Thursday, July 21, 2016

Maybe I Knew Italian In Another Life...

Or maybe the words are familiar through some kind of osmosis. A stray word here and there lodged in my brain, after visits with my Italian grandmother a million years ago or from the roommate I had in college who was taking Italian 101 and constantly muttering vocabulary words under her breath.

Maybe the words seem familiar because they're closely related to Spanish (a language I sorta sorta know).

bambini, bella, libro, lingua, famiglia 

The words jump out at me from the pages of the book I'm reading. They ping around in my mind. I know them. I want to know more.

The book, in case you are wondering, is called In Other Words. It's a memoir by one of my favorite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri. I've read and loved all of Lahiri's books and scooped up this latest without knowing exactly what it was--

basically a musing on Lahiri's obsession with the Italian language, which leads her to move to Rome with her kids and painstakingly teach herself to speak and write only in Italian.

In Other Words is her fifth book, her first memoir, and her first book written entirely in Italian. It was translated into English by someone else but Lahiri's original Italian text appears on every other page.

Every time I turn a page, I begin to read, out of habit, the words at the top of the page, which are in Italian.

It's disconcerting and familiar all at once-- for me as a person who is intrigued by the very idea of immersing oneself in a foreign language as an adult--

and as a writer, amazed and fascinated by Lahiri's quest to let go of the language she knows in order to think and read and write in a different one.

Lahiri is considered one of the best authors in America. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies; her later books have won both critical awards and landed her on best seller lists. And here she is, in her own description of her process, struggling in this new medium.

Maybe not completely surprising though.

There's lots in Lahari's novels and stories about the immigrant experience, displacement, belonging. Many of her themes are rooted in her own life. She grew up in America speaking Bengali with her Indian parents and speaking (and writing and reading) English everywhere else. Both Bengali and English feel as if they are imposed on her, whereas Italian is a new way to define herself.

Plus, it's a challenge.

It helps her rediscover her joy of reading. And gives her a new understanding of herself as a writer.

"What does it mean," she asks, "for a writer, to write without her own authority? Can I call myself an author, if I don't feel authoritative?

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect."

I'm not sure, exactly, why this book is resonating with me. I won't be moving to Rome any time soon or immersing myself in another language. My writing is nowhere near the level of Jhumpa Lahiri's, but still, her words-- in Italian, in English-- tumble around in my head.

They confirm what I know about the creative process, which involves, by definition, risk and discomfort,

the balancing of discipline with taking leaps off cliffs,

the striving toward perfection and the letting go of it,

a rooting around for words that are both familiar

and magical.


  1. I love this. She is one of my favorite writers and this is a lovely musing on her work!

    1. Thanks, Laura. I have the book if you want to borrow it :)