Over the course of four novels and story collections, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri has written about themes of identity, estrangement and belonging. All the while, the Indian American author has faced these issues herself. Torn between two worlds, she has felt like an outsider in both. Then the plot thickened: She fell in love with Italy and dreamed of immersing herself in its language and culture. Hers was no Berlitz approach to language; it was an infatuation that became an obsession. “This Italian project of mine,” as she calls it, is the subject of her stunning bilingual memoir, “In Other Words,” which chronicles the torment and transformation that the author undergoes.

Lahiri doesn’t whitewash the strangeness of her endeavor, or its existential nature. Unlike those who learn a language for work or travel, or to converse with family members, Lahiri’s pursuit had no practical basis. A 1994 visit to Florence as a graduate student began her love affair with all things Italian, and her zeal never let up. Throughout the book, she imbues the language with all manner of human attributes. She describes Italian variously as “a mystery, beloved, impassive.”

As these depictions suggest, Lahiri’s path is an emotional roller coaster. We follow her progress through a succession of private language teachers in New York, to the realization of her inevitable limitations as a foreigner. Finally, when she decides to move her family to Rome for a couple of years, she renounces English. For the six months preceding their trip, she reads only in Italian.

“When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveler,” she says. “When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter.”

In a chapter about Venice, Lahiri draws on the city’s landscape, its canals and bridges, as metaphors for the alternating sense of separation and connection that she feels. Walking on a bridge, she experiences a kind of limbo that she equates to writing in another language. Similarly, she speaks of dead ends and tight corners that apply equally to Venice and its mother tongue. Then, as if by surprise, she emerges “in an isolated, silent, shining place.”

Predating her Italian venture is the author’s enduring personal struggle. The daughter of Indian parents, Lahiri, whose first language is Bengali, was only 2 when her family moved to the United States. She grew up in Rhode Island and embraced American culture. At home, however, Lahiri’s fluent English was unwelcome – her parents spoke only Bengali in the house and scolded young Jhumpa for doing otherwise. Thus the author has spent a lifetime caught in the clash between her parents’ Old World customs and the American culture that has so rewarded her achievements.


“Because of my divided identity, or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient,” she says. “Maybe there is a linguistic reason – the lack of a language to identify with.”

In the end, Italy proves to be the author’s Switzerland, a place to neutralize tensions that have haunted her for decades. Unlike either the Indian or American strands of her heritage, Italian is the one language she has chosen, pursued from scratch. Learning it is an act of rebirth, of rebuilding a fractured self and changing course.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve belonged only to my words,” Lahiri says. “I don’t have a country, a specific culture. If I didn’t write, if I didn’t work with words, I wouldn’t feel that I’m present on the earth.” And later: “Here in Italy, where I’m very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever. Imperfection inspires invention,” she writes. “It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

“In Other Words” appeals on many levels – as a passion project, cultural document and psychological study. True to the nature of her quest, Lahiri wrote this book in Italian, rough edges and all, and assigned the English translation to a professional. Her book conveys an intimate view of the complicated bonds that exist between language and identity. In the process, Lahiri takes readers on a poignant, probing odyssey.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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