In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri; translated by Ann Goldstein (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 256 pp)

Born in London to Bengali immigrants, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to the United States at the young age of 3. Her first published work, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. In 2007, Hollywood adapted The Namesake into a feature film.  A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Lahiri is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker. She has translated works by, among others, Elena Ferrante, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi, and Allesandro Baricco, and is the editor of The Complete Works of Primo Levi in English. She has been the recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and awards from the Italian Foreign Ministry and from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Seeking Mastery

If compensation matters most in life, why do people want to learn guitar? Presumably, the skills we acquire provide instrumental purpose to our lives. When we become a master of a craft or skill, we can leverage that skill into profit, allowing us to live better lives.

So then I ask again, why would a gainfully employed individual want to play guitar if there’s no chance of becoming the next big rock star?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s intriguing new work, In Other Words, explores this principle.

Teach Yourself a Language

Lahiri, an award-winning American author of Bengali heritage, has written this quasi-memoir/diary in Italian. Having studied the language for years, she recently relocated to Rome with her family to become immersed in the language.

“For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English., Always hugging that show. 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 down. 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” (5).

In Other Words dives deeply into Lahiri’s mindset and approach to this new language, from an artistic point of view. Throughout the book, Lahiri’s adoption of Italian draws her into a deeper self-awareness. English, her dominant tongue, no longer provides a crutch in her creativity. The tropes and tendencies of her craft no longer enslave her.

“Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable” (87).

Language as Identity

Even more, the emergence of Italian creates a love triangle with Lahiri’s language relationships to English and Bengali. She becomes something entirely unique in the process.

“The arrival of Italian, the third point on my linguistic journey, creates a triangle. It creates a shape rather than a straight line. A triangle is a complex structure, a dynamic figure. The third point changes the dynamic of that quarrelsome old couple. I am the child of those unhappy points, but the third does not come from them. It comes from my desire, my labor. It comes from me” (153).

And so, Lahiri moves forward seeking mastery of a language to which she fell in love long ago. Strategically, the choice to writer in Italian makes little business sense. Lahiri, after all, lives comfortably as a successful novelist, enough so that she even has the opportunity to up and move to Rome in the first place. And yet, the desire to approach language in such a unique way suggests that our creative impulses proceed from us at a deeper level than mere monetary motivations.

Mastery as Identity

For Lahiri, the desire to truly feel unrooted, floating in a vast ocean means differing avenues of creativity. She writes,

“In Italian I’m moving toward abstraction. The places are undefined, the characters so far are nameless, without a particular cultural identity. The result, I think, is writing that is freed in certain ways from the concrete world. I now construct a less specific setting. That’s why I understand Matisse, when he compared his new technique to the experience of flight. Writing in Italian, I feel that my feet are no longer on the ground” (221).

This fleeting, unmoored feeling answers my question. We seek mastery at things because it unlocks who we are at deeper levels. Learning guitar won’t put a bigger paycheck in the bank. For Lahiri, writing exclusively in Italian may limit her—although I did buy this book. Nevertheless, we proceed because we have a deeply engrained desire to learn and create from new perspectives.

For this reason, In Other Words offers compelling reading for anyone interested in creativity.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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