Jhumpa Lahiri is an incredible author. She’s won the Pulitzer and was nominated for the National Book Award and Man Booker Prize. I’ve read Unaccustomed Earth as well as Interpreter of Maladies by Lahiri and was very impressed by her beautiful language and subtle, intuitive characterization. So I was not disappointed when someone in book club recommended that we read In Other Words (2016), Lahiri’s latest book.
However, when I looked it up on Amazon, some of my excitement faded. This is Lahiri’s first non-fiction book. It is about her love and obsession with Italian that leads her to move her and her family to Rome for two years. She writes, in Italian, about this experience. The book is the English translation of her experiences. I think the book is meant to have Italian and English side-by-side on opposite pages, so readers can compare and contrast the two languages–something that would be especially interesting if you knew or were learning Italian. Alas, this did not work on my Kindle, so half the book was in English, and the second half was the same thing in Italian. Unfortunately, I have to say that everyone in my book club was relieved when they got halfway through the book and realized they were finished.
I admire Lahiri’s commitment in living and writing solely in Italian. It must have been challenging and scary to write a book in a language you are still learning. However, as a reader who is familiar with Lahiri’s English works, reading a book in Lahiri’s adopted language was distracting and often frustrating. Sometimes the book felt simple and repetitive. I can only imagine what a mess I would make if I tried to write a book in German. Again, I am impressed with what Lahiri was able to do, but I think it was more of a personal project for her than something that had to be read by me.
Even through Lahiri’s Italian, she has some common themes that also run through her other works. She talks a lot about belonging. Some people assume that English is not her native language because she is Indian. Growing up in America with immigrant parents, she wanted to belong with her peers, but felt torn between them and her parents. “For practically my whole life English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety.”
Italian did not represent this internal struggle for her, which is a nice relief, but she still cannot succeed in fully belonging. Because she looks Indian, most Italians assume she cannot speak Italian or cannot speak it well. “Here is the border that I will never manage to cross. The wall that will remain forever between me and Italian, no matter how well I learn it. My physical appearance.”
“If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses me, what pains me–everything that makes me react, in short–I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life.”
This book did not do as much for me as Lahiri’s other writing. I could still see glimpses of the author I knew, but on the whole it was a bit of a chore to read. I can see this being much more interesting to people learning or studying Italian. It did kind of make me want to go out and learn another language, but it wasn’t my favorite.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.