Twenty years ago, American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, well-known for her fantastic debut novel The Namesake and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, fell in love with Italian. It happened suddenly, but her obsession never relented. She went to Italy, took classes of Italian with different teachers, dutifully did her homework, read in Italian and stopped reading in English, noted down every new word in a notebook, and finally, moved to Rome, where she continued to develop what truly is a relationship with this latin language. It took her years to master the language and she still feels that she doesn’t know it like she should, that she is limited, that her writing is somehow constraint by a restricted stock of words, the nuances of which she is not always aware of. Yet, in spite of all this, she succeeded in writing a whole collection of essays entitled In Altre Parole, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, In Other Words.
In Other Words is a collection of personal short essays in which Lahiri tells how she became acquainted with Italian, her struggles in learning it, the glory that overwhelms her when she has her first conversation. In each essay, she develops a surprisingly apt metaphor between learning Italian and swimming in a lake, learning Italian and scaffoldings supporting an old building, learning Italian and having a hairy adolescent at home, learning Italian and walking in a city made of bridges and canals… The first essays will be familiar to anyone who has ever learned another language: the “defamiliarization”, this feeling that you can’t continue living without knowing the meaning of this particular word, the puzzling over the grammar, the infuriating prepositions which never come right, the pride when we utter our first words and are understood, the sudden distance with, and disinterest in, our mother-tongue…
What are, at first, interesting essays on learning a language become progressively much more intimate experiences. Because this is Lahiri writing — and if you know Lahiri, you know that her favourite topics are belonging, migration & integration, hybrid identities, implicit & subdued racism — the essays take on another perspective when Lahiri tackles her lassitude at being asked time and again how come she speaks Italian so well while her husband is systematically supposed to be Italian, though his Italian sure is imperfect. In “Il Muro“, “The Wall”, she compares her physical appearance, her dark skin, to a wall that will always segregate her, always make her feel like an outsider:
“Those who know me speak to me in Italian. They appreciate that I understand their language, they gladly share it with me. When I speak Italian with my Italian friends I feel immersed in the language, welcomed, accepted. I take part in the language: in the theater of spoken Italian I think that I, too, have a role, a presence. With friends I can talk for hours, at times for days, without having to rely on any English word. I’m in the middle of the lake and I’m swimming with them, in my own way.
But when I go into a shop… I find myself abruptly hurled back to the shore. People who don’t know me assume, looking at me, that I don’t know Italian. When I speak to them in Italian… they say, puzzled, “I don’t understand”. It’s always the same response, the same scowl. As if my Italian were another language.
Thye don’t understand me because they don’t want to understand me; they don’t understand me because they don’t want to listen to me, accept me. That’s how the wall works… They don’t appreciate that I am working so hard to speak their language; rather, it irritates them.”
She links this experience to that of her childhood when she tried so hard to be a perfect American, speaking English better than her parents ever could, trying hard to be integrated and make others forget her darker skin colour and the fact that her parents spoke a different language. Learning Italian, for Lahiri, was, in her own word, “a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali… An independent path.” And it gave her a new identity, an even more hybrid identity, only the suppositions, attitudes and scowls of strangers were still here to remind her that “she is not from here”. Learning Italian, moving to Italy with her family, didn’t save her from the state of exile she already felt in the U.S. and she came to admit that she would always feel in exile. Only, hers is even more painful, as she writes on her return to Italy after a trip to the U.S.: “Finally, at the end of August, at the airport, at the gate, I am surrounded by Italian again. I see all the Italians who are going home after their vacations in New York. I hear their chatter. At first I fee relief, joy. Immediately afterward I realize that I’m not like them. I’m different, just as I was different from my parents when we went on vacation to Calcutta. I’m not returning to Rome to rejoin my language. I’m returning to continue my courtship to another.
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.”
A painful realization for Lahiri who is so keen on learning Italian so as to build bridges towards others, who is devoted to open herself to others and deserve her integration in a country she chose because she is learning its language.
When I ordered the book, I didn’t expect it to be bilingual. Having always wanted to learn Italian, I decided to read the Italian pages only, and I glimpsed at the English pages only to help with some words. The beginnings were tough but as I speak French and Spanish, I soon recognized grammatical patterns and by the end of the book, I barely needed to look at the English version, only to check some adjectives. So a fun thing happened: I dived into Italian not knowing Italian, and I read about Italian and about learning Italian. Sometimes, there was an amusing inversion: Lahiri explained how grasping the structure of the tenses was strenuous for her, and I remember feeling the exact contrary when I learnt English. What was difficult for her was logical for me. As I read along, I became so engrossed with Italian that, just like Lahiri, I stopped reading in English. I didn’t want to check the English translation unless absolutely necessary, I bought a dictionary app, and I refrained from reading other books at the same time. I read out loud, which was exhausting and difficult and surely ridiculous too, but I was discovering other sounds, another music, and it’s been a long time since it’s happened. I found out, thanks to Lahiri, that I could learn Italian on my own, I just had to dive into literature straight away and thank life for bilingual editions and dictionary apps. And at the same time, attracted by the newness and challenge of Italian, I was worried that I would be carried away from English, like Lahiri herself. A few days after I finished the book, and after having read another book in English, I can say that this didn’t happen but I am definitely looking forward to my next Italian read.
This is a beautiful collection of essays. With cleverness, Lahiri reflects on the different steps of learning a language and develops the most unexpected metaphors that never fail to convince you. Some will make you laugh, like the one when she considers Italian as her little baby while English is more like the hairy and clumsy adolescent, about to break it all. Some will make you thoughtful, like that of the scaffolding that I want you to discover on your own. Lahiri’s writing in this book is simpler. For Italian readers, it might be too simple to be enjoyable but I hope the insights you get from Lahiri will keep you going. For English readers who read it in English, well, remember it’s a translation. For those of you who want to learn Italian, I’m telling you: if I could do it, so can you.