IN OTHER WORDS
by Jhumpa Lahiri
translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Knopf, 233 pages
reviewed by Michelle Fost
In Other Words, a departure for Jhumpa Lahiri as she turns for the first time to memoir, took shape as weekly writing assignments—in Italian—that were published over six months in the Italian magazine Internazionale. Regular deadlines and the constraint of writing in a language she was still learning re-energized Lahiri. These very personal pieces are framed and contained self-portraits. They are fascinating, focused, and at times repetitive, and give the sense of a complex literary artist with a passion for language.
Part of Lahiri’s accomplishment in In Other Words is her recovery of a way of working that is unspoiled by the expectations of a demanding readership. I thought of a story told to me by an early childhood educator about a child who loved to paint. An adult, looking at the child’s work asked, “Is that a flower?” Is that the sun? What a beautiful yellow.” For weeks, the child, now self-conscious, did not return to paint. Lahiri’s project is a return to a literary garden, a place where she is free to play with language and expression in a way that is full of joy, discovery, and personal satisfaction. Lahiri generously invites the reader to share this pleasurable experience.
Her passion for Italian isn’t easily explained, but she stays with it. “I’m in love,” Lahiri writes in one essay. But then, “The language will never need me.” Italian is an unrequited love. Italian is like a lake that she’s learning to swim across. It’s also a garden with weeds growing among the flowers.
Sometimes these pieces feel like improvisational exercises. Lahiri reaches into a hat and pulls out a slip, each with a different metaphor to try out for the week. That’s fine, because the results are compelling to read. We’re in a master class, and there is excitement to observing a class instead of a fully polished performance. There’s a feeling of sketch and discovery. As a bonus, Lahiri’s Italian text is printed alongside Ann Goldstein’s English translation, inviting the reader into the language Lahiri has come to love.
My favorite is the first short story Lahiri wrote in Italian, “The Exchange.” Short and sharp, it’s about a woman who notices many other women coming and going from an unmarked apartment. She goes to investigate, and leaves with a sweater that may or may not be originally hers. Here we see Lahiri playing fully and creatively, and not just with language. She trusts her instincts as a writer and offers imagery rather than explanation.
“The Scaffolding” describes the process of writing the pieces. First, Lahiri made writing a weekly habit—she produced a piece a week half a year. Deadlines helped. Second, she worked with her Italian teacher on language and grammatical issues. Third, she showed the pieces to writer friends who gave her feedback. Here she recognizes something crucial: “I showed every piece to two readers, both writers…. They explained what sort of impact my reflections had on them, and they always said the most important thing I needed to hear: keep going.”
Within each piece, there are moments of startling clarity. For example, in describing how her Italian publishers Marco and Claudia jumpstart her learning the language by speaking to her only in Italian, Lahiri writes: “They tolerate my mistakes. They correct me, they encourage me, they provide the words I lack. They speak clearly, patiently. Just like parents with their children. The way one learns one’s native language.” This reflection leads to a small epiphany: “I realize that I didn’t learn English in this fashion.”
Lahiri’s first language was Bengali. Writing these essays allows Lahiri to empathize with her own mother, who lives in a place so isolated from her beloved mother tongue. “I think of my mother,” Lahiri tells us, “who writes poems in Bengali, in America. Almost fifty years after moving there, she can’t find a book written in her language.”
On family visits to India as a child, Lahiri felt on the margins of the language because she couldn’t read or write Bengali. As a child, growing up and going to school in America, she had a different relationship to language than her classmates who spoke English at home. Her immersion in Italian in Rome is like the shocking immersions she experienced as a child—whether traveling with her family or going to school. It is a place from which she becomes a writer.
Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her fiction has appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly and her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Phoenix Literary Section.