Reflections on Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

In Other WordsIn Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

I realize that the wish to write in a new language derives from a kind of desperation. I feel tormented, just like Verga’s songbird. Like her, I wish for something else — something that I probably shouldn’t wish for. But I think that the need to write always comes from desperation, along with hope. Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Twenty-one summers ago I was finishing up one graduate degree in International Affairs and preparing to start a second degree in Linguistics, moving from an inquiry the effects of women’s levels of education in the developing world have on household income, birth rates, and infant mortality, into an examination of how language affects our creativity. I intended to pursue a Ph.D in Linguistics and was mulling over a dissertation on expatriate writers in France who wrote in their adopted language. I planned to explore how writing in French had changed their approach to the language of their stories, how this second—or some cases, third or fourth language—influenced the content, rhythm, and expression of their thoughts.

 

Then I was offered a job, a great job, in my first field. I pondered the inherent financial and professional insecurities of a life in academe and I turned from the Ph.D path, away from Linguistics.

 

Oh, the irony as twenty years later I try to make a living as a writer, having turned from the path of financial and professional security and stability because it wasn’t a life authentic to me. If someday I achieve a measure of commercial success, I will relocate lock, stock and barrel to France, where I can immerse myself wholesale in a language and culture that fills and sustains my heart and intellect.

 

Along comes Jhumpa Lahiri with In Other Words, a luminous meditation on how immersion in another language changes a writer’s soul. In this evocative and earnest collection of brief essays on learning to express herself in Italian, Lahiri touches on everything I felt to be true or what I have experienced with equal intensity living in France and living in the French language: the daily intoxication and despair, the loss and discovery of self, the intimacy and estrangement that come with linguistic and cultural displacement.

 

This is not a book on what it’s like to live in Italy. It is not a travelogue, a glimpse into a place any of us fortunate enough to have traveled there or who dream of going can mine for memories or tips. It could be set in Poland or Peru. This is a memoir of the mind of a writer who finds herself humbled by language. Lahiri writes of her first experiences crafting a story in Italian, “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer. 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. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

 

I am reminded as I savor these hesitant, glorious essays that my instincts two decades ago were right. Even then, so many years before I began writing, I understood the metamorphic potential that profound engagement with another language held for a writer. In Other Words has given me reason to take up that dream again, this time not at a scholarly remove, examining other writers’ lives and work, but as a way to enhance my own.

 

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A Book is Born!

Friday afternoon: Exhaustion has turned my limbs to chilled butter. Tears press against the back of my eyes, my nose stings with heightened emotion. Nothing is wrong; everything is right. I am just so very tired and this week, the week I saw my novel launch into the world, is nearly at an end. Half an hour on this ship, another hour on the road, and I will be home. Silence. Bath. Cat. The last season of Mad Men on Netflix. Wine.

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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

How to put into words what this week has meant, all that has happened; the outpouring of love and support from people I’ve never met in the flesh; others whom I have not seen in nearly thirty years, taking a seat before the podium where I stand, poised to talk about my novel; the flooding of photographs on my Facebook feed by friends who have found my book on shelves in Hawai’i and Florida, Boston and Houston; others holding up my book in Ireland and Scotland while their friends and family chime in to say, ‘What’s this? You know the author?’—all who have embraced me with such unqualified belief, joy . . . the words don’t come. Only the warm flush of gratitude, the spark of amazement.

 

While I’ve been in Seattle, reading, meeting, signing, celebrating, In Another Life has had at least as full and busy a virtual launch week as its author has had in real life.

 

Here are a few highlights:

 

Trade Reviews

  • A gorgeous review by Nicole Evelina from the Historical Novel Society‘s print publication: Historical Novels Review (Feb 1, 2016)
  • And another that left me wanting to throw a ticker-tape parade, from the Washington Independent Review of Books (Feb 5, 2016). Ann McClellan brought out the novel’s themes with such clarity and grace.
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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

On the Virtual Road

The Blog Tour for In Another Life kicked off a few days before launch and it’s been a whirlwind of interviews, guest posts, and reviews. Here are my stops so far. Warm hugs to these bloggers, who do what they do out of sheer love for reading and the satisfaction of supporting authors and bringing books to their readers:

 

Virtual Launch Party!

Tuesday, February 9, beginning 11:30 EST, I’ll be part of a party of 13 authors whose novels launch between January and March, 2016. Join us for an incredible opportunity to chat with these amazing writers about their beautiful books. And me! Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association Online Book Launch Party

 

Current Giveaways

  • Goodreads Giveaway (3 copies) happening now through February 14.
  • Teddy Rose is hosting a giveaway of In Another Life: 10 days left to enter!
  • And, I’m giving away a gift bag of love, plus a signed copy of In Another Life, now through February 13. Subscribers to my newsletter are automatically entered into the random drawing. Giftbag Giveaway

 

As I wait for the boat to bring me from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula, a tweet arrives that pulls the exhaustion from my limbs and delivers tears and laughter. Three days after publication, In Another Life returns to press for a second printing.  My gratitude knows no bounds.

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Reading Future, Reading Past = Present Sanity

I see what’s happening here. Life leaving me breathless these days. Brain pummeled by to-do lists, expectations, worries, excitements, anticipations. Book Launch approaches. I can think only in short bursts. My writing languishes, suffers, as creative energy is siphoned off for other uses.

 

My body doesn’t know good stress from bad, it just knows this heightened state of awareness, the light switch on, constantly, like some sort of prison torture.

 

I can take only so much “on” before I need silence, solitude, dusk to replenish and restore. These short days and long nights are a balm to my psyche. The darkness gives me a place to hide. And solace is found in books. I tear through the pages; my level of stress measured in the number of “The Ends” I reach each month.

 

Two distinctly different reads from my current word binge stand out, books I must share with you. Debut novelists, each, (though Claire Vaye Watkins’s short story collection Battleborn met with great acclaim upon publication in 2012). One writes of near-future southern California, the other of an ill-fated 18th century sea voyage, both astonishing for their imagination and fearlessness, the strength and brilliance of their prose.

 

I’ve got to get back to my to-do list, but know that each velvety-black evening, each silent, wet dawn, I am readingreadingreading, refueling my heart and mind with words, as my own build, readying themselves to be written.

 

Gold Fame CitrusGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

I fear the vast dimensions of eternity. Ciaran Carson, “Fear” 1948

 

In Claire Vaye Watkins’s searing debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, fear is vast. It is blistering hot, white, shifting, a thing massive and predatory, greedy and indiscriminate. It is the desert, created by draining the West of its water, by wringing the climate dry. Fear has a name. It is the Amargosa Dune Sea.

 

Set in a future close enough to see if we shade our eyes and squint, Gold Fame Citrus presents a California annihilated by drought. A massive, moving sand dune is eating up mountain ranges, obliterating cities, and creating refugees known as Mojavs, a dystopian society that recalls the Okies of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Watkins lists Tim Egan’s phenomenal The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl in her acknowledgments and parallels the desperation and isolation of that time with one of her own keen and savage imagination.

 

Luz was a child star, born into drought just as science began to give up on cure or prevention, and a desiccated society turned toward the mystic and the weird. Luz was to be the hope disaster couldn’t defeat. The government made her a poster child for the new future, until the posters faded and shriveled in the relentless sun. Now Luz squats in the abandoned home of a movie star in a “laurelless” canyon, drinking ration cola while her boyfriend Ray writes lists in his diary that read like poetry and tries to keep them alive. Luz and Ray can’t seem to muster the energy to flee to the cool, green, moist Pacific Northwest, or join the multitudes heading over the Dune, toward cities in the East. It’s not that easy: even if you survive the desert crossing, Mojavs aren’t welcome anywhere, states are building barriers to wall themselves in. And then there is Ray’s past—a barbed-wire fence too tall and entangled to surmount.

 

They aren’t alone in the desert: there are others, outcasts who’ve come together in survivalist colonies, living blackmarket lives. Luz and Ray rescue a little girl, a “strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child”, from one such group, in a scene of an overnight rave party that is grotesque and haunting, like a Cormac McCarthy nightmare of the Old West.

 

The theft of this child, Ig, and fear that they will be pursued, propels Luz and Ray out of their sun-scorched inertia and sets them on the road, seeking a way out of the desert. But of course, the Desert will not let them go that easily. Luz and Ig end up alone, dying of thirst and heatstroke. Watkins’s vision of mercy is also a prison, with convicted survivors sharpening blades of power on a whetstones of control.

 

This is a novel of passion and fierce love; it is cruel and brilliant, shocking and tender, created with an imagination as boundless as the desert. In contrast to the parched environment, Watkins’s prose is lush and vivid, leading you, bewitched, through a shimmering mirage of hope.

 

~~~

 

LandfallsLandfalls by Naomi J. Williams

 

So recently set adrift by two novels with multiple points-of-view, each chapter taking me through my paces with a new voice, each novel leaving me parched for emotional resonance as though I were desperate sailor drinking sea water, I thought, ‘No, not again,” when I embarked upon this voyage with Naomi J. Williams and her debut Landfalls.

 

Okay, I’ll stop with the silly seafaring metaphors.

 

But I won’t stop raving about this unputdownable tour de force, crashingly good, tsunami of a novel.

 

Williams offers a kaleidoscopic view of the ill-fated Lapérouse expedition of 1785-89, which saw two frigates filled with over two hundred men attempt a circumnavigation of the globe for the glory of science, human endurance, and the maritime prowess of France. With each chapter the kaleidoscope shifts, offering a different perspective—from seaman to scientist, Tlingit child to French castaway.

 

Several of the chapters were published as short stories and in many ways this novel is a collection of individual works, as Williams leaps nimbly from voice, perspective, and style. Yet with each landfall, the threads of characters’ lives are woven through the narrative, connecting each part to all those which precede it, and the underlying tension of a well-paced thriller holds you fast. The author frames a daring, complicated structure and shores it up, page after page, with a gripping, marvelously inventive, and historically solid story.

 

The scope of Williams’s research is breathtaking yet, like modern masters of the form Mary Doria Russell, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, you are drawn naturally, unresistingly into a distant era by flesh-and-blood characters. Heartstrings are pulled in the opening pages and are never released, until the gasping end. There is humor and irony, violence and tragedy, longing and despair. I greedily devoured the pages of a dreamlike obsession with a child bride at a Chilean outpost, gasped at the crystalline and savage beauty of Alaska, burned with anger over sadistic priests on the California coast, mourned love found and lost during the heartbreaking Siberian journey of a translator and his devoted bodyguard. The scope of history and setting, of character and voice and emotion, is nothing short of astonishing.

 

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

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And then this happened

Three years ago next week, I attended my first writers conference: Chuckanut, in Bellingham. There, on the second day, during a session about storyboarding your novel, I settled on one of three ideas for a novel I’d had kicking around in my head for at least a year. I just knew. It was the right time. It was this story.

 

There, on the third day, in the break between sessions, the life I was carrying began to let go. It was in writing this blog post, The Scariest Thing a few days after the conference, that I realized how my universe had shifted.

 

Three weeks later, as I sought to heal from this round of anger and grief, I turned to the page. I couldn’t yet lift my head to look forward, but I found a way to create life in the moment. I began writing a novel. I’m so glad I marked that day in words: Today was the day

 

Last week, something else happened. This:

 

These are the ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) of my novel. The uncorrected proofs sent to book reviewers and bloggers, bookstores, and used for marketing and publicity purposes. They aren’t quite the real thing—official publication is February 2016— but damn if they aren’t real enough.

 

I’m giving away most of the copies in this box, details here: In Another Life ARC giveaway  The real deal is also available for pre-order on Amazon: In Another Life: Pre-order on Amazon  I’d be over the moon if you took the order details to your local bookstore and/or library to request they order the novel for their shelves. Booksellers & Merchandisers can contact Valerie Pierce valerie.pierce@sourcebooks.com from my publisher and she’d be happy to send them a galley.

 

This novel is the life I’ve created. Since that July day, I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t been able to. Another of those ideas I carried with me to the conference is becoming a novel: I’ll have a solid first draft by the end of this week or the next. In between, a second novel is now on submission. Other short stories and essays have found their way into their world, and still others I am letting rest, until it is their time to be polished and sent on their way.

 

But this. This thing that has happened.

 

I can’t believe it, really.

 

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

Every Picture Tells a Story

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7: 1966-1974

 

Do you remember that time, back in October, when I went to France? Yeah, I know. I’d kind of forgotten, myself. Life did a somersault, followed by a back-flip, and took off running the very day we returned. The magic of our journey went Poof! as we rushed to catch up to job changes, computer crashes, book deals . . .

 

I say I am a writer, yet there is another part of me that allows words to fall away, one that delights in shapes and textures, light and shadow. It holds hands with the writer, and together they process the world, funneling sensation into perspective. I’ve favored the writer, choosing words as my craft and it is that craft I study; pictures are more a means of play.

 

But there is also a safety for me in photography. It is my down time; to release the shutter is to release my mind. To write is to be vulnerable, to have an opinion, to expose an inner world, unprotected. Behind a camera, I am simply an eye, holding still for one heartbeat a certain cast of light, an angle of stone against sky, a ripple of water, the turn of a head.

 

I took hundreds of photographs and slowly, over these past months, I’ve culled and sorted, distilling less than a tenth of them into an album to share. I wanted, many months ago, to tell you how much this journey meant to me, how much a part of my soul France is, what amazing places we explored. How about I just show you, instead?

 

Follow this link to an album: Dordogne, Lot, Loire: October 2014

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From Château de Commarque; Château de Laussel in distance. Dordogne, October 2014 ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

When I travel, I gravitate to the small, forgotten places—the crumbling ruins rather than the soaring cathedrals; villages with their backs turned to the road instead of bustling capital cities. I wonder at the secrets that lie within the stillness, the stories that whisper in the broken stone or behind shuttered windows.

 

I’d not read Anthony Doerr before All The Light We Cannot See, but as I lost myself in the delicate suite tendresse of this novel, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. From the grandeur of European cities and the drama of war, he uncovers the gems hidden in quiet, forgotten lives.

 

The trope of two star-crossed young protagonists—(a blind French girl, an orphaned German boy) and the hints of fable woven through the characters’ childhoods, set against the dramatic backdrop of opposing countries on the brink of a war—would seem to tread familiar ground.

 

But nothing in this shimmering tapestry of a novel is like anything I’ve read before.

 

The story opens in Saint-Malo on France’s Breton coast—an ancient walled city where the high tides swamp medieval cellars. In August 1944, the town is occupied by German forces and shattered by Allied bombing. Alone in her home, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc catches one of the hundreds of leaflets falling from the sky. It smells of new ink, but no one is around to tell her what it says.

 

Just a few streets away, Werner Pfenning, a young German soldier, is slowly suffocating in the foundation of a bombed hotel, trying to raise a signal on his radio. Finding voices in the still and empty dark has been his gift since he was a child, trapped in an orphanage in a German coal mining town. At last, he hears the voice of a girl—Marie-Laure—reading passages from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

How these two lives come together is the simple, melodic premise of this symphonic novel. Layered into the composition are wonders of science, literature, and music, the horrors of war, poverty, and occupation, and the legend of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames.

 

The light in the novel’s title takes many metaphorical forms. It is the light Marie-Laure’s father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, shines on the world for his blind daughter. He creates intricate models of their Paris and Saint-Malo neighborhoods so that Marie-Laure can memorize her world with her fingers and not fear what her eyes cannot see. It is the light her father offers in the lies he writes after he is taken prisoner. It is the light of the people left behind who love and care for a brave, perceptive child. It is the light of the Resistance, a flame of hope and defiance.

 

The light in Werner’s life is much dimmer. His scientific genius is recognized and he is taken from the orphanage—saved from certain death in the coal mines—and sent to a Hitler Youth academy, where hope is extinguished by duty. He becomes a radio operator in service of the Führer, and certain death awaits him in Leningrad or Poland or Berlin. Science, math, and distant voices transmitting in the dark are his only lights.

 

The blue flame pulsing from a priceless diamond with a cruel past is another kind of light—one followed by sinister characters who use the trappings of power during the chaos of war to pursue their obsessions to the most bitter ends.

 

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Structurally, All The Light We Cannot See is bold, its suspense masterful, its prose confident and beautiful. But it is the fragility and strength of Anthony Doerr’s characters that linger longest after the novel’s final pages. Highly recommended; one of this year’s best.

 

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A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It’s a story I’ve carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner’s Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region’s history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.

 

But I’m wasn’t looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It’s all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn’t need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn’t disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I’ve read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr’s novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan’s won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

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Autumn light shines on a new story. © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I’d been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I’d opened a yawning chasm of “Now what do I do?” My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I’ve learned anything along this writer’s journey, it’s to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn’t new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I’d let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.