Professor reviews Lahiri’s In Other Words

Ombretta Frau

Living Multiculturalism: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

By Ombretta Frau

“Quando rinuncio all’inglese rinuncio alla mia autorevolezza. Sono traballante anziché sicura. Sono debole” [When I give up English, I give up my authority. I am shaky rather than secure. I’m weak].

This passage comes from In altre parole (Guanda: 2015), a nonfiction book by Jhumpa Lahiri, originally published in Italian. The English version, In Other Words, was translated by Ann Goldstein and will be released this month.

How many successful authors do you know who would write these words, who would challenge themselves like this? In our only apparently multicultural Europe, where money counts more than anything else, we witness daily the  deaths of thousands of human beings whose only guilt is to be trying to leave a life of struggle, poverty—in many cases war—to look for a better one. In this Europe indifferent to the death and tragedy of entire populations, it is encouraging to find books that tell stories of people whose lives are truly multicultural.

One of these books is In altre parole, Lahiri’s latest. Lahiri, an American author of Indian origin, lives in Italy by choice and for love, or to use her own words, for “un bisogno folle,” “una devozione,” “un’ossessione” [a crazy need, a devotion, an obsession].

Lahiri’s story is a lucky one that has very little in common with the refugees who are trying to enter Italy. Raised in the United States, she found success in 1999 when she was still very young with her beautiful book Interpreter of Maladies. Soon after, she won one of the nation’s most prestigious prizes, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her books have been translated in many languages and one of them, The Namesake, was made into a successful film.

A woman like Jhumpa Lahiri could do what she wants, live where she wants. For a few years, she chose Rome. And not only Italian soil, but also the Italian language. And now she has decided to tell her readers her adventure. But her readers should not expect a Tim Parks or a Beppe Severgnini kind of book. Lahiri does not compare the United States and Italy.

In altre parole is an intimate essay written in poetic Italian, an elegant and refined book that shows, little by little, Lahiri’s cultural and linguistic metamorphosis. Her transformation was gradual, systematic. Six months before moving to Italy with her husband and children, Lahiri stopped reading in English in order to immerse herself in an Italian culture that she had only known as a student and a tourist. After many years of study she realized that she had never actually challenged herself with her Italian, that she had studied it and practiced it with her first language, English, always at hand ready to support her. But why Italy? Why Italian? Why become a “pellegrino linguistico” [a language pilgrim]?

Lahiri reveals answers to these questions little by little in her book, where she has collected her thoughts from her column in the Italian magazine Internazionale. Lahiri’s Italian story is a love story, a story of exile, a story of several languages, all foreign: English, the dominant language that is even for her, paradoxically, a foreign language; Bengali, a language that by her own admission she does not speak or write well; Italian, the language of irrational passion, with no bond with her culture of origin, with her family, with her profession.

When Lahiri moved to Italy, she had no real friends, extended family, a conventional job. She did not know that she would start writing in Italian. It all happened gradually, and we hear and feel her own surprise when as if taken by a fit she finds herself writing a short story entirely in Italian: “Ascolto le frasi nel cervello. Non so da dove vengano, non so come io riesca a sentirle” [“I hear the sentences in my brain. I do not know where they originate, I do not know how I am able to hear them”].

And it is in Italian that she has decided to tell her adventure. It is a challenge that has surprised her readers overseas. It is truly a global story, truly multicultural, told with no fanfare, with no arrogance, with no critique of her new country. In this story, Lahiri’s two original cultures, the Bengali and the American, are always present—albeit on the side—because she tries to concentrate her energy on Italy, giving us not only a great book, but also an example to be followed.

And yet, not even Jhumpa Lahiri, educated, famous, elegant, is immune to discrimination in the Italy she loves so “desperately.” In a shop in an Italian city with her husband, who “dall'aspetto potrebbe sembrare un italiano” [“He looks as if he could be Italian”], the sales assistant asks them, “Da dove venite?” [“Where are you from?”]. To Lahiri’s reply (her Italian is impeccable), the clerk replies: “Ma tuo marito deve essere italiano. Lui parla perfettamente, senza nessun accento.” [“But your husband must be Italian. He speaks perfectly, without any accent.”]

It is not true. Lahiri says nothing, but in her book she has a strong reaction : “Ecco il confine che non riuscirò mai a varcare. Il muro che rimarrà per sempre tra me e l'italiano, per quanto bene possa impararlo. Il mio aspetto fisico. Mi viene da piangere.” [Here is the border that I will never manage to cross. The wall that will remain forever between me and Italian, no matter how well I learn it. My physical appearance. I feel like crying.]

Me too, Jhumpa.

Ombretta Frau is a professor of Italian at Mount Holyoke College and chair of the Department of Classics & Italian. This piece originally was published in the Italian edition of Huffington Post in April 2015. At the time, Lahiri was still living in Rome and the German-led European mobilization on behalf of Syrian refugees had not yet begun. Lahiri recently moved back to the United States.