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.