Disclaimer: I do not speak Italian and I have the utmost respect for Jhumpa Lahiri as a writer/storyteller. I’ve only read the English version of In Other Words so it is very possible that much of the meaning and reflection was lost in translation but since it boasts direct translation I highly doubt it.
The premise is that Lahiri has fallen in love and has harbored these feelings since 1994 since her first trip to Florence. There is no person, however. No, she has fallen into a one-sided infatuation with the Italian. Not the place, not the people, not the culture, but rather just the words. Because of this love she has taken it upon herself to learn it as a means of capturing it and holding it herself. As lessons prove not to be enough and she suffers with the inability to engage anyone with her new found love, she decides to move to Italy with her family for three years for no other desire than to immerse herself in Italian — the language not the culture.
I continuously repeat that it is the language she is obsessed with because it is literally her sole purpose in the book.
I picked up this book because I am a fan of the Namesake and generally I enjoy her storytelling. I figured since it was a nonfiction piece it would give me insight to what type of person she was, how she thought, and maybe a few enjoyable ruminations on her writing. I was especially ready to read about her experiences in Italy since she lived there for 3 years and decided to write this book in Italian.
Spoilers — you know, if that matters to you.
In Other Words is, unfortunately, a self-indulgent over-embellished essay that repeats the same general message over and over again: learning a new language is hard. It is quite metaphor heavy which is perfectly fine considering this is a fiction writer who’s life is about writing, but the metaphors are all about the exact same thing: learning a new language is hard.
Now to be fair, it reads well and as a person who has attempted to learn another language (7 years of French and 1 year of Mandarin Chinese) I can relate to her struggles and needs to be understood. I also found it fascinating how different of a writer she became when she began to write in Italian as opposed to English. That part was intriguing but it merely made up about 5% of the book. The rest was more so repetitive notions about an almost masochistic obsession with learning a language that even now she seems to have no great talent for.
The worst part about it is, she spent 3 years in Italy for the language but forgot the important things that make up the language. Italian — even more so than French in my opinion — is a language of passion. You speak it both verbally and none verbally. Italian is the words, the inflection, the body language, and the facial expression and through In Other Words, Lahiri seems to be only interested in the vernacular — in the words themselves rather than their meaning, their origin, their history.
She seems to gloss over the fact that she is in Rome and you don’t learn until near the end that she has a separate diary for her experiences there (which probably would’ve made for a bit more interesting read). She tells nothing of the people she meets, the experiences in trying to communicate other than her mistakes and one experience in a shop in which her husband was mistaken for Italian rather than herself which lead to what can only be described as a literary tantrum. She went to Rome to engage other people in Italian but in her writing it says nothing of these misadventures or attempts if they ever happened at all. She went from isolating herself with the language in America to isolating herself in Italy with the language. It’s quite redundant.
Now, to bring up something that openly rubbed me wrong.
To be somewhat conclusive, the entirety of In Other Words feels very much like Lahiri is having an identity crisis. She describes how she does not feel any connection to her mother’s native language of Bengali and she has a sudden need to let go of English in favor of Italian. I feel as though she is confusing language for identity rather than it being a part of identity. It feels as though she is trying to change herself into something that she thinks will make her feel more accepted when in reality it is making her more alien. It alienates her from her readers, from her writing, from who she is on paper. She does not seem very proud of her Indian roots nor her American upbringing. She herself feels alienated by both things and speaks of English as just a crutch.
She lacks an emotional connection to her Bengali heritage and her American culture. Most of all, it’s as if she does not accept who she is. She seems to be flirting with Italian in a desire to be apart of this culture because she feels like she does not have one. This is not a pure love as described by the critics; this is an obsession with demolishing the person she has become in her adult life. Lahiri doesn’t know who she is and she is trying to fill the void of it with a new language that unfortunately she still does not fit because she is not Italian-born.
When this is addressed at the very end of the memoir I find myself feeling sorry for her. Even after all that trouble and despite her love for the language itself, she is not Italian. She doesn’t belong there. I feel that learning the language was simply an escape; a haphazard journey that in the end was pointless other than to glean a few self-reflective things that honestly had probably already crossed her mind during her early years.
I suppose In Other Words can be read like a midlife crisis as a reader, but reading as a writer it’s almost tragic. She clings so much to this notion that Italian is opening avenues for her when in reality she is still Jhumpa Lahiri — American with Indian heritage. Talented, amazing writer, but still she is Jhumpa — American not Italian.
Whether she continues her ventures in appropriating Italian remains to be seen, but to be honest, I hope she comes home and I hope that she realizes that she is not an alien, she is accepted here and is even admired and loved by people who speak English as well as her new followers in Italian. She doesn’t need to change avenues. She needs to embrace who she is uniquely. But if she feels Italian is able to help her do that, then whom I to judge.
In conclusion, In Other Words is a bit of a painful read. Long, repetitive and heavy with metaphors that merely reiterate a point. The more reflective thoughts do not come until the last third of the book and I’m not sure if anyone wants to wait that long. It’s a bit disorienting and alienating considering most have grown use to her English voice. It’s dry, contrived, and it creates a sort of dissonance between how I know her as a reader and how I know her now as a person. I hope she publishes a real memoir at some point to counterbalance this mostly self-indulgent piece.
I will be keeping the book though. It’s nice book and its always good to have first editions of things.
-Harli V. Park-