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strive for a new identity; yes, after all, language is a major determinant of identity, one which is, unfortunately, superseded by one’s outer appearance and racial features.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




The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review


CLICK HERE to read my movie review of The Namesake (2006).

The immigrant experience.  I know it first hand, and this I’ve found: categorizing could be futile. From afar, we may look like a collective mass, like the autumn leaves that have fallen on the ground. But if you pick them up and look more closely, every single one is uniquely different.

Jumpha Lahiri’s stories belong to the academics from India.  Her setting is usually Northeast United States.  Her characters, often first generation immigrants striving to plant a career and a life on new soil, raising their children with the promise of a brighter future.  The conflicts are not only generational by often internal. This much is true for all immigrants, academics or otherwise.  But as we zoom in on a more personal level, like the single fallen leaf, we see its unique shades of color, its tarnishes, its withered edges, and we soon find that no two leaves are exactly the same.

In The Namesake, Ashima weds Ashoke Ganguli in an arranged marriage, not even knowing his name when she first met him in the betrothal.  Shortly after the wedding they leave India for Boston where Ashoke continues his graduate studies in engineering at MIT.  The adjustments for Ashima is overwhelming as a new wife in a new country.  But she finds out a year later that her duty as a wife does not pose as much anxiety as giving birth in a land unknown. Motherhood is a much more daunting challenge.

In simple language, Lahiri paints a vivid picture of Ashima’s apprehension:

“But nothing feels normal to Ashima.  For the past eighteen months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all.  It’s not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive.  It’s the consequence:  motherhood in a foreign land… She’d been astonished by her body’s ability to make life, exactly as her mother and grandmother and all her great-grandmothers had done.  That it was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved, had made it more miraculous still.  But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare.”

Ashima soon gives birth to a baby boy, and she has to learn quickly a new role and its responsibilities.  But Lahiri surprises us by turning Ashima’s experience into a metaphor:

“Though no longer pregnant, she continues, at times, to mix Rice Krispies and peanuts and onions in a bowl.  For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.  It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.  Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.”

Ashoke’s story is more dramatic.  He is now teaching engineering at a university, but he has a lifelong love for literature, for it is deeply set in his past experiences.  His paternal grandfather, a professor of European literature at Calcutter University, read to him since he was a child the books of the classics.  Ashoke grew up taking to heart his grandfather’s advice:

“Read all the Russians, and then reread them,” his grandfather had said.  “They will never fail you.”  When Ashoke’s English was good enough, he began to read the books himself.  It was while walking on some of the world’s noisiest, busiest streets, on Chowringhee and Gariahat Road, that he had read pages of The Brothers Karamazov, and Anna Karenina, and Fathers and Sons… Ashoke’s mother was always convinced that her eldest son would be hit by a bus or a tram, his nose deep into War and Peace.”

I just love Lahiri’s images, fresh and surprising with a touch of subtle humour.  And Ashoke believes this to be so, the saving power of literature in its most literal sense.  As a teenager, he had miraculously survived a horrendous train crash.  Among the wreckage, rescuers found Ashoke clinging to life, his hand clutching a torn page from a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol, a book he was reading as the accident occurred.

The thrust of the story in The Namesake rests on this narrative.  It is understandable then that Ashoke commemorates such a miracle by naming his son Gogol.  At first it is meant to be an intimate pet name used only by family members.  It soon turns into a legal name.  So now Gogol is a name with two distinct sentiments: privately, it evokes endearments, but in public it only generates awkwardness.  As he grows older, the name Gogol Ganguli begins to sound more and more strange, it is neither fully Indian nor Russian.  It has become an embarrassment and even a laughingstock as he steps out into the adult world of America.

Upon high school graduation, Gogol chooses to go away to Yale as opposed to the closer campus of MIT, and take up architecture instead of engineering, all against his father’s wishes. Above all, to his parents’ disappointment, he decides to legally change his name to Nikhil. Unlike them, the need to belong has taken priority over the maintenance of cultural roots for Gogol.  A name change is the best way to a new identity and a fresh start, away from home and lineage. Oblivious to him though is the very cause and meaning behind that name, Gogol, a saving miracle that has given his own father a new leash on life.

For Nikhil, life unfolds in unexpected turns.  He soon realizes that a name change does not necessarily usher in a new self.  There are deep sentiments and ties that cannot be severed by mere outward re-labelling.  Nikhil drifts in and out of relationships striving to connect.  The family of his American girlfriends only confirms the drastic cultural differences in contrast to his own.  Intimacy with them burdens him with a sense of betrayal of his own family.  And yet, he longs to establish himself in the country of his birth, a land still considered foreign soil by his parents.

The sudden death of Ashoke has shaken up everyone in the family, and brought the scattered members together again, Ashima, Gogol and his younger sister Sonia.  The crisis presents a turning point for Gogol.  He begins to rediscover his cultural roots and his duty as a son. Hidden memories resurface to nurture a belated father-son relation.

Upon Ashima’s suggestion, Gogol reunites with a childhood friend of the family, Moushumi, now a PhD candidate of French literature at NYU.  A short time later they get married to the delight of both sides of the family.  Sadly, the marriage of two individuals with a common cultural heritage does not necessarily mean a blissful union.  Lahiri sensitively explores the complex issues and the sometimes unresolved conflicts of identity, expectations, and personal fulfillment, not just for Gogol, but Moushumi, and Ashima as well.

Lahiri is a cultural transplant herself, an experience I presume that has offered her the lucid perception and authority in crafting her stories. Born in London to Bangali parents, her family moved to Rhode Island where she grew up.  After graduating from Barnard College, Lahiri went on to Boston University, where she received her masters degrees in English, comparative literature, and creative writing and later her PhD in Renaissance studies.

Lahiri received the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and later the PEN/Hemingway award for her first book The Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories.  The Namesake is Lahiri’s first novel, published in 2003 to high acclaims.  Her third work Unaccustomed Earth, also a celebrated short story collection, won the Frank O’Conner Short Story Award among other recognitions.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Mariner Books, Boston, 2004.  291 pages.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


CLICK HERE to read my next post The Namesake (DVD, 2006): Movie Review.

CLICK HERE for an interview with Jhumpa Lahiri talking about The Namesake and her own immigrant experience.

CLICK HERE for my review of Unaccustomed Earth.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri


“Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say, ‘Read this!'”

— Amy Tan

Unaccustomed Earth is one of the five fiction selections of  New York Times Best Books for 2008.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut work, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and later received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award,  American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and was translated into twenty-nine languages.  Her next work was The Namesake, a novel which was turned into film by acclaimed director Mira Nair.  Unaccustomed Earth is her third book.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England, to Bengali immigrants.  Her family later moved to the United States and settled in Rhode Island where she grew up. Lahiri went to Barnard College and received a B.A. in English Literature.  She furthered her studies in literature and creative writing and obtained three M.A.’s, and ultimately, a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies at Boston University.  So, she knows her subject matter well.  In Unaccustomed Earth, characters are Bengali immigrants, mostly academics, their second generation who are born in foreign soil and their non-Indian friends or spouse.  The stories deal with the entanglement of cultural traditions, incompatible values, failed hopes and expectations, and the subsequent internal strives that haunt them all.

But why would we be interested in stories like these?  Herein lies Lahiri’s insight.  While the viewpoint of these characters might be parochial, Lahiri’s stories bring out the larger universal significance.  Who among us doesn’t belong to a community, and at one time or another, question his/her conformity in that very community?   Regardless of our ethnicity, who among us isn’t born into a family with its own peculiar traditions and values?  Who among us doesn’t feel the distance separating generations in our world of rapidly shifting paradigms, be they cultural, social, or spiritual?   And who among us, as one in the mass diaspora of drifting humanity, doesn’t want to lay down roots in fertile soil?

Despite the somber themes, reading Lahiri is an enjoyable ride.  Herein lies Lahiri’s talent.  She is a sensitive storyteller, personal in her voice, subtle in her description, meticulous in her observation of nuances, and stylish in her metaphoric inventions.  Her language is deceptively simple.  The seemingly lack of suspense is actually the calm before the storm, which usually comes as just a punchline in the end of each story, leaving you with a breath of  “Wow, powerful!”  But it is for that very line that you eagerly press on as if you are reading a thriller or a page-turner.

jhumpa_lahiriThe book is divided into two main parts.  The first contains five short stories.  The second, entitled “Hema and Kaushik”, consists of three stories but can be read as a novella on the whole, for they are about two characters whose lives intertwine in an inexplicable way.  While the characters and their situations are contemporary, their quest is the age old longing for love and connection.

I have enjoyed all the stories, but the most impressionable to me is the title one.  In  “Unaccustomed Earth”,  Ruma is married to an American, Adam, with a young child Akash, and pregnant with another.   Her recently widowed father comes to stay with her in Seattle from the East Coast, just for a visit.   During his stay, Ruma’s father builds up a bond with his grandson Akash.   The two create a little garden at the back of the house, a relationship thus flourishes as the flowers and plants blossom.  Ruma struggles with the idea of whether she should welcome her father to live with her for good to fulfil her filial duty, but by so doing, she would be adding a burden to her nuclear family.  What she does not know though is that her father has his secret and internal conflict as well.  He too wants a life of freedom and love.  The story ends with a dash of humor and a little surprise, reminiscent of a Somerset Maugham story.  I will not say more, or the spoiler will lessen your enjoyment.

I have read all three of Lahiri’s work.  And this is my query:  If her first book garnered the many literary awards including the Pulitzer, I just wonder what else could she win with her newest creation, which I enjoy far more.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2008.  333 pages.

~ ~ ~ Ripples