“Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. (…) To get closer to everything that is outside of me. (…)Writing is my only way of absorbing (…) life.”
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri constitutes an astonishingly beautiful discourse exploring the subjects of identity, the meaning of exile, belonging, cultural displacement, alienation, mixed and ‘third’ culture background, as well as learning a foreign language, and quest for a place called ‘home’ and the language called ‘mother tongue’.
We witness the author’s anxieties, her self-imposed linguistic odyssey into the depths of Italian language in order to reshape her own personal identity.
It is a kind of a confessional memoir but with a very few details about Lahiri personal life. It is important to mention that In Other Words was originally written in Italian, Lahiri’s third language which she learnt as an adult. The book was also translated into English by another writer and not Lahiri herself.
Undeniably, In Other Words is a beautiful ode to Italy, its culture as well as language and to self-discipline of acquiring a new language.
By reading In Other Words, we have a privilege of observing an inquiring mind and a sensitive soul of a wonderful writer during her creative process.
Lahiri grew up in the United Stated as a daughter of Bengali immigrants with Bengali as her mother tongue, although she has never been able to properly read and write it.
“I was ashamed of speaking Bengali and at the same time I was ashamed of feeling ashamed.”
She only learnt English when she went to a nursery. Lahiri portrays so well this ‘third’ culture feelings, when one does not quite belong to the culture they grew up in and also not to the culture their parents came from. Since a very young age, Lahiri has identified herself more with the words, rather than with any given culture, place, or any specific identity. She did not feel deep connection with her parents’ culture although she often set her previous fiction stories in the culture that was closer to her parents’ rather than hers.
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve belonged only to my words … If I didn’t write … I wouldn’t feel that I’m present on the earth.”
As a woman in her late 20s, Lahiri went to Italy during the summer break, and she immediately felt that strong connection with Italy and the Italian language for some inexplicable reasons. Over the years that followed, she took Italian lessons, and tried to master Italian to perfection until she moved to Rome in 2012. Then she decided to write her books in Italian. Lahiri devoted herself to her new language completely; she gave up reading books, writing, and even speaking in English, in order to fully immerse herself in her new adopted language.
In Other Words portrays those Lahiri’s struggles of acquiring the language – many people who have to learn the language when moving to the new country can easily relate to many emotions expressed in this book. The difference is that many immigrants have to master a new language just to survive, to get a better job, to have a better life while Lahiri has not been subject to this kind of pressure when it comes to Italian. For the writer, it was a free choice; she also does not have any cultural, personal connection with Italy except for her own profound love for Italy.
Throughout the pages of In Other Words, Lahiri conducts a moving, sincere work of self-inquiry. She tries to understand her strong connection with Italian language while her Bengali and English remain more on the margins of her daily life.
Lahiri’s thoughts on the idea of exile are multifaceted, and so enthralling. Exile, here, is not only defined as being exiled from own country, culture but also from the language, or more precisely, not having own language, not feeling comfortable in any language due to this complex, mixed background, and due to others ignorantly defining people through their physical appearance, their accidental place of birth, or their parents’ cultural background.
“How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine?”
“I don’t have a country, a specific culture…. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.”
Throughout her life, she has been often considered ‘foreign’ in the United States, as well as in India, because of her appearance or accent seemed to sound foreign to some people. She was never fully accepted in her country of the United States where she spent most of her life, and neither in the country of her parents, India.
Then when it comes to Italy and Italian language , there is always as she calls ‘this wall’ or border that she will never be able to cross, regardless of her mastery of Italian language; this wall is her physical appearance. She recalls the story when her husband (of the Spanish and Greek heritage) is often mistaken for an Italian although his Italian language skills are not nearly as good as hers but it is Lahiri who is often mistaken for a foreigner in everyday encounters.
“For him [her husband], it’s enough to extend his hand, to say, ‘A pleasure, I’m Alberto.’ Because of his looks, because of his name, everyone thinks he’s Italian. When I do the same thing, the same people say, in English, ‘Nice to meet you. (…) I feel like crying. I would like to shout: ‘I’m the one who desperately loves your language. I’ve been studying your language for more than 20 years. I read only your literature. I can now speak Italian in public, do live radio interviews.’”
Lahiri is often perceived ‘foreign’ regardless of how well she speaks the country’s language or of how many years she has been living in a given country – something that I can relate to as well as many other people can. Being a ‘third culture’ child especially in the contemporary Europe has become far more common these days due to the European integration and those lines between different cultures and identities are very fluid.
“Because of my divided identity, or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some ways deficient. Maybe there is a linguistic reason – a lack of a language to identify with. As a girl in America, I tried to speak Bengali perfectly, without a foreign accent, to satisfy my parents but it was impossible. On the other hand, I wanted to be considered an American yet, despite the fact that I speak English perfectly, that was impossible too. I was suspended rather than rooted.”
Having just one culture to identify with and having just one mother tongue is no longer the case for many. In Other Words portrays the importance of multiplicity of identities and belongings in a similar vein that Elif Shafak often does in her novels.
It is important to note that before Lahiri, there were many other writers who wrote in their adopted language such as Joseph Conrad, Agota Kristoff, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Makine and others. Although most of those authors were rather ‘forced’ to use their adopted language in order to be read rather than by a free choice.
I would highly recommend In Other Words – it is a truly fascinating read and writing is so beautiful.
I would also highly recommend another book by Jhuma Lahiri: Whereabouts