By Keely Savoie
Before an audience of hundreds in Chapin Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College, Jhumpa Lahiri, the world-renowned award-winning author talked intimately with her friend Italian professor Ombretta Frau. Prompted by Frau’s insightful questions, Lahiri reflected on the personal and linguistic journey that led to her most recent book, In altre parole (In Other Words), written in Italian.
The evening was two years in the making. Lahiri and Frau first met at a small dinner party in 2014 in Rome. Frau later reviewed the Italian version of Lahiri’s book, which describes how she fell in love with the Italian language. The professor invited Lahiri to Mount Holyoke to share the story with students, many of whom might experience the same passions and struggles in their pursuit of learning a new language and culture.
In the book and onstage, Lahiri unspooled the origins of her Italian-language love story, meticulously documenting her own journey even as she undertook it, and delving into her personal history (video of the conversation).
A linguistic immigrant
As a child, Lahiri yearned for a linguistic and cultural home as the English-educated daughter of Bengali-speaking parents, growing up first in London and then New England. She wanted a sense of place, or belonging. Instead, she inhabited a world between her parents’ native Calcutta that was alive in their home and the immigrants’ English-speaking Rhode Island that lay beyond the walls of their house.
My whole life everything has been this fused state—I’m never this or that—I’m a hybrid form,” she said. “I’m not American, but I’m not Indian, neither this nor that. . . . Identity itself is a kind of confine and I wanted to get beyond it.”
In search of this new direction, Lahiri decided to immerse herself in Italian after studying it intermittently for 20 years. At first she learned from a teacher, then began reading exclusively in Italian, then she moved with her family to Rome. Finally, she decided to write a book in her adopted new language.
“I was doing something that was completely insane, writing in a language that I barely knew,” Lahiri said, noting that as an artist, confronting instability is essential for creativity.
She initially began the book as a series of pieces for the Italian magazine Internazionale. Writing in Italian and having her words sculpted by editors, she said, gave her a renewed sense of fragility and the “freedom to be imperfect.”
“Italian feels like a miracle,” she said. “I will always be a student in this language.”
By removing herself from what she called the “confine” of English, which she has mastered technically in her writing but in which she said she feels “vast pockets of distance” emotionally, Lahiri said that she was able to establish a “confine” (kone-FEE-nay)—Italian for “boundary” or “border”—that enabled her to connect to a new identity as a writer and as a person.
“I have never lived in one language. It actually makes sense that I would write an autobiographical work in another language in which I feel free from identity. I can put it to the side and speak for myself,” she said.
Through living and writing in a foreign language, Lahiri finally found a truth she had been seeking in English but could never find.
“I am a writer without a mother tongue,” she said. “Learning Italian made this very clear to me. I realized I have no direct and pure relationship to a language in my life—it’s only when I get into Italian that I am able to touch this.”
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