A Linguistic Autobiography


Lahiri pic

Because of myopic America’s halfhearted attempt to teach foreign languages, only some Americans emerge from their educations with no more than tourist-level proficiency, if even that. Even fewer native English speakers develop fluency in another tongue and, even then, they do most of their reading and writing in their primary language rather than their acquired language.

Jhumpa Lahiri, a daughter of Indian immigrants, is a rare specimen of second language acquisition. Fascinated by Italian when working on a dissertation about the connections between English literature and Italian architecture, she took on a series of conversational partners while building up her grammatical competency on her own. She later moved to Italy with her family for two protracted stays, devoting herself to reading only in Italian, and then, made the decision to write only in Italian.

Lahiri is best known as a fiction writer whose short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies (2000), a work that followed the fortunes of the members of the Bengali diasporic community in the United States,won the National Book Award. Another short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2012), continued these brief sagas of the complications of assimilation. Her most extended treatment of the process, especially for the ABCDs (the American Born Confused Desi) was The Namesake (2004), a novel made into a film starring Kal Penn.

It should not be surprising that Lahiri has taken a step into writing non-fiction. She describes her latest work, In Other Words, as a “linguistic autobiography,” a memoir of the experience of immersing herself in the study and high level functionality of another language. The generous royalties from her fiction made it possible for her to relocate her family to Rome. Her early childhood experiences growing up in a Bengali speaking house attuned her early on to the gains and losses of moving into another language. She describes the relationship of the three languages as a triangle with the “permanent, indelible” English drawn as the base in ink and the other two, Bengali and Italian, drawn in pencil and forming the  shifting other sides. Interestingly, she claims that knowing Bengali, a language phonetically similar to Italian, enables her to speak Italian without a trace of an American-English accent.

The memoir is a slender one, for it comes to us as a dual language text, with English on one side of the page and Italian on the other. Curiously, Lahiri, sensitive to the demands of making good translations, chooses not to translate her own work, handing off that task to Ann Goldstein who has translated many works by Italian writers including Primo Levi and Elana Ferrante. The recruitment of Goldstein is due to Lahiri’s insecurities, to her belief that no matter how fluent she becomes, no matter how extensive her vocabulary grows, no matter how culturally nuanced her prose is, she will always feel herself the imposter. She likens her written Italian to a public sculpture undergoing a lengthy restoration. The scaffolding which surrounds the statue is analogous to the always “under construction” prose that she writes.

One of the delights of the book is the ways in which Larihi conjures up concrete metaphors, such as the one above, to convey the phenomenon of learning and using the language. Thus, mastering vocabulary is akin to taking a basket into a forest to gather flowers, only to find that many of the flowers have fallen out by the time of departure. Thus, the disorienting business of negotiating in a new language is akin to crossing the countless bridges in Venice in order to get to one’s destination; drowning water is always underfoot. Another architectural image explains the newly acquired language mastered but not in use:  it’s like the underground passages in Hadrian’s villa.

She used to think about her relationship with Italian as a suitor toward a lover, but as she begins to abandon her primary language, she thinks about Italian as a baby in a crib and English as a hairy adolescent intend on disturbing the baby’s sleep. Her new language needs protection more than courtship. The commitment to Italian after a period of infatuation is compared to swimming across a lake after years of hugging the shore.

Lahiri includes a number of anecdotes about her frustrations as a South-Asian woman eager to  be more cosmopolitan and to transcend her Bengali looks.  Like many immigrant children, she served as her parents’ translator when they stepped out in public and was embarrassed by their embarrassment. She’s both furious about and envious of her Spanish-speaking, light-skinned, American husband Alberto who is thought by the Romans to be more fluent in Italian than she of coconut complexion. And when she visits India, her relatives, perceiving her as more American than Bengali, choose to speak to her in halting English, denying her the opportunity to keep alive the language of home.

This anxiety about language loss is even more profound when she thinks about the impact of her return to the States after “doing what the Romans do.” She knows that language is like muscle that must be used, otherwise it will atrophy.

Lahiri explains the rationale for this book of personal revelation in two related ways. First, she is tired of the easy conclusion drawn by the readers of her fiction that the fictional lives are thinly autobiographical, that very little imagination has gone in to creating a diverse set of protagonists, many of whom have are quite different from their creator. Second, she realizes that she, and perhaps many others, need to set herelf on projects of uprooting and dislocation, on tasks that deliver frustrations and victories. Amongst other benefits, learning a language is a triumph over complacency.

Travel writer Pico Iyer, an American born South-Asian who was educated in England and lived in Japan, has written about the dangers of becoming a “nowhere man,” the rootless, perpetual traveler who can make a home anywhere, especially as the world has become more homogenized and as exotic places are easier to reach. While Iyer celebrates this new type (the idea was presented in 1997) and offers himself as one of its avatars, he’s aware of the personal costs of becoming a member of this mobile tribe, the least of which is that you spend a lot of time in airport lounges. I’d exempt the well-grounded Lahiri from this group. After all it’s only between Boston and Rome (with an occasional visit to Kolkata and an occasional book promotion tour) that she moves. Her language memory is evidence that she has blended “wings and roots” in a useful way and that the reader profits from her wisdom.

Into her memoir she embeds two short stories written in Italian. She alerts us to the fact that these initial attempts at storytelling are the result both of her new found language but also because of her maturity. They are more abstract, far less anchored in the particulars of place and time. I liked the old Lahiri who deftly revealed the inner-lives of estranged immigrant wives, prosperous though spiritually adrift members of the Indian professional class, and triumphant partners in arranged marriages. I hope I can grow to like the new Lahiri just as well.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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