Imagine an award winning author abandoning their dominant language to learn a new one–not out of necessity but pure desire. This is what Jhumpa Lahiri, fiction writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, does. In her 2016 memoir, In Other Words, Lahiri describes how her obsession to learn Italian required more than courses, tutors and just visits to Italy. It required immersion. She uproots her family and moves to Rome “to keep alive a language that has nothing to do with [her] life.” In preparation, she “renounces” English so she can read, speak and write exclusively in Italian.
In Other Words reads like a series of journal entries in which Lahiri probes her motivations (“studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali”), navigates the risks (“a writer should never abandon his or her dominant language for one that is known only superficially …. the disadvantages serve neither writer nor reader”) and documents her progress (“Every sentence, like every bridge, carries me from one place to another”). There are setbacks too and she intimates, in the aptly titled chapter “The Wall”, the limitations she faces are not her aptitude or command but people’s willingness to accept her and her Italian.
“… from the simple joy of gathering and using new words to the recognition of writing’s role to question and investigate oneself.”
In Other Words (written by Lahiri in Italian but translated into English by Ann Goldstein, a deliberate choice Lahiri explains early in the book) is the impressive culmination of her journey: from the simple joy of gathering and using new words to the recognition of writing’s role to question and investigate oneself. This investigation is enriched by the variety and depth of her metaphors. Sometimes refining them: “the metaphor of the small lake that I wanted to cross…is wrong. Because in fact a language isn’t a small lake but an ocean.” Other times redefining them all together. At first she sees her relationship with Italian as “romantic: a falling in love.” Later she wishes to nurture her Italian like a mother might a child because maternity is “a visceral bond, an unconditional love, a devotion that goes beyond attraction and compatibility.” Each new or revisited metaphor illustrates her attempt to better understand her pursuit.
This is an obvious book for someone fascinated by or interested in learning Italian. But I’d recommend In Other Words to anyone, especially writers, who would appreciate Lahiri’s process and obsessive devotion to engage with language.
Marco Melfi is a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio. His poems have appeared in The Antigonish Review, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, The Arc Award of Awesomeness, Funicular, FreeFall and The Prairie Journal. His chapbook, In between trains, was published in 2014. He lives in Edmonton on Treaty 6 Territory.