In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is essentially non-fiction, with just two short stories. It is an autobiographical sketch, the story of a writer’s quest to learn a language that she neither got from her ancestors, nor the country she spent most part of her life in.
Why should an author, a renowned one at that, attempt a literary exile and choose to write in another language? Lahiri explores that throughout this small book. The product is a brilliant sketch of how difficult attaining true mastery in any language is, especially if you have not growing up speaking/reading/writing it.
Lahiri speaks about consulting dictionaries, maintaining notebooks, writing down words but forgetting them eventually and the mental exhaustion that arises out of that. Her words reminded me of the time when I was younger and was learning English. Lahiri’s mother tongue is also mine, and growing up I was surrounded by Bengali. I wished I could have the opportunity to watch English movies, be with people who only spoke English. For me, English was what Italian is for Lahiri. I remember doing the exact same things – underlining unknown words that I’d read in books, and consulting the dictionary to find out the meanings and jot them down in a notebook. Then I’d try to use the newly learned words as many times as I could. As Lahiri points out correctly, language is an ocean and even an experienced author like her feels childlike in front of it.
In this book, Lahiri also talks about her congenital struggle between Bengali and English, of her parents continuously striving to keep their Bengali roots alive in America, while Lahiri facing a cultural, emotional crisis to appease both her parents who want Lahiri to know Bengali and the outside world where no one cares that she speaks another language at home. The pain of not belonging, not being rooted to any place is a recurring feature in Lahiri’s works. In this book, the reader gets a first-hand take on this theme.
This book is also a great book for aspiring authors like me. Growing up I had always been told I wrote well. After a point of time, I took it for granted. I wrote because I was in love with the way words formed themselves into sentences to express the thought or emotion I was experiencing. I never tried to become better than I was as a writer, like I do in my other full-time profession. Reading In Other Words inspired me to put in more work, and I have decided to read more classics in the days to come. If I have to be a good writer in any language, I must read the work of the great masters of that language. Else, I would never know what I was lacking.
In Other Words is a little repetitive when read in a single reading as it deals with essentially the same thing in the entire duration. At times, I was slightly bored and was wondering if this book was better off as a personal notebook and not being published. But the two short stories in the book more than make up for it. At this point, I’d also like to mention what a brilliant translation Ann Goldstein has done. Reading the two stories I felt like I was reading Lahiri in English! I’m sure that even in Italian, Lahiri has preserved her exquisite manner of writing, even though she mentions many times within the book that in the new language she is limited, restricted as an author.
Overall, In Other Words is a great book for Lahiri fans, especially for those who want to know how their favourite author work behind the scene to produce works like Unaccustomed Earth.
Have you read In Other Words yet? Share your thoughts on Lahiri’s latest book with me in the Comments below.