Rory Connects to Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words
There are some books that change your life, that stay with you after the last page. We have all heard this, it’s an old adage. There is a very good chance that all of us has experienced it. However, you do not necessarily expect it to happen often; in fact, despite knowing that books can change your life, you almost never expect it. Every time is like the first time. I promise, I am done with the clichés.
One day, after a particularly long and unexciting class (I am not telling which one!), I found myself wandering around the city, looking for something to distract me. I ended up in Payot to browse. I start looking around, to see if anything would catch my fancy. The first volume I pick up is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. So many people from around the world have told me what a great book that is and how much it helped them change their life for the better. If you don’t know Marie Kondo, then you probably don’t have an internet connection, or maybe you just have a life outside the internet – if that is it, kudos to you. Kondo has been the latest sensation for a while now, having created a method for living an ordered life. Are you a clutterer, always tidying up yet surrounded by mess? This is book is for you. Unless you are a hopeless sentimental clutterer who is also, in addition to this, extremely lazy. Like me. The irony of it all is that after a first bout of ‘I can do this!’, this book now lies on my bed stand, a bookmark in the middle of it. Part of the clutter.
There was another volume however that caught my attention. In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, was standing in the New Releases section, despite it not being particularly new. I had seen it before but never reached out. On the cover of this edition, however, there was a picture of Lahiri, sitting on a large wooden and leather chair in a library. What struck me was that her faraway look – which is now a classic photoshoot pose, so much so that it often looks like a parody of itself – did not look fake; she actually looked immersed in thought, surrounded by books. This is a view most of us are familiar with and we know it so well, we can recognise a real from a fake better than a fashion blogger can recognise a high-end brand bag from a forgery. So I grabbed it, out of instinct, without reading a single word or the blurb at the back of it.
Back home, I sit down to read, coffee in hand. I soon discover the book is presented in two languages: on the left, there is the original Italian version; on the right, there is the English translation. A conundrum then. Which do I read? You see, I stopped reading books in my native language, Italian, since I started my first English courses here: more than two years without reading a single word out of a book in my own language. It’s because of focus. When you are not a native speaker, and you find yourself in the position of having to use another language, day in and day out, you are always somewhat uncomfortable. You always feel a bit like an intruder. It’s like working on a laptop that’s not your own: yes, you know how to use it; you know how the buttons work; you know its most important functions, but it is not your laptop, the one that stands by you at midnight when you cannot sleep and decide to binge watch Vikings, the one only you know how to make download quickly and silently. The other is not the laptop that you know so well; it’s not your laptop, you know it, and everybody else knows it too.
I start reading the book in English, then. Dedication is my middle name. Lahiri wrote In Other Words based on her own experience of learning Italian. Why would a Pulitzer-winning English-speaking author decide to learn and write in another language? As with many stories, there are many explanations: love, passion, curiosity; as with many stories, the ‘why’ soon pales, and nothing matters but the story itself.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s native language, that of her family, is actually Bengali and, even though she learned English as a child, she approached English as a ‘stranger’; but, through writing, she built her own authority, demonstrated her mastery. She saw her life through writing in English, as a way to make sense of all that happened to her. In contrast, learning Italian required distance from herself, she admits. When you learn another language you always start as geographically, culturally, and linguistically distant, you put yourself in what she de nes as a self-imposed ‘linguistic exile’ (19). You force yourself to abandon a safe place and to begin a journey through a rocky land you are not yet equipped to climb. I read and I relate. Lahiri speaks of my fellow countryman, Dante, sent away from his Florence and from the language he himself had elevated to Italian; he would go on writing and living, but the nostalgia and the pain that came from this exile never diminished.
Before I know it, I have switched into reading the Italian version; out of curiosity, I say to myself, to see how she writes in Italian. She is brilliant: her prose flows beautifully and she expresses herself clearly. However, her sentences are short, her structures simple. There is nothing wrong with her writing; in fact, if you are a non-native English student like me, you are taught that conciseness and clarity are everything. Italian is not English, though. In Italian, you want long sentences; you want to show off your intricate, numerous subordinate clauses; you want your sentences to be so long that they seem to travel for lines and lines and that you probably have to read twice. In Italian, you do not sacrifice beauty of form for clarity. This is not to say that Lahiri is not an exceptional writer, even in Italian, because she is. I mean, if I could write in English as well as she writes in Italian, half of my problems would be solved. Make it 65%.
Jhumpa Lahiri tackles a key aspect everyone who speaks and, above all, writes in another language knows about all too well.
I miei pezzettini in Italiano non sono altro che inerzie. Eppure lavoro sodo per tentare di perfezionarli. Do il mio primo pezzo al mio nuovo insegnante di Italiano a Roma. Quando me lo restituisce sono morti - cata. Vedo solo errori, solo problemi. Vedo una catastrofe. Quasi ogni frase va modi cata. [...] La pagina contiene tanto inchiostro rosso quanto nero. [...] Trovo che il mio progetto sia talmente arduo che sembra quasi sadico. Devo ricominciare da capo, come se non avessi scritto nulla nella mia vita.
My short Italian pieces are main trifles. And yet I work hard to try to perfect them. I give the first piece to my new Italian teacher in Rome. When he gives it back to me, I’m mortified. I see only mistakes, only problems. I see a catastrophe. Almost every sentence has to be changed. [...] The page contains as much red ink as black. [...] I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic. I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life.
Writing is hard in the best of conditions. Lahiri offers a glimpse of the kind of pain one suffers when you truly exert yourself in writing in another language. Maybe this frustration is present in every new thing you try, in every new discipline, in every new hobby. You have to place yourself in a vulnerable position, open yourself up to making mistakes, in order to become proficient. But, there is something particularly unnerving, irritating, and maddening about grappling with words and grammar that seem to slip a bit out of your hands every time you think you have a firm grip on them. What’s more, offering a piece of your writing to someone is offering a part of yourself, not only of the way you see the world but of the way you create the world. However, you do not give up. And neither did Lahiri.
Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome to be inside the language. Private lessons and brief conversations with random Italians were not enough anymore. They did not offer full access to the language. It’s a bold move, not only because she is already an acclaimed author in English but because Rome is a very difficult city to live in. Living in Geneva, one tends to forget what a difficult city is really like. Checking the timetable of tram and buses? You can absolutely forget it in Rome. Setting an appointment with a doctor or booking a table in a restaurant on a Saturday? Expect a wait of at least one hour. When they say Rome is a timeless city, they are right in more than one way. But, in the middle of the madness that is Rome, something happens, a breakthrough. Lahiri had been keeping a diary in Italian, a chronicle of events and sensations. One day, she finds herself writing something completely different: a story. Not a ‘today I missed the no. 42 bus; how am I going to get to St. Peter?’ kind of story. A short narrative, a fiction.
The protagonist of ‘The Exchange’ is an interpreter who finds herself in a new city. On her first day, she sees some local women walking down a street, all going in the same direction, so she follows them and ends up in an apartment-turned-shop; once there, she tries many blouses, shirts, and sweaters, but decides against buying any because none of them feel right. However, when she changes back into her clothes, she cannot find her black jumper. The owner of the shop finds it for her but it feels different, weird. To her, it is not her jumper. It is only the day after that she realises that was her jumper all along even though she could swear, at the time, it did not feel like her jumper. It was because she was the one who had changed.
The story is eerie and familiar at the same time. It translates the feeling of inadequacy when you speak a foreign language into a bodily metaphor, in a way. When something is not right, we have goosebumps, perhaps a shiver down the neck, or that image that we cannot quite catch in the corner of the eye. It is strange and uncomfortable, yet we can all relate to it, we have all experienced it for one reason or another. By the author’s own admission, ‘The Exchange’ is all about her experience with learning Italian: ‘I hate analysing what I write. But one morning a few months later, when I’m running in the park of Doria Pamphili, the meaning of this strange story suddenly comes to me: the sweater is language’ (65).
While reading this, a long-forgotten memory reemerged. I remembered being sixteen and wanting to study English after graduation more than anything else; I remembered the hours spent pouring over grammar and all the exams on present progressives, conditionals, and whatnots. None of it made me a better English speaker than when I was at fourteen. I was frustrated. I had been studying the same things over and over for ten years already, why did my writing still need correction? Should I not be proficient already? How was I going to study at the university level?
I sat down and started writing words, just words, without an order. Then I drew. Then I wrote again. Like Lahiri, I too wrote a story about words running away from me, about the frustration it brings. I wrote of a woman who sees her reflection for the first time in the mirror made by the water of a lake, like the myth of Narcissus. Unlike the myth, however, the girl does not fall in love with her image. She can see only faults. For this reason, she starts to cry. She cries so much, the water level rises and she drowns. Well, that’s me – I have always had a penchant for the dramatic. However, I liked my story so much that the little errors seemed, well, little. Something that can be adjusted and that didn’t need any more distress than a passing shrug of the shoulders. I haven’t stopped writing in English since. In fact, I only write fiction in English. I have my ups and downs but that’s normal. Sometimes I delete perfectly good stories – again, so dramatic.
I don’t think Jhumpa Lahiri is trying to say that the key to learning a new language is creative writing. However, it worked for her. Creative writing helped her access those linguistic depths she could not capture before: because she could only make sense of the world through writing, it is reasonable that a deeper understanding of Italian came from writing. In a way, it worked for me too. Different people, different circumstances, different goals. Yet, I believe that writing creatively is one way to get closer to a language. I cannot write a review of all its benefits from a linguistic point of view, I am not capable of it. Even if there were no tangible benefits at all, there would still be something there, something about writing stories. Did I say no more clichés? I lied; I have one more left. The adventure of speaking a foreign language does not end with the writing of the story, of course. All the difficulties do not just magically go away – neither Jhumpa Lahiri nor I became an expert after writing one short story in a language that does not guarantee authority to either of us. It was just the right approach to pave the way and realise that this lack of authority comes with disadvantages and with advantages. It means forever inhabiting a space that is not quite our own but that we can decorate as we please, we can move things around, we can play. It means acceptance. It means it is not all bad.
In Other Words by Jhhumpa Lahiri. Translated by Ann Goldstein. 233 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN:978-1-10-194765-4