Language as Destiny and as Destination – A Review of In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

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English is my native language, my mother tongue. I know that might not make sense, since I live in the Philippines and have never lived anywhere else, but I still consider it my native language. As a child I was raised in the language, with my parents, grandparents, and other relatives speaking to me in English, and expecting me to reply in the same. My mother also made sure that I watched Sesame Street every day – the only television I was permitted to watch without parental supervision when I was a child. I heard Tagalog, of course, and could understand it if it was spoken to me, but my grasp of it was exceptionally weak: I did not even start using it regularly until I started school, and even then I was spectacularly bad at it – indeed, I still am.

This lack of mastery of my own native language is a point of frustration on my part – not least the inability to read with ease the vast amount of literature written in Tagalog. I hate that I cannot approach my own country’s literature with the same ease as I can approach the literature of the Anglophone world, that I am necessarily cut off from the poetry and prose of some of my country’s own great writers, simply because I have not mastered Tagalog as I should. This has led to a certain inferiority on my part, that I cannot call myself truly “Filipino” because while I can speak, read, and write exceedingly well in English, I cannot do the same in Tagalog. I am, in a way, a foreigner in my own country.

When I chose to pick up In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, I did so because I was interested in learning about Lahiri’s interest in Italian. What I did not expect to get was an introspective look at the many facets of language: as identity, as inevitability, as choice, and how all of that plays into the life of the writer, the reader, and to some extent, the translator.

In Other Words has twenty-three chapters, plus an afterword, and was originally written in Italian before being translated into English (by translator Ann Goldstein, not Lahiri herself). Across those chapters Lahiri tells the story of her journey towards, and then in, the Italian language: a journey that leads to her moving to Italy in order to better immerse herself in it. She describes that first moment of interest thusly:

What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems strangely familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.

… It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. It’s like a person I met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection… As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover. I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it. I realize that there is a space inside me to welcome it.

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment. A closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.

It might never before have occurred to the reader that it is possible to fall in love at first sight (at first hearing?) with a language, and yet, reading Lahiri’s description of the moment when she becomes interested in learning Italian, she convinces the reader that it is, in fact, entirely possible – perhaps even essential if he or she is deciding to learn a new language. Lahiri makes it seem like discovering a new language is as romantic as that moment when one looks across the room to meet the eye of another person, and know, in the split second between one blink and the next, that this stranger is a vital part of one’s destiny.

But as many people know, love is not so simple as that. While it might be possible to fall in love at first sight (the more cynical would say “lust at first sight”), an actual relationship takes a lot of work – and, like a relationship, learning a new language means the work never really stops:

A foreign language can signify a total separation. It can represent…the ferocity of our ignorance. To write in a new language, to penetrate its heart, no technology helps. You can’t accelerate the process, you can’t abbreviate it. The pace is slow, hesitant, there are no shortcuts. The better I understand the language, the more confusing it is. The closer i get, the farther away. Even today the disconnect between me and Italian remains insuperable. It’s taken me almost half my life to advance barely a few steps. Just to get this far.

This is true: learning a new language is hard work, even if it is closely related to a language one already uses. But it is not without its pleasures:

When I discover a different way to express something, I feel a kind of ecstasy. Unknown words present a dizzying yet fertile abyss. An abyss containing everything that escapes me, everything possible.

Words are especially important to Lahiri, not just because she is a writer, but because they are the means through which she negotiates her identity. She puts it thusly:

I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures. A peripheral zone where it’s impossible for me to feel rooted, but where I’m comfortable. The only zone where I think that, in some way, I belong.

It is here that Lahiri’s life overlaps somewhat with mine, and where I felt the greatest anxiety – and also felt that pleasure of knowing that I am not alone in my anxieties. Lahiri talks about how, despite learning Bengali at home, it never really took root as the language she chooses to express herself in:

Because of my divided identity, or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient. Maybe there is a linguistic reason—the lack of a language to identity with. As a girl in America, I tried to speak Bengali perfectly, without a foreign accent, to satisfy my parents, and above all to feel that I was completely their daughter. But it was impossible. On the other hand, I wanted to be considered an American, yet, despite the fact that I speak English perfectly, that was impossible, too. I was suspended rather than rooted. I had two sides, neither well defined. The anxiety I felt, and still feel, comes from a sense of inadequacy, of being a disappointment.

Though Lahiri’s relationship with Bengali and English is rather different from my relationship with Tagalog and English, I still resonate with her feeling of inadequacy and incompleteness. I feel inadequate as a Filipino, because I cannot express myself well in my native language. Though I call myself Filipino because I grew up here, how true is that belief when, linguistically (and therefore, to some extent, culturally), I can only barely relate to my own homeland? Lahiri explains this feeling of not-belonging thusly:

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, ever 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.

These are difficult thoughts, even painful thoughts, but they are interesting thoughts too. Perhaps it is best to simply accept this state of not-quite-exile, to admit that I will always be on the outside. Or perhaps I can forge my own path towards it, go back and relearn what I did not learn when I was a child.

Or perhaps I can go the route that Lahiri takes: find another home in another language, and fight to belong in it. It is the hardest route to take, but maybe – just maybe – I can, like Lahiri, carve out a space that is truly mine.

Overall, In Other Words is a lovely little gem of a memoir: poignant and touching, certainly, but also a story that looks into the difficult questions of identity and language. Lahiri’s reputation as a writer is well-earned, and while I certainly can’t comment on the quality of her Italian I can comment on the quality of her prose via Ann Goldstein’s translation: which is, I think, excellent. Lahiri’s story is interesting not only to her fans and those interested in languages, but especially to readers who, like myself, stand in a kind of linguistic exile, who are trying to understand their relationship with the languages that form a part of their lives. Lahiri’s book does not offer answers to the questions we ask ourselves, but it does give us the words by which we can express our own anxieties – and our own hopes.

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