Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"In Other Words," by Jhumpa Lahiri

Those of you who have been reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful fiction over the years, as I have, may know that she has now done something quite radical. She decided that she wanted to learn Italian, and to write and publish in Italian. So she and her family moved to Rome for over a year to facilitate this immersion in Italian. Writing at all, let alone literary works, in a new language is a staggeringly difficult thing to do. First, learning the language well is very hard in itself, as anyone who has tried to learn a second or third language as an adult knows. Then to learn it well enough to write and publish a literary book, with the added pressure of her audience’s high expectations for her writing, is truly impressive. Yes, other writers have written in new languages (e.g., Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Eva Hoffman, Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera), some out of necessity and some because they felt drawn to challenging themselves in this way. But no one has said it was easy. I have just finished reading Lahiri’s book about her decision to learn and write in Italian, “In Other Words” (Vintage, 2017, originally published 2015). The book has the Italian version on the lefthand page and the English translation by the noted translator Ann Goldstein on the righthand page. (As an aside, seeing this layout gave me a flashback to a graduate seminar I took many years ago on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” with a similar layout of the text; although neither I nor most of the other students knew Italian, our professor had us read the Italian poetry silently and aloud to experience and appreciate its sound and its grandeur.) Lahiri seems modest, and writes earnestly and candidly about her struggles and doubts, and yet she is determined to meet this challenge she has set herself. It is never entirely clear why, although she speaks of her varying and ambivalent feelings about her “mother tongue,” Bengali, and the language she grew up with and has written in, English, and the different relationships she has with each. She does say that unlike her mother, who moved to the United States but always kept her habits and behaviors from Calcutta, she (Lahiri) felt an insistence to transform herself. The first story she wrote in Italian began “There was a woman…who wanted to be another person.” She goes on to say, in this current book (p. 169) that “All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin….That’s why I was never happy with myself. Change seemed the only solution.” She is mysteriously drawn to Italian, yes, but it also seems she feels the need to set herself this very difficult task, almost to test herself against it. She writes of lessons, of dreams, of progress, of setbacks, of discouragement, of fears. At the end of the book, she says that although she is not satisfied with the book, she feels it is an accomplishment. She is not sure what will happen next, when she returns to the United States, and whether she will continue to write in Italian or go back to English, knowing that each choice would have serious and perhaps permanent implications for her writing.

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