books, Reading, Women Writers

Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Other Words”

“How to define this book? It’s the fifth I’ve written. It’s also a debut. It’s a point of arrival and of departure. It’s based on a lack, an absence. Starting with the title, it implies a rejection. This time I don’t accept the words I already know, the ones I should be writing with. I look for others.

I think it’s a hesitant book and at the same time bold. A text both private and public. On
the one hand it springs from my other books. The themes, ultimately, are unchanged: identity, alienation, belonging. But the wrapping, the contents, the body and soul are transfigured.”

51WnsrzEh6L._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_Jhumpa Lahiri took the literary world by storm when, in 1999, her debut work “Interpreter of Maladies” was first published. Winning numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Lahiri found herself precipitously, unexpectedly, and decidedly famous. Though she has since expressed misgivings about her fame and praise, her fame may have been jarring and unwelcome, but the praise was certainly well-earned. Lahiri has a voice that is quiet and forceful. Her writing reaches deep into your core and wraps itself around you.

Since her first book I have been an unabashed fan and eager follower of her works, a role that tries my patience as Lahiri tends to release a new work every 4 to 5 years. The long wait between works, however, is apparent in the painstaking craftsmanship of her writing. Her words are carefully chosen, her phrases cautiously weighed.

When I learned that Lahiri was publishing a new work last year, I immediately added her to my never-shrinking, eyes-larger-than-my-stomach to be read list. What I discovered was something wholly other, something provocative and unique. “In Other Words”, as Jhumpa Lahiri herself makes clear, is a complete departure for her in a number of foundational ways. Categorically, it is a major leap from the culturally-steeped fiction she seems to have been born to write. “In Other Words” is diaristic. It is memoir meets travelogue meets linguistic exposition.

What’s more, Lahiri has chosen to do something I’ve never heard of anyone else doing. Raised in America by Indian parents, Lahiri speaks both English and Bengali without accent but, in her mind, her native tongues both place and displace her. She expresses a sense of “otherness”, of not belonging to either culture, to either language.

“I feel more than ever that I am a writer without a definitive language, without origin, without definition. Whether it’s an advantage or a disadvantage I wouldn’t know.”

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.”

And so, this brilliant wordsmith, this cosmopolitan, has chosen to write in a foreign language, a language she acquired not through proximity or familial exposure, but through sheer will and intellectual curiosity. “In Other Words” was written entirely in Italian, a language Lahiri admired and pursued in her adulthood. What’s more, she has chosen not to be the work’s translator.

“For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown. The other language is always there to support you, to save you. but you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.”

Lahiri is flying without a net. She is doing something bold and terrifying, putting herself out into the world in the most naked way. As someone who has made her place in this world for her exquisite diction, she has willfully handicapped herself in order to reach new heights and to explore new avenues. The result is, quite frankly, hard to judge. The English translation of the writing of a non-native Italian speaker clearly lacks the fluidity, the depth I have come to rely on from Jhumpa Lahiri. But at the same time, I wasn’t disappointed. I applaud “In Other Words” for its gumption, and respect Lahiri’s commitment to such a bold experiment. “In Other Words”, ultimately, was an exceptional writer writing about writing and a wordsmith looking to create her own linguistic home.

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