In Other Words: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Linguistic Love Affair

in other wordsIt’s hard to fathom spending your life honing your craft only to mid-career opt for an entirely new medium.  What if Monet had given up oil paints so he could experiment with sculpture?  Or Andy Warhol exchanged Marilyn and soup cans for a bowl of fruit?  But that’s exactly what Ms. Lahiri does when she takes on the bold project of moving to Rome and abandoning her native tongue, an undertaking she christens a “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism.”  After winning the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies at the ripe age of 33, Lahiri arrived at superstardom.  Universally acclaimed for her uncommon insight into the immigrant experience and the beauty of her spare, uncluttered prose, she embodied what it meant to be a successful writer.  Lahiri’s startling mastery of her own language- not to mention the extent of her literary renown- make it difficult to understand why she’d relinquish all that’s familiar to read- and write- solely in a foreign tongue.  

As she herself admits, there’s no practical reason for her to learn Italian: when she first embarks on her project, she doesn’t live in Italy, she doesn’t have Italian friends.  All she has is an inexhaustible desire, “an indiscreet absurd longing” to learn.  In Other Words, Lahiri’s exquisite autobiographical debut, written in Italian and translated into English by esteemed New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, is a linguistic love letter written with the ear of a poet, the sensibility of a minimalist, the heart of an inamorata.  Italian is the chosen beloved, but Lahiri’s true subject is creative renewal.  A chronicle of one writer’s quest for a new voice, In Other Words traces the near impossible metamorphosis from tongue-tied inarticulateness to full-fledged fluency, from dabbling dilettante to consummate master.  One has to commend Lahiri for her tirelessness: despite barely having a 6th grader’s vocabulary and only a rudimentary understanding of basic grammar, she resolves to write an entire book in her adopted language, struggling-just as she did when she first learned English- to find the words to express herself.  

In an illuminating metaphor recalling Andre Gide’s emboldening assertion that “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time,” Lahiri realizes she’s been learning Italian in the same way she’s been swimming- cowardly hugging the outside perimeter, never wandering too far from shore.  Though her 20 years of diligent study have enriched her mind and heart, she covets the mastery that has so far eluded her.  In much the same way she yearns to cast off the security of the shallows and swim dauntlessly in deep waters, she longs to toss her vocabulary flashcards and immerse herself in the language like never before.  This overwhelming desire acts as the impetus for her cross-continent move to Rome:

I want to cross a small lake.  It really is small, and yet the other shore seems too far away, beyond my abilities.  I’m aware the lake is very deep in the middle, and even though I know how to swim I’m afraid of being alone in the water, without any support.

The lake I’m talking about is in a secluded, isolated place.  To get there, you have to walk a short distance, through a silent wood.  On the other side you can see a cottage, the only house on the shore.  The lake was formed just after the last ice age, millennia ago.  The water is clear but dark, heavier than salt water, with no current.  Once you’re in, a few yards from shore, you can no longer see the bottom.  

In the morning I observe people coming to the lake, as I do.  I watch them cross in a confident, relaxed manner, stop for some minutes in front of the cottage, then return.  I count their arm strokes.  I envy them.  

For a month I swim around the lake, never going too far out.  This is a more significant distance- the circumference compared to the diameter.  It takes more than a half an hour to make this circle.  Yet I’m always close to the shore.  I can stop, I can stand up if I’m tired.  It’s good exercise but it’s not very exciting.  

Then one morning near the end of summer, I meet two friends at the lake.  I’ve decided to make the crossing with them, to finally get to the cottage on the other side.  I’m tired of just going along the edge.  

I count the strokes.  I know my companions are in the water with me, but I know that each of us is alone.  After about a hundred and fifty strokes I’m in the middle, the deepest part.  I keep going.  After a hundred more I see the bottom again.  

I arrive on the other side: I’ve made it with no trouble.  I see the cottage, until now distant, just steps from me.  I see the small, faraway silhouettes of my husband, my children.  They seem unreachable, but I know they’re not.  After a crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there.  Charged with energy, I cross the lake again.  I’m elated.  

For twenty years I’ve 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

As she recalls her first trip to Italy in 1994, Lahiri equates her earliest encounters with the language with falling in love.  Indeed, Lahiri’s relationship with Italian is nothing short of a love affair: hearing the language- in cafes, on cobblestone streets-she’s seduced by more than its beauty; rather she feels an instant, inexplicable connection, as if learning the language were her destiny, Italian, her heavenly-ordained soul mate.  But despite her best efforts, for years, Lahiri’s love goes unrequited.  Though she savors the sensuous romance of a’s and o’s and studies doggedly, she understands next to nothing.  With the same poignancy that she describes being an immigrant in a foreign country, Lahiri details the heartbreaking irony of being a writer without words:

“I hear the excitement of the children wishing each other buon Natale– merry Christmas- on the street.  I hear the tenderness with which, one morning at the hotel, the woman who cleans the room asks me: Avete dormito bene?  Did you sleep well?  When a man besides me on the sidewalk wants to pass, I hear the slight impatience with which he asks, Permeesso?  May I?  

I can’t answer.  I’m not able to have a dialogue.  I listen.  What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction.  It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the time, completely external.  It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is.  It seems strangely familiar.  I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.  

What do I recognize?  It’s beautiful, certainly, but beauty doesn’t enter into it.  It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship.  It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.  As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover.  I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it.  I realize there is space inside me to welcome it.  

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment.  A closeness and at the same time a distance.  What I feel is something physical, inexplicable.  It stirs an absurd, indiscreet longing.  An exquisite tension.  Love at first sight.”

After her first trip, Lahiri begins studying Italian with a zeal that verges on fanaticism.  When she finally relocates to the eternal city, she’s overcome by a mysterious impulse: to write in the native tongue.  Overwhelmed and disoriented by the foreignness of this strange city, Lahiri- a writer known for her eloquence with words- finds solace in the private pages of her diary, where she can transcribe the trials and tribulations of adjusting to her new home.  Much like the diarists who came before her-from Virginia Woolf, titan of modernism, to Anais Nin, poetic charter of the human soul- Lahiri finds a certain kind of freedom in writing for no one’s eyes but her own.  A refuge from the ceaseless self-censorship of “formal” writing, the diary- particularly because its composed in a distant tongue- liberates her from the inhibiting prison of perfectionism.  Beginning again in a whole other medium, Lahiri rediscovers the simple satisfaction of finding the exact words to express herself:

“A week after arriving…I do something strange, unexpected.  I write my diary in Italian.  I do it almost automatically, spontaneously.  I do it because when I put my pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain.  During this period when everything confuses me, everything unsettles me, I change the language I write in.  I begin to relate, in the most exacting way, everything that is testing me.  

I write in terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes.  Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone.  I grope my way, like a child, like a semi-literate.  I am ashamed of writing like this.  I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere.  I can’t stop.  

It’s as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with.    It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.  

During the first months in Rome, my clandestine Italian diary is the only thing that consoles me, the gives me stability.  Often, awake and restless in the middle of the night, I go to the desk to compose some paragraphs in Italian.  It’s an absolutely secret project.  No one suspects, no one knows.  

I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new approximate language.  But I know that it’s the most genuine, vulnerable part of me.  

Before I moved to Rome I seldom wrote in Italian.  I tried to compose some letters to an Italian friend of mine who lives in Madrid, some emails to my teacher.  They were like formal, artificial exercises.  The voice didn’t seem to be mine.  In America it wasn’t.  

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here- maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy.  The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly.  It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.  

In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing.  I wanted a new approach.  I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for years in America would, finally, give me the direction.

I use up one notebook, I start another.  A second metaphor comes to mind: it’s as if, poorly equipped, I were climbing a mountain.  It’s a sort of literary act of survival.  I don’t have many words to express myself- rather, the opposite.  I’m aware of a state of deprivation.  And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light.  I rediscover the reason I write, the joy as well as the need.  I find again the pleasure I’ve felt since I was a child: putting words in a notebook that no one will read.  

In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way.  I’m always uncertain.  My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.”

geography of rome

Soon Lahiri is not only writing privately in Italian- she’s writing publicly as well.  Recounting the unexpected visit from the muses that leads to her first short story in her adopted language, she recaptures the bliss of being a beginner.  A writer of remarkable restraint and refinement, Lahiri is a virtuoso of her native English, but it’s this very expertise that keeps her constantly doubting herself.  Should she say “elated” or “ecstatic”?  write in short, declarative sentences or be more elaborate?  use a semi-colon or a comma?  “Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in…and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”  To write- to create anything for that matter- is to perpetually second-guess yourself.  This doubt is compounded the more possibilities you have to choose from.  Coined the “paradox of choice,” this natural law states the more abundant your options, the more difficult it is to decide- in other words, there is liberation in limiting yourself.  This is certainly true for Lahiri, who discovers the most exhilarating freedom while bound in chains: in Italian, she doesn’t possess the vocabulary to endlessly debate between synonyms, she doesn’t have the critical capacity to judge whether what she writes is “good.”  But it’s her very lack of ability, her very lack of choices that rekindles her love for the written word:

“One day I find myself in a library where I never feel very comfortable, and where I don’t usually work well.  There, at an anonymous desk, an entire story in Italian comes to my mind.  It comes in a flash.  I hear the sentences in my brain.  I don’t know where they originate, I don’t know how I’m able to hear them.  I write rapidly in the notebook; I’m afraid it will all disappear before I can get it down.  Everything unfolds calmly.  I don’t use the dictionary.  It takes about two hours to write the first half of the story.  The next day I return to the same library for another couple of hours to finish it.  I am aware of a break, along with a birth.  I’m stunned by it.  

I’ve never written a story in this fashion.  In English I can consider what I write, I can stop after every sentence to look for the right words, to reorder them, to change my mind a thousand times.  My knowledge of English is both an advantage and a hinderance.  I rewrite everything like a lunatic until it satisfies me, while in Italian, like a solider in the desert, I have to simply keep going.”

“The moment when a book is best comes before you have written a word,” novelist Mark Childress once wittily observed.  Zadie Smith put it more bleakly: to be an artist, she declared, is to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”  No matter how much we edit, no matter how much we obsessively prettify and polish, what we write inevitably disappoints: writing is an everlasting exercise in disenchantment.  So why- when it’s already so heart-rending to compose in her own language- would Lahiri willingly endeavor to write exclusively in another, an aim that will almost certainly elude her?  The preposterousness of her project doesn’t escape the Pulitzer-Prize winner: “Why does this imperfect, spare new voice attract me?” she wonders, “Why does poverty satisfy me?  What does it mean to give up a palace to live practically on the street, in a shelter so fragile?”  Much like James Joyce, who asserted that “mistakes are portals of discovery,” Lahiri comes to realize that- despite our culture’s worshipful reverence of perfection- flaws are the birthplace of all novelty:

“Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection?  What does it offer me?  I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness.  Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity.  It stimulates.  The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

A remarkable writer and woman, Lahiri inspires her readers with her courage, her determination and, above all, her passion.  An amorous love letter that will seduce your soul, In Other Words is not just for self-proclaimed Italophiles or those already familiar with Lahiri’s work- it’s for anyone who delights being in the presence of a true aficionado.  

 

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