“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 mothertongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realise that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.”
– Jhumpa Lahiri/Ann Goldstein, In Other Words
As someone with three passports but no true homeland, three languages yet no true mothertongue, and a very fragmented cultural identity, these words from Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful and intimate non-fiction debut resonate strongly with me and I often find myself thinking about them.
Born in London to Bengali immigrants and raised in the USA, Lahiri spent most of her childhood trying to reconcile her parents’ Bengali heritage and language with the pervasive influence of American culture and the English language. At the age of twenty-five, while working on a PhD in Renaissance Studies, Lahiri decided to learn a language that had captivated her for many years – Italian. For close to twenty years, she attended private lessons in New York, did her grammar exercises dutifully, and caught brief snippets of conversation on the subway and on her few trips to Italy, yet true mastery of the language eluded her. Finally, seeking full immersion, she moved to Rome with her family for a “trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world.
In Rome, Lahiri began to read, and then to write solely in Italian. This book is a polished and edited version of what Lahiri wrote in her journals – a raw and intimate account of learning to express oneself in another language and the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, it is a book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with honesty, clarity and most importantly, a powerful awareness of its own imperfection. Interestingly and quite controversially in fact, Lahiri did not attempt to translate her own writing from Italian into English, stating that she needed to sever all ties to the English language in order to fully immerse herself in the Italian language. Rather, she hired the magnificent Ann Goldstein (who I cannot praise highly enough for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) to do this for her. Unfortunately, as I cannot read Italian, this meant that I was, in a sense, exiled linguistically from Lahiri’s words. Ironically fitting, I think (although I really wish that I could read Italian).
As someone who has spent a great deal of time learning languages, I could identify with the frustration and excitement of learning to express oneself in another language that Lahiri describes. Her writing is clumsy and repetitive at times, but Lahiri is so painfully aware of this that you can forgive her for it. I for one believe that writing in a second or third language makes one feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed, and I applaud Lahiri for her courage in publishing this book. I greatly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in language, particularly the relationship between identity and language.
Have you read this book? Or any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other books? What did you think? I would love to hear from you. 🙂