Hardcover, 233 pages
Published February 9th 2016 by Knopf
Ever since I was a child, I’ve belonged only to my words. 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.
What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is a promenade through the writer’s experiences not just learning a new language and expressing herself in it but learning to tell a story in it. This short volume comes in two languages–the original Italian on one page and the translation right next to it. The work is a marvelous feat, a marvelous achievement by Lahiri. As a writer, I well understand the intimacy which you have to have with a language before you can start shaping it to mean what you desire it to. Telling a story is a lot like carving or sculpting a chunk of stone into something beautiful. To coax a beautiful work out of the stone, you have to know the stone, you have to know how much pressure to apply and where to apply it. You have to know the secrets of the stone before it will let you coax beauty out of it. It is the same with language. To tell a story in a language, you have to know the language. You have to know the words and idioms. You have to play with the meanings and lose yourself in the punctuation. To tell a story in a language that is foreign to you takes a lot of courage and to actually share this work takes a lot more courage.
I’ve learned a couple of different languages–Latin, Spanish, French, Korean, Urdu, Arabic. I cannot really claim proficiency in any of them except Korean and that too slips away the longer it is unused. But I cannot imagine trying to tell a story in Korean unless it is the very basic sort which makes readers snort. So to me what Lahiri has done is amazing.
There is a beauty to her words (in the translations at least) that transcends any barriers she may have faced. I also appreciated her frankness where her insecurities and frustrations are concerned. She speaks about how no matter how well she speaks the language, by dint of her physical looks she will always be considered the outsider whereas her Spanish husband is considered a native simply because he looks so when she speaks better Italian than him.
This volume of work demonstrates Lahiri’s love for Italian and the way she writes pays homage to it. In Other Words is an ode to Italian and I honestly feel that this book will be exponentially helpful for people who are trying to learn a language other than their own. By detailing her own struggles and victories with a foreign language, Lahiri gives hope and encouragement to others attempting to do the same thing.