of whether she will continue to write in Italian, expanding on her intimate relationship with the language, or return to English—the language in which she knows how to best express herself. Lahiri can captivate readers even in simple Italian; the Pulitzer Prize-winning author has proven that she is worthy of her accolades.