In Other Words: Lahiri’s Reconstruction of Self

In Other Words book cover

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to read about Jhumpa Lahiri moving to Italy to live, even just for a few years. Author of four works of fiction – Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland – at the prime of her writing and teaching career, having received the O. Henry Award in 1999, the Pulitzer in 2000, and her latest The Lowland shortlisted for the Booker in 2013, Lahiri decided to uproot her family and move to Italy to totally immerse in the Italian language. That means speaking, reading and writing in Italian.

In Other Words is Lahiri’s brave and candid account as a language learner. It compiles twenty-one essays and two short stories which she wrote in Italian. She uses the metaphor of swimming out into the lake instead of safely hugging the shore to refer to her Italian language learning experience. From her descriptions of the challenges and risks, the loss of anchor, the inability to express herself and be literate, let alone literary, the disorientation, the total humbling, her Italian venture is more like jumping off a precipice to billowy waters of unfathomable depth.

My hat off to Lahiri’s honest revealing of her frustrations and strive for a new identity; yes, after all, language is a major determinant of identity, one which is, unfortunately, superseded by one’s outer appearance and racial features. So it is heart-wrenching to read that despite her love of the Italian language, her total devotion to adopt it not just to live but as a tool of her trade as a writer, she is often seen as an outsider, a foreigner, barred from acceptance. Even when she speaks to Italians fluently in their language, they would respond to her in English.

English, that’s the rub. I was surprised to read that, while the author had achieved so much in her literary career as a writer in English, she chose to discard it to totally immerse in Italian. In the chapter entitled “The Metamorphosis”, she candidly admits that her writing in Italian (which she had been learning in America for some twenty years before) is a flight:

“Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?
The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so
much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me…
It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was
afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes
a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it….”

Of course, that’s also the language that she loved, and succeeded with. The conflict in identity, first as an Indian immigrant with Bangali as her mother tongue, then as a writer in English who had garnered the Pulitzer Prize – an award that she felt she did not deserve – had shrouded her with unresolved tensions. Lahiri had felt deeply the tug of war between her parental heritage and adopted land. A rejection of both had silently crept in. Italian provides a way out:

“Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish
myself, I can reconstruct myself, I can join words together and work on
sentences without ever being considered an expert. I’m bound to fail when
I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t
torment or grieve me.”

Unbelievably surprising and honest, written in Italian and translated by The New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, the bilingual book opens up to a dual English and Italian version. The short essays chronicle the progress of not only an insightful identity search and reconstruction of selfhood, but an invaluable personal documentation of second – no, additional – language learning journey. If this book was published a couple of decades earlier, I would likely have another topic for my thesis in my graduate work on second language learning; not only that, my view of English being the lingua franca, the language holding linguistic hegemony, would have completely changed as well.

After reading In Other Words and my surprising discovery of Lahiri’s ‘tormenting sense of failure’ with the English language (for all its symbolic meaning) or even her ‘undeserving’ feeling towards her award in her writing, I am relieved of a hidden burden. I don’t feel so badly about having had to constantly check and re-check my English: prepositions, idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs usage, subject verb agreement… All the hurdles that confront me every time I write a post or an article. If Lahiri can be so candid about her frustrations and errors when it comes to language learning, why can’t I?

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 


My thanks to Asian American Press for allowing me to post my book review here on Ripple Effects. The last paragraph is added in just for my Ripple readers.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

The Namesake (2006, DVD): Movie Review

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri




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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “In Other Words: Lahiri’s Reconstruction of Self”

  1. This is fascinating. I’m not at all familiar with Lahiri’s works in any language, but just the thought of transplanting and becoming so immersed is indeed something I’ve thought of more than once. My frustrations in listening to French spoken in France, quickly and as we might natively speak English is great (versus reading it, which I don’t do well with either, but at least can pick out words at my own pace!). To have to live this way, then write with the proper grammar is quite a task. Bravo to her.

    And, my friend, to you. I find nothing to fault in your English and whether it is a second language or not is clearly imperceptible to me. Perhaps you were younger or than she when you learned, and perhaps that is a bit easier. Nonetheless, it is an accomplishment.


    1. Jeanie,

      I think for Lahiri, as a Pulitzer-winning writer, the ‘burden’ comes from being recognized as an expert of the language, and of course, for all the English language’s symbolic meaning to her as an immigrant. Her mother tongue is Bengali, but she learned English soon as she entered school, first in London, then moving to America. So she’s definitely not an English as a second language user. English is her primary language. She admits she no longer holds a firm grip of Bengali anymore. However, English symbolically pulls her away from her parents and heritage.

      For me, English was only one subject in school while I was in the then British colony of Hong Kong, and I was still very much an ESL learner when I came to Canada as a teenager. Even now, idiomatic expressions are my weakest.

      Lahiri is one of my favourite contemporary writers. I’ve read all her books. Her plunge into the Italian language and uprooting her family and moving to Italy is totally unbelievable. Her candid ‘confession’ about her language experiences through her life is brave and admirable.


  2. Language is so integral to culture. One of my closest friends is from Hong Kong and my moving just across the continent has been an education in the language I was born to. I admire her bravery on so many levels and may have to put one of Lahiri’s books on my list. Any recommendation as to where to start?


    1. Michelle,

      Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth are short story collections. The Namesake and The Lowland are novels. I like Lahiri’s short stories more. So if you like, you can start right where she started: Interpreter of Maladies, which won her The Pulitzer and the Hemingway Foundation PEN Award. I personally like Unaccustomed Earth the best of her works. Click on the links above to my reviews. You’ll get an idea.


  3. What a fascinating story, and so well told by you. Since I’ve begun using poetry quotations in my writing, I’ve become more sensitive to issues of translation: how difficult it is, and how much of an art. One translator’s Neruda can be very different from another’s — sometimes, strikingly so.

    One of my readers, Omar, from Panama, has been learning English for years, and he, too, speaks of the difficulties of getting the idioms right. And there’s always the amusement I experience when I read something written by an English-speaking friend in Australia or Britain, and find a good portion of it pure mystery!

    Always, there are the questions: does an English speaker experience the world differently than a German or French speaker, simply because we describe the world differently to ourselves? So many questions! But this book is on my list, as of right now.


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