In Other Words: A Love Affair With A Language

Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone from the British Museum
By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Every immigrant’s story is a story of exile. Many works of fiction and non–fiction have explored the alienation of the diaspora in many forms. Along with the change in customs, cultural and religious practices, economic status and dietary habits, there is also a linguistic estrangement which inevitably accompanies spatial displacement. Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words (In Altre Parole), poetically addresses the exile of language which leaves you with an inexplicable vulnerability along with a keen sense of loss. As someone who loves learning languages and who inhabits a world of multiple languages, I found the concept of the memoir captivating even before I plunged into the reading. I could relate to many aspects of the linguistic expatriation and right away Lahiri’s story became personal and my own.

The memoir is a paen to language, specifically to the Italian language. For some unexplained reason, Lahiri develops a fascination for learning Italian from the time of her first visit to Florence with her sister where with the aid of a pocket dictionary, she navigates her way through the city. It’s love at first sight with the language. On her return to the US, she learns Italian under various tutors. She later returns to Italy many times to promote her books and finally decides to move to Rome for a couple of years with her family. The memoir describes the agony and ecstasy of learning Italian and is presented in a dual language format: Italian on the left page and English on the right. The Italian is written by Lahiri who wants to find a new voice in her writing through another language and it is translated into English by Ann Goldstein, the famous translator of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan books. Lahiri makes a conscious decision to stay away from English and to write exclusively in Italian and therefore refrains from translating the work herself. She feels a profound connection with the Italian language but at the same time is also detached from it. These ambivalent feelings make up her memoir which is essentially about writing in a language she is in the process of learning.

To complicate matters, there is a third language in the picture which incidentally happens to be the first language she spoke, raised in the US to immigrant parents from Calcutta, India. Bengali is her mother tongue but she feels distanced from it as she doesn’t know the language perfectly. She bemoans the fact that her mother tongue is “paradoxically, a foreign language, too.” I can relate to the estrangement from the mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil but as I spent my entire childhood in northern India, I was more fluent in Hindi than I ever was in Tamil. People would marvel at my impeccable Hindi but I was still the outsider defined by my name. I never learned Tamil formally. I could understand and speak the Tamil spoken by my parents but I could not read and write in it. I was more comfortable with Hindi but it was English, the language of colonial imposition that became by default the language I became most proficient in. As Lahiri laments, what relationship can you establish with a language that is not part of your blood and bones? She makes a distinction between inherited and adopted languages. Bengali is the mother who died and English is the stepmother who has arrived.

Lahiri uses a lot of metaphors to describe the painstaking endeavor of learning a new language. . Learning a language is like learning to swim across the shore, it’s like climbing a mountain, it’s like pulling weeds in a garden. It indicates a perpetual state of growth and possibility. It’s almost a Sisyphean task. Italian is the newborn demanding full attention and English is the older sibling left to his own devices. The Italian verb ‘sondare’ meaning to explore or to examine encapsulates her project. She is researching something that will forever remain out of reach. She compares writing in Italian to a bridge in Venice; it’s fragile and on the verge of collapsing but it also serves as a passage into another world. She also compares her writing to Daphne’s flight and transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her journey of learning a foreign language is imperfect as the imperfect tense she confuses with the simple past. “ I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures.”, she declares. I found the memoir tedious and repetitive in parts drilling the same point with countless metaphors. Lahiri comes across as a perfectionist who holds herself up to an unattainable ideal instead of just experiencing with abandon the joy of learning a new language. And somewhere between all the metaphors, she has squeezed in two short stories. Lahiri seems to take no more than a pedantic interest in learning Italian. I would have enjoyed reading stories about her family life in Rome, about her interactions with neighbors and friends, about the food, the culture and the people of the glorious city of Rome. Language is after all about connecting with others and is inextricably linked with culture. She also tends to take herself a little too seriously. The memoir could have benefited from some humor. Learning a language lends itself to humorous situations. One has to just think of the faux pas, the double entendre, the malapropos remarks and the miscommunications that can leave any student or teacher in splits.

One interesting point Lahiri makes is that her physical appearance often comes in the way of her immersion. How much ever she masters a language, she is, and will always be viewed as a foreigner. She speaks fluently in Italian to a saleswoman in Salerno but the lady assumes, solely based on looks, that her husband who barely knows a few lines is the one who is Italian and speaks perfectly.  On a trip to Quebec, I recall speaking in perfect French to a shopkeeper, but to my surprise he replied in English. It’s hard for people to shed the stereotypical image they have in their minds of a nation or its people. Many people in the United States are surprised by how well I speak English and I have to constantly explain that India was a former colony of the British and that I went to a school where English was the main medium of instruction. In fact, I speak English better than any other language. I could venture to say that English is my first language but would anyone believe it based on my appearance or my name? People are even more shocked when they find out that I’m fluent in French. There is a French word called’ dépaysement’ which has no English equivalent but literally means ‘uncountried’. Lahiri lyrically evokes this feeling of being stripped off your country :

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

I understand her exhilaration. I understand her frustration. It’s a love affair but a one- sided one. It’s unrequited. She needs the language but the language does not need her. I belong to Hindi. I belong to Tamil. I belong to English. I belong to French. But they do not belong to me. I know her pain and I can relate to the sense of alienation she experiences but I don’t despair and I don’t share her pessimism. I also know that my life is richer and more expansive because I know so many languages. Gaining proficiency in a language opens up a window or rather many windows into different worlds. Instead of feeling excluded from many cultures, you could revel in the rich plurality of your experiences. In Other Words, is, in other words, a love affair with no passion. Though this book struck a chord with me, I don’t see it appealing to anyone who has not learned a foreign language. As I’m proficient in French, it was exciting for me to try and decipher the Italian, a fellow Romance language, on the left side of the page.

I respect the fact that Lahiri seeks the literary freedom to write in a language of her choice. The memoir is about being vulnerable as a writer and looking at your work from a fresh angle. Every writer deserves a room of her own. Heck, she deserves a country of her own. But I hope Lahiri will return to English and that this self-imposed linguistic exile will remain temporary. Nabokov, whom Lahiri brings up in the memoir as an example of a writer writing in a different language, himself said that a writer’s nationality is of secondary importance and a writer’s art is his real passport. Indeed, writing, like any other art, transcends all languages and barriers.