“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.”
Jhumpa Lahiri wrote these words in Italian. She wrote the entirety of her new book, In Other Words, in Italian, which was then translated into English by Ann Goldstein. After Lahiri moved to Italy with her family, she stopped reading and writing in English altogether. She pursued her desire to learn Italian with a childlike stubbornness and an insatiable ferocity. In Other Words is thus an intimate account of Lahiri’s linguistic and personal journey. She calls it a “linguistic autobiography”, a self-portrait that reveals her motivations behind her separation from and rejection of the English language – a language that has been her most intimate companion; a language that has established her as one of the most acclaimed fiction writers of our times; a language that has allowed her to imagine and create characters that often yearn for the distant promise of a homeland.
The book unfolds through a series of short journal-like entries and two short stories. They are rich in metaphor, most of them recurring and extending to represent her expanding vocabulary and the gradual development of her new voice and her new self. The book is also a very personal and honest reflection on her relationship with languages – the acquired language, the mastered language and the inherited language. But it is also about identities – the inherited identity, the embraced identity, the perceived identity and the desired identity.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s works of fiction have extensively explored themes of identity and alienation by drawing mostly on the experiences of first and second generation Indian-Americans. Lahiri herself has spoken of her childhood as being full of contradictions. After all, those of us who have had to contend with multiple languages and multiple identities due to our own mixed heritage (or displacement from our place of origin) can never really feel rooted to a singular sense of belonging. For many, a preference for the adopted identity may evoke feelings of neglect and guilt towards the inherited identity. But at the same time, efforts at assimilation can be easily dismissed by “natives” on the basis of physical appearance, the obvious adulteration. Finally, those of us who try to fully embrace all aspects of our multiple identities are suspended, mid-air, swinging back and forth between acceptance and suspicion. In the end, it is always a losing battle and what we incrementally lose is a sense of self.
In many ways, this book is an account of Jhumpa Lahiri losing and finding herself, but it is on her own terms and of her own choosing. The acquisition of a language other than your mother tongue can be both oppressive and liberating. Expressing yourself in a new language is akin to constantly being on a tight budget and a tight deadline. You have to compromise on the length of your sentences because what is at your disposal is never enough. You have to withhold words that are already on the tip of your tongue because by the time they are knit together in perfect sentences, it is almost always too late. But, acquiring a new language is not just about the conquest of the lexicon or the ability to flirt with its idiosyncrasies, it is also about discovering and communicating a new identity that may or may not represent the person you think you truly are.
For Jhumpa Lahiri, the need to put a physical, emotional and creative distance between herself and the language she has complete mastery over is driven by her desire for freedom and liberation. It is a rejuvenating rebellion against the unfair limitations and demands imposed by the identities she has inherited, acquired and embraced. And thus, this book represents a rebirth, a revival, a shedding of the old skin, a spurning of adulation, an expunging of the ego and a quest for the alter-ego.
Lahiri’s desire for acceptance and confirmation remains, but it is not burdened by perception or preconception. In Other Words is an act of abandon and an act of revival. It is her defiance of guilt towards the language she inherited, her rejection of the assumptions that come with the language she has mastered and her tenacious pursuit of a new language that may always limit her but will also offer her the type of freedom that she always desired but could, seemingly, never articulate. Reading this book, you cannot help but feel enthralled and empowered by her decisive detachment, and overwhelmed by a child-like sense of reincarnation.
“Beginning with my first book I evoked Calcutta, my parents’ native city. Because it was, for them, a far-off place that had almost disappeared. I was looking for a way, through my writing, to bridge the distance, and to make it present. Today I no longer feel bound to restore a lost country to my parents. It took me a long time to accept that my writing did not have to assume that responsibility. In that sense, In Other Words, is the first book I have written as an adult, but also, from the linguistic point of view, as a child.”