JHUMPA LAHIRI describes her relationship to Italian as a love affair: “When you’re in love, you want to live forever… Reading in Italian arouses a similar longing in me.” Falling in love with an object has one obvious downfall: your love-object can never love you back. The bright side, of course, is that you don’t have to waste your time wondering if it ever will. In Other Words immediately reminded me of Bluets, Maggie Nelson’s account of her love affair with the color blue. Nelson and Lahiri also show us another upside: this kind of love seems to be artistically invigorating. It allows the author to treat aspects of existence so basic as to be neglected, like color and language, with all the wonder and passion of a love-struck writer — and that’s a lot of passion. Even better, though their love is unrequited, it’s fruitful, producing an object that many others will love unrequitedly: a book.
In Other Words is a book about an almost unheard-of circumstance — an internationally-renowned writer abandoning her language of fame for one that is more obscure and has nothing to do with her nation or origins — but that doesn’t stop it from being incredibly expansive. It’s one of those books that passes all of life through the needle-eye of its focus. Lahiri’s struggle to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of Italian reverberates back to her first two languages, perpetuating what she calls “a kind of linguistic exile.” Her first language, Bengali, felt to her, as a child of immigrants, like “a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.” She recalls the longing her parents felt for even a letter in that language, a melancholy she finally understands through her amorous study of Italian.
Lahiri asks: “Why don’t I feel more at home in English?” As the language of her previous literary successes, it is something of a surprise that she is called to reject it. But maybe not; after all, it is also the language of imperialism in India, and the language in which she is alienated from Bengali forever. She notes that, because of her appearance, she is always expected to be a foreigner, despite her perfect grasp of English. And perhaps because of her fame, it became a language of necessity, whereas Italian represented glorious pointlessness: “I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali… An independent path.”
Speaking Italian, of course, is not without its own melancholy. She is still expected to be a foreign speaker of Italian, while her white husband is unfairly credited with linguistic skill. And no matter how much one engages with a language through natural desire, it’s still a language — huge, mysterious, complex, and independent of any one speaker. Lahiri laments: “What I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.” However, the book itself may disprove this premise. Doesn’t a language need its writers? Perhaps not like a lover needs their beloved, but like a goddess needs her priestesses, and subjects to bring her offerings. Lahiri may not be a high priestess of Italian (yet), but she certainly brings something new to the altar.
Her offering was well-received; the Italian-language version (In altre parole) won the Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia. She describes the Pulitzer, which she won relatively early in her career, as “a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake.” I can only imagine how she felt about winning this prestigious prize for her first work in Italian. But, I think, this kind of triumphant innocence is what In Other Words is all about. It’s the feeling of first love, where you first envision life free from family and cultural obligation and suffused with wonder, defiant of anything that stands between you. It’s a mode that’s hard to access in literature’s postmodern, late-capitalist landscape. Lahiri had to do something radical, even ill-advised, to return to that part of herself.
Lahiri always goes straight to the heart of the matter, and in the middle of In Other Words, she does just that. “Can I call myself an author, if I don’t feel authoritative?” she asks, slicing through both English and Italian to the shared root “auctor/augere,” to originate. This sentence not only shows the potency of English/Italian pairing, but asks an important moral question, perhaps similar to Gayatri Spivak’s famous “Can the subaltern speak?” Where do you speak from, if you are considered other to the origins of your language of speech?
Non riesco a rispondere. Non sono capace di avere nessun dialogo. Ascolto. Quello che sento . . .
Lahiri’s answer is the book itself. In Other Words, by its end, is a profound self-exploration and an achievement in scholarship. Even if she never “masters” the language, she has used it, and its translation, to write real revelations about life in language. She also successfully resists assimilation back into English; the book is translated not by Lahiri, but by Ann Goldstein, best known as Elena Ferrante’s translator. Lahiri explains her choice by stating that she had lost interest in the language of her other books. She compares her ex-language to an ex-boyfriend: “to translate into English, I have to wake up another part of my brain. I don’t like the sensation at all… As if I’d run into a boyfriend I’d tired of, someone I’d left years earlier. He no longer appeals to me.” Ouch.
Love is always a profound self-discovery, but your first love is really a love affair with yourself — that’s why it almost never works out with the other person, and why there’s nothing else quite like it. Through Italian, Lahiri rediscovers herself in the fifth book of her career. Like a first love, and even something like a first book, In Other Words is full of contradictions: the mature thoughts of a famous writer wrought in the style of someone struggling to be understood; a deeply-personal memoir with two short stories snuck in; an arguably premature, foolhardy project that is unarguably successful. Like a first love, it’s hard to imagine Lahiri sticking with Italian forever; she already has to go back to America by the end of the book. But, like a first love, In Other Words is something you’ll likely never forget.