When Jhumpa Lahiri was in her twenties, she fell in love with Italian. Not An Italian. Italian, the language.
She spent the next several years bouncing from teacher to teacher in the United States trying to learn the language but never conquering it. Finally, she decided that the only way to really learn Italian was to live in Italy.
That's not a terrible idea. Immersion is supposed to be the best way to learn a language. Hearing a language and having to speak a language to be understood is a sort of trial by fire approach that works. However, for Lahiri she didn't just want to be understood, she wanted the language to become a part of her.
In Other Words is a memoir of Lahiri's love affair with the language. She describes it that way herself: a love affair and later on an infant that she must protect and nurture. Why she fell so hard for Italian is a mystery to me. She just did. She became obsessed with it.
A child of immigrant parents, Lahiri never felt at home in either of her mother tongues: Bengali or English. By taking on Italian, she attempts to carve out a new identity, a new voice for her writing. She laments not feeling at home in any language, including Italian, but more herself in Italian. She vents her frustration at not being taken seriously, because she doesn't "look" Italian.
She articulates her struggles with the language through lovely metaphors. I loved her style of writing. This book was written in Italian, and translated to English (she explains that particular quirk early on). This adds another layer of intimacy that writing in English would have lost.
I've never read any of her other work, but enjoyed this very personal account of her time with Italian. I'll be looking for more books by her. This is a very short memoir- the second half of the book is in the original Italian.
Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.
About the Audio: Jhumpa Lahiri reads her own words. Words she originally wrote in Italian. How weird must that have been? She reads the book first in English, then Italian. If you would like to hear how she sounds in Italian, here is your chance. I found that she sounded a bit stiff at first, in English, but then loosened up a bit as she went. Her Italian sounds lovely!
Thanks to Penguin Random House Audio for the review copy. All opinions are my own.