Published by Knopf on February 9, 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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From the Pulitzer Prize winner, a surprising, powerful, and eloquent nonfiction debut. In Other Words is at heart a love story—of a long and sometimes difficult courtship, and a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language. For Jhumpa Lahiri, that love was for Italian, which first captivated and capsized her during a trip to Florence after college. And although Lahiri studied Italian for many years afterward, true mastery had always eluded her. So in 2012, seeking full immersion, she decided to move 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 to write—initially in her journal—solely in Italian. In Other Words, an autobiographical work written in Italian, investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes 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 an intensity and clarity not seen since Nabokov. A startling act of self-reflection and a provocative exploration of belonging and reinvention.
After studying Italian for 20+ years, Jhumpa Lahiri and her family moved to Rome so she could advance her language skills in ways not possible in the States. Her nonfiction debut In Other Words is bilingual; you can choose which language to read (Italian is on the left, English is on the right).
“To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.”
Included in the book is a short story called “The Exchange,” the first short story Lahiri wrote in Italian. She didn’t write it in English and then translate the story; this came to her in Italian. It really highlights the subtle beauty intrinsic to that language.
Yes, Lahiri wrote a book in Italian, and In Other Words is a wonderful, heartfelt memoir of language learning. But it covers so much more than that: The struggle to feel like you belong to your community. Finding where you feel at home. Pursuing your interests and passions even when they aren’t “practical.” The feelings of “linguistic exile” that come with speaking a language that isn’t common where you live. The assumptions we tend to make about people based on their name, their appearance, their accent (or lack of). How the nuances of a language can tell us a lot about the perspective of its people. Why we strive to learn things we know we’ll never master.
“If everything were possible, what would be the meaning, the point of life?
It it were possible to bridge the distance between me and Italian, I would stop writing in that language.”