This summer, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Paris for a week, a long-deferred dream of mine ever since I was in college and had to give up a chance to spend my junior year in France. I was actually invited by my 20 year-old daughter who’d been in Paris for a seven-week internship at the Cité de Science Museum to spend a week with her visiting all the sights in Paris that she had been too busy to enjoy. As soon as I bought my plane ticket back in early March, I started planning how I would attempt to revive my long-dormant French, barely used in decades except for some very basic French homework help my daughter had asked for in her high school years.
I began by re-reading some of the French books I had kept from my own French courses in high school and college, and I found some excellent websites for French practice–Duolingo, Slow News in French, and Radio Facile Française. I started to keep a notebook with words I didn’t remember or had never learned, and I tried to write a few sentences in French every day. Very slowly, vocabulary and grammar started to return , but everything felt diffuse and hard. Who was that girl who could write essays in French and converse with her classmates and teachers without having to pause every few seconds to re-think case agreements and gender endings? Why was the accent that had been so effortless years ago so hard for my mouth to reproduce? I didn’t remember how much my facial muscles could hurt after trying to speak a few sentences in what had become an elusive language, lost somewhere in my forgotten past.
But I became almost obsessed. I began spending hours a day on my French practice, always pushing forward even when I kept making the same careless mistakes over and over. I felt that somehow the challenge of trying to express myself in another language was as important as any task I had to accomplish in my own language, even though as it turned out, all I was able to say, once I was in Paris, was very basic, barely above elementary-level. I let my daughter do most of the communicating–her French, after seven weeks working with French colleagues was impressive. Yet I felt that just containing the words in my brain somehow helped me understand and appreciate at a higher level the linguistic environment around me in Paris.
And so I can identify completely with Jhumpa Lahiri and her renunciation of English in favor of Italian. In Other Words is her chronicle of how she came to love Italian as a language and as an alternate means of communication; the challenge of expression in a foreign tongue not her own becoming a way of freeing herself from the crushing expectations of always attaining perfection in her writing in English. Full disclosure: Lahiri had been my daughter’s creative writing professor last spring, and I had heard all about Lahiri’s incredibly high standards and intensity as a teacher. And so I was not at all surprised with her book, which also reaches towards a quiet intensity of its own and also answers the many critics who have excoriated her for turning her back on English after having achieved such success (she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Interpreter of Maladies, her collection of short stories, along with many other prestigious awards).
This is a book not just about writing in a foreign language (Lahiri wrote it completely in Italian, and the text was translated not by her but by Ann Goldstein–Lahiri is serious about not writing in English any more), but also about the nature of creativity and how language can become a bridge over the difficulties of expression. Lahiri uses Italian to learn how to write differently. She has already achieved everything she ever wanted in her writing up to this point; a new language gives her new possibilities, a new way of expressing her ideas, but also, of course, an immense challenge that she meets with drive and discipline. “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.” The experience of making mistakes doesn’t thwart her but rather impels her forward, and Lahiri begins to find a new kind of style that lets her open up to a different manner of thinking and writing.
Lahiri continues to question herself. “Why does this imperfect, spare new voice attract me? Why does poverty satisfy me? What does it mean to give up a palace to live practically on the street, in a shelter so fragile?” Her answer: “Maybe because from the creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security.”
Lahiri has taken an immense risk in turning to Italian as her only language to write in, and yet it becomes completely understandable from an artistic point of view. She writes to make sense of her world, to order her approach to life, but also to express a creative impulse that must be constantly challenged or else it becomes routine, uninteresting. And what she has done here is monumental. Language separates us, and yet it becomes a means of new expression, an enhanced creativity. And the writing here, though spare is beautiful: “Every sentence I write in Italian is a small bridge that has to be constructed, then crossed. I do it with hesitation mixed with a persistent, inexplicable impulse. Every sentence, like every bridge, carries me from one place to another. It’s an atypical, enticing path. A new rhythm. Now I’m almost used to it.”
For those of you who read Italian, this book has the original text on the left side of the page with the English translation on the right. I so wish now that I had studied Italian too, though the intensity of Lahiri’s drive to find a new kind of expression comes through clearly even in the translated version. Here is a book not to be missed.