In Altre Parole/In Other Words -Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by Ann Goldstein

Genre: Non- Fiction, Memoir 

Pages: 233

Pace: Quick, bite-size chapters, an immediate and intimate connection is weaved from with the usage of the active first voice

Why we chose it for you: It is the non-fiction debut, written in Italian, of a Pulitzer Prize winning English author. Need we say more?

 Through the withering of her mother tongue Bengali to the ripening of her English, Lahiri harbored a strong fascination for Italian. She bought several books, started visiting an Italian teacher, but she felt something was missing. In an attempt to achieve full immersion, she moved to Rome with her family, for “a trial by fire, sort of baptism” into a new language and world. There, she 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 in beautiful metaphors, the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.

Born as Nilanjana Sudeshna to Bengali Indian immigrants in London, Jhumpa and her family moved to the United States when she was three years old. Thus, themes of identity, alienation and belonging have been at the heart of Jhumpa’s work. She wears her hat low and walks the by-lanes of a suburban existence, picking up pretty little words and ripe phrases in the white van that is, her head.

Most around her questioned why she would be willing to take an exile from the language in which she came be to known and loved, to which she answered, ‘I have felt linguistically orphaned since I was born. While Bengali is the language of my house and English is the language of my education, I wanted a language which could become a place of affection and reflection.’

Acutely aware of her lack of a concrete purpose and authority of her expression in Italian, she confessed, ‘I don’t have a real need to know this language. I don’t live in Italy, I don’t have Italian friends, I have only the desire. Yet ultimately a desire is nothing but a crazy need. As in many passionate relationships, my infatuation will become devotion, an obsession. There will always be something unbalanced, unrequited. I’m in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.

“My knowledge of English is both an advantage and a hindrance, I rewrite everything like a lunatic, until it satisfies me, while in Italian, like a soldier in a desert, I have to simply keep on going.”

 The book In Altre Parole is a bouquet of broken insights. On one hand, it reads like an array of fragments from a personal diary, on the other, it looks like a collection of field notes for a systematic study. In a bid to retain her loyalty for Italian and to save her the ordeal of giving the book a near perfect English farewell, she decided not to translate the book herself, thus Ann Goldstein was given the task of translating this book.

In the past, through her compelling short stories, Lahiri has always tried to remain anonymous in her writing. This is her maiden attempt at a memoir. It not only entails her love for the language but also, in a sense, the search of identity, of finding a new voice in literature. She paints a vivid image of her insecurities and struggles through this journey, which often finds her at a cobbled cul de sac.

“When I read in Italian, I’m a more active reader, more involved, even if less skilled. I like the effort. I prefer the limitations. I know that in some way my ignorance is useful to me. I realize that in spite of my limitations the horizon is boundless. Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility… “

 This is a special book for anyone who loves the sound of new words, the rasp of unfamiliar syntax and the cadence of ideas acquired in the lap of a new culture. It’s deeply personal, yet appealing universal.

Her linguistic pilgrimage is not about Italy at all and Lahiri reproaches the idea of sitting with a ‘teach yourself how to read and write in Italian’ book.

“ I don’t like the isolation, the silence of a self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without playing it. In the end, to learn a language, you have to have a dialogue, however childlike, however imperfect.”

 “Why does the imperfect spare new voice attract me? Why does poverty satisfy me? What does it mean to give up a palace to live practically on the street, in a shelter so fragile? Maybe because from the creative point of view, there is nothing so dangerous, as security. When I discover a different way to express something. I feel a wind of ecstasy. Unknown words present a dizzying yet fertile abyss. “

 For anyone who has lived between worlds and cultures, this book will be like a lyrical walk home.

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