For the Love of Language

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

Grade: B+

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, but moved with her parents to America when she was just two years old. Her parents spoke Bengali at home, and she learned that language to an extent, but English ultimately became her everyday language. Now, when visiting India, everyone assumes she can’t speak Bengali, and they treat her like a foreigner. In America, she speaks American English fluently, but because she looks Indian, people always assume she’s a foreigner. Consequently she never feels quite at home in either language.

But Lahiri had a talent for language and a desire to express herself, so she wrote books in English, and wow! She won a Pulitzer Prize. Fantastic.

Still something was missing in her life. Then she fell hard in love with the Italian language. She struggled fruitlessly to learn it through study. Finally, she decided to immerse herself in it fully, moved to Rome with her family, and even began to write exclusively in Italian.

This struggle to learn Italian and to be accepted as a user of that language is what In Other Words is about. It is a collection of short essays and two very short stories. She wrote them all in Italian, but the English-language version of the book is bilingual, with Italian on the left-hand pages and the English translations on the right.

Writing in a foreign language is, I would imagine, somewhat like the exercise of writing in monosyllabic words only. Have you ever tried that? I have. It’s a terrible strain to say exactly what you want to say with only a limited vocabulary, but it also forces you to be creative, to take different linguistic paths. About writing in Italian, Lahiri said,

In learning Italian I learned, again, to write. I had to adopt a different approach. At every step the language confronted me, constrained me. At the same time it allowed me to rebel, to go beyond.

I can see the appeal such a constraint would have for an accomplished writer, especially given her love for this new language. Success, if it came, would be doubly sweet.

Whether or not it was a success, well, that’s up for debate. Looking through the reviews, it seems that some readers genuinely disliked the book, calling it “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic.” Some even picked on the Italian (which they said is clunky and full of errors). I don’t speak Italian, so I have no idea how good or bad it was in that language. I read some of it, just for fun, pronouncing the words as I imagined they would be pronounced (and probably getting it all wrong). Sometimes I tried to understand it on its own, and sometimes I compared it with the English. Those are the kinds of things I like to do. For that reason, I don’t regret the pages “lost” to the Italian (though I suppose certain monolingual readers could feel cheated that only half the book is in a language they can read). I thought having the Italian to look at was cool.

As for content, the book had a strong start in an essay using the metaphor of literal immersion in water, but by the end of the book Lahiri lost her focus. The writing degenerated into more of a diary in which she poured her insecurities, which is not the kind of stuff other people really need to read. I wish she had cut those parts out and picked a few more related subjects on which to write more formally.

Still, I enjoyed the book overall. It was interesting, and I do not regret a moment of the time I spent on it. So I give it a B+, meaning that it’s a good read, though not necessarily a book I would keep. I would recommend it for fans of Lahiri’s other works who want to learn more about the author, and also for people who are interested generally in languages and/or the craft of writing.

On a much more personal note, In Other Words is one of those books that makes me wonder why some books pass beneath my eye and catch my attention, while thousands upon thousands of others do not. I had never read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri before, and if I were going to start reading her work, shouldn’t I have started with the one for which she won the Pulitzer? Yes! But that’s not the book that fell under my eye when I was walking through the library looking for subjects to use for puzzles.

Some days it makes me happy to play the game of guessing what reason some Higher Power, if there were indeed one, might have for throwing a book my way. Today is one of those days. What, then, would be the reason for In Other Words to cross my path? Does Jhumpa Lahiri have something to teach me?

Perhaps. Jhumpa Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island (the state in which I now live). She earned several advanced degrees from Boston University, which is where I got my bachelor’s degree, and it’s possible we were at the school at the same time. Those are our most obvious granfaloons. I know they’re meaningless, but they still generate an aura of meaningfulness that I like.

Less than 100 pages into the book I found something that she and I truly have in common. She wrote,

If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses, me, what pains me—everything that makes me react, in short—-I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much.

Me, too. So if I were to believe there was a reason for me to read this book, I would say it was this—a reminder of why it is that I need to write. When I do not write, I feel adrift, cycling through periods of confused numbness and confused fear and confused anger. I don’t know what to think, or what to feel, until I write it all down and force the words to make sense. Then I understand what is going on around me, and within me. Then I understand myself. So this is the message I will take from the book: write!

P.S. In case you’re wondering how I transformed my experience with this book into a puzzle, I chose English words with Italian roots (e.g., ARCHIPELAGO, PAPARAZZI, PIZZA, etc.). Most of the words in the list ended with A, I, or O. In some cases, this would be a bad thing, but for the puzzle type I chose, it created a satisfyingly tricky puzzle. Thank you, Jhumpa Lahiri, for the inspiration!

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