There should be a word in English that communicates the letdown of realizing "There is no word for it in English." It being: those sentiments that are cut fine and impossible to value with a single word. Those "complicated hybrid emotions," wrote Jeffrey Eugenides in his 2002 novel Middlesex: "The sadness inspired by failing restaurants," he notes, or "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." I would add, "the cool precision required for page-turning piano music" or "the frustration of putting a duvet cover on," or "the tender joy of grandchildren helping their grandmother blow out her birthday candles." There should be, at the very least, one word that captures that – the way the English language falls short. How it siphons and miscarries meaning, and is occasionally without.
These are the thoughts that crossed my mind while reading Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book – her fifth, her non-fiction debut – In Other Words. Not quite memoir or journal or essays collected in a traditional form, these fragmented meditations on immersion, a Why I Write inquest, a work in progress interpolated with some fiction – a project, more or less – published bilingually but originally written in Italian and translated into English by Ann Goldstein, detail the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's long abiding affair with learning Italian. In her afterword, Lahiri considers In Other Words "a hesitant book, and at the same time bold." All at once, "a point of arrival and of departure… based on a lack, an absence… both public and private."
It's no wonder she volleys between contradictions. As I continued reading, it became clearer and clearer to me that this book is Lahiri's receipt of not knowing. To plunge into darkness voluntarily, to become fluent from scratch, especially as the author of tremendously successful and highly acclaimed books in English is to re-experience, every day, a mix of doubt and the levity born from no one supposing expertise. In Other Words is an account of wanderlust for someone who, I'd estimate, winces at the word, welcoming it insomuch as it applies to her inner life. By no means a travel book, In Other Words is book about seeking. Learning Italian, despite Lahiri's rigorous, unremitting practice, is a metaphor. A tool for wrestling with and perhaps even resisting issues having to do with identity, which she explored in her previous books, but that now she's exploring in the first person. Her first person. It also helped her contend with a general estrangement from English, the language she, as a child, characterized as her "stepmother." (Lahiri was born in London and spoke Bengali in her home.)
There is perhaps no writer today better suited to write a book about language. It's a topic that courses through Lahiri; that constitutes her DNA. Generational schisms, immigrant parents and heritable longing, absence, questions of home and homelessness, assimilation, displacement, exile – geographic, emotional, linguistic – battling who you are based on where your parents are from, feeling some essential need to return to a country that was never yours, are all common themes in Lahiri's previous books – two collections of short fiction, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, and two novels, The Namesake and The Lowland. Identity pervades her work and rarely do answers provide relief.
Lahiri's pull towards Italian was sparked 20 years ago during a visit to Florence with her sister. On that trip, instead of a guidebook, Lahiri brought a small green dictionary. She considered it her map, her compass, a sacred text. A parent. Twenty years later, Lahiri still considers that same dictionary – the size of a bar of soap – "bigger than [herself]" and "full of secrets." What's changed is how she positions the dictionary. It no longer represents a parent, she notes, but a brother. In Other Words tracks this shift. While her attachment to Italian suffuses each page, so does her growing confidence in speaking and writing in it; she experiences pure joy upon being, for the first time, translated into English from Italian. This new language permits her a level of rapture I hadn't come across in her previous work, which possesses a far more melancholic cadence.
In Other Words is prone to metaphors. Swimming across a lake, the significance of a bridge, of scaffolding, an ex-boyfriend, falling in love and our relationship to forever.… The list goes on. All cling to familiar Lahiri tropes of belonging and identity, only this time, the shivers of insecurity constitute too her second adolescence. A chance to re-experience the disorientation she felt as a Bengali girl growing up in America, who perceived life dichotomously, "suspended rather than rooted."
Writing, for Lahiri, she shares, has always been a form of concealment. To feel alone. To "tolerate" herself and "get closer to everything that is outside of [her]." To not continuously be in service of other people's expectations of her. Learning Italian has required that she interact with the world, work with teachers and translators; second-guess her instincts, experience false starts and a new kind of alienation. As it were, scrutinize her "divided identity," not through fictional characters, but again, in the first person. Her first person.
She recounts an episode in Salerno where a saleswoman assumes that Lahiri cannot speak Italian. Her husband, on the other hand, is praised for speaking Italian, despite also being a foreigner and knowing the language far less. "Here is the border that I will never manage to cross," she writes. "The wall that will remain forever between me and Italian, no matter how well I learn it. My physical appearance." To be seen, yet chance on invisibility, is every writer's deep wish, blessing and curse. But to be seen at literal face-value, to be ignored for that same reason, to be treated like lesser-than and disfavored, is no longer a matter of personal preference. It's an obstacle. It's dehumanizing. She goes on: "I feel like crying. I would like to shout: 'I'm the one who desperately loves your language, not my husband. He speaks Italian only because he needs to, because he happens to live here. I've been studying your language for more than twenty years, he not even for two.' "
She meets the same resistance and racism in America. A man passing out flyers that she refuses to take yells, "What the fuck is your problem, can't you speak English?" Of course, unfortunately, this comes as no surprise. Yet still, hearing Lahiri recount instances of having to justify herself, her name, her appearance, as opposed to experiencing racism through the point of view of one of her characters, is, I'll admit, jarring. Comforting too – though I doubt the latter is of any comfort to Lahiri.
Her desire – not, perhaps, to master Italian, but immerse herself in it and become fluent, to develop a new eloquence – has never let up, as with most desires that exist as long as they are never fulfilled. More so, it's been impossible to rationalize. And why should it? "Without a sense of marvel at things," she writes, "without wonder, one can't create anything." Italian keeps her curious. A proof of life.
Lahiri's English prose is often described as "plain" by both critics and admirers. She distances herself from style. Few flourishes, little flare, and a near-Orwellian approach to writing with purpose. A fidelity to the mot juste. She builds story as though track-laying a railway. Writing in a new language that she feels a deep affection for, where she must approach every word and turn of phrase with extra care and consult her many dictionaries, where Lahiri must cope with what is out of reach, reads naturally Lahiri to me. The exposure of her frustrations and seams, however, does not. "I fear that it's a false book," she writes. "I'm insecure about it, a little embarrassed." The confessional tone adds fidgets to her prose. Does it work? I'm not sure. But I've also never read a book like this before. She's invented a form.
I am reminded of Anne Carson's Nox, which, too, invented a new form. It's a book-in-a-box, an accordion-folded epitaph to her brother who died. Told through the lens of her translation of of Catullus's Poem 101, Carson writes about loss. It's beautiful. Like Lahiri's In Other Words, Nox explores limitation through autobiography, how the unbearable and the indefinable are sometimes the same. Both books exist as, in a manner of speaking, resuscitations. "Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light," writes Carson. "Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark."
As Lahiri notes, "What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable."
Durga Chew-Bose is a Montreal-born writer. Her work has appeared in Hazlitt, The Guardian, The New Inquiry, and Flare, among other publications. She is currently working on her first collection of essays.