Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the best known authors of Indian origin of our times, right up there on par with the most successful American authors. She achieved one of the highest writing accolades there is – the Pulitzer Prize in fiction – for her debut novel, the Interpreter of Maladies, and has not looked back since. Her second novel, The Namesake, not only won critical acclaim but was adapted into a movie by none other than Mira Nair, with top-of-the-line actors like Tabu, Irrfan Khan, and Kal Penn. Her two subsequent novels were also widely regarded, in particular, The Lowland, which was published in 2014. Born and brought up in the US (to Indian immigrants), Lahiri is a native English speaker, and writes, naturally, in English, making her novels readily accessible to the millions of English-speaking folks all over the world, including people like me.
In Other Words, however, is written in Italian and translated into English by a professional translator of Italian books to English. How did this happen? And why? This forms the main theme of the book. Lahiri describes the magical pull that the Italian language has had for her ever since she visited Italy shortly after college, and she spent the next 20 years or so — while writing her novels and getting married and having her kids, in short, living a “regular” life — trying to sporadically learn the language better. Living in New York, she had the advantage of having access to Italian teachers and went through several of them before settling on one that worked well for her. She did get a chance to practice what she was learning on her occasional book tours to Italy, and describes how everyone there was extremely encouraging and helpful when she told them she was trying to learn the language.
A few years ago, she realized that she could never become completely fluent with the language unless she lived there and was fully immersed in it, and that was precisely what she did. She packed up her life in the US, including her family, and they all moved to Italy. In Other Words is a collection of essays chronicling her journey and her progress with the language, right from the time when she first visited Italy to when she had mastered enough of the language to be able to read, write, and even think in Italian. What makes it most remarkable, and sets it apart from other memoirs, that it is written in Italian, a testament to not only Lahiri’s undisputed love for the language but also to the fact that she has gained enough familiarity and fluency with it to be able to do this. The book is a fairly easy read, which is not surprising given that it is written in a language by someone who is not a native speaker of it. For the English translation, Lahiri explains that she didn’t do it herself because she wanted to stay fully immersed in the Italian language and not fall back into her native English. With the publication of the book, the “immersion” which she had sought seems to have been accomplished for the time being, and she is getting ready to return to the US with her family.
While few of us can relate to hearing the siren call of another language as stridently as Lahiri did for Italian and going to the extent that she did of heeding it, there are some aspects to her experiences that are more universal. In particular, those of us from India can relate to the conflicted childhood she experienced, torn between the native Bengali language of her parents — which they sought to hold on even after moving to the US — and the native English language of the country in which she was born — and the American culture she wanted to fit into. She describes how her physical appearance always made people assume she was a foreigner and didn’t know the local language, not just in Italy, but even in the US, her own country. In Italy, the locals invariably assumed that her husband, who is American (of Spanish origin), was Italian and knew the language, even though it was actually she who spoke it well. We can also relate to the change of direction, the process of starting over and the upheaval it causes that she experienced, although in her case it was entirely voluntary and self-imposed, whereas for many of us, change is forced on us by circumstances. Either way, this change can often be a turning point towards a better and more interesting path, and is worth exploring — she cites the example of Matisse who, later in life, began to move away from traditional painting and developed a new artistic technique, which was groundbreaking and is now regarded as his signature style.
In Other Words may not be the most exciting of memoirs, but it gives us the opportunity to “get inside the head” of a highly acclaimed author and understand the overwhelming importance of words and language in, not just her career, but in her life.
Will Lahiri continue to pursue her love for Italian, or get back to writing in English, or do both? She doesn’t know yet, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
In Other Words
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publication Date: February 2016
Reviewer: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.