Book Review 10: “In Other Words”

Genre: Biography/Memoir

Have in the Library? Yes!

In Altre Parole / In Other Words is presented in a neat bilingual version: Italian on one page and English down the other: Jhumpa Lahiri’s words in Italian, translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Two languages, two pages, facing each other. It recalls the lake she speaks about in the first chapter: the Italian language on one side, English on the other. “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,” she writes. This book is a chronicle of exactly that: after growing up, and having a successful career as a famous writer in America, Lahiri picks it all up and moves. To Italy: to learn, speak and ultimately reinvent herself in Italian.

This book is divided into short chapters in which she muses on different aspects of her language learning: from her wild obsession with Italian that she likens to “love at first sight,” to collecting words in a pocket dictionary (a book that will “always be bigger than [she will”), to the joys and constraints of trying to write in her adopted language. Her prose is characteristically straightforward but at the same time the voice more enigmatic than the novelist I’m used to. In part this could be the translation, which, for reasons she explains, she decided not to undertake herself.  Yet it is also thematic:  here for the first time, she’s exploring herself. This is “unaccustomed” territory (to borrow a phrase from one of her other works), since Lahiri usually writes “in order to hide in the background of life.” This book, which she likens to Matisse’s cutouts in respect to the newness of her artistic direction, stands out because here she “is the protagonist for the first time.” And yet she’s still exploring the same themes that haunt her fiction: migration, exile, and what it means to live between cultures.

As someone who has also navigated foreign countries, as a brown person who’s also often stuck between two worlds, and as a writer who loves words, Lahiri’s observations read like a special revelation to me. It was very worth leaving the shore.

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