“In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri — a book review

A young woman with long black hair is sitting in a leather-backed wooden chair in an old library. She has on a light weight sweater that is a medium brown color. She is seated at a  large library table made of wooden planks. She has two large books in front of her, one open the other closed. The young woman has her arms on the library table top. She is resting her chin on her left hand, the right hand is lying flat on the table, her right arm is bent at the elbow and her right forearm is parallel with the bottom edge of the large open book. She has a large, amber-colored jeweled ring on the fourth finger of her right hand. The young woman is gazing thoughtfully off to her right. She is not smiling. She looks very at ease and relaxed. She has bronze skin and dark brown eyes and eyebrows. She is very pretty.
It must be love…

In Other Words is the fifth book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. This 2016 publication (Vintage, 2016 – English translation) was translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. That’s right. Lahiri, who is a native English speaker, fell in love with Italian, learned to speak and write in Italian, then wrote In Other Words – which is about the life-altering experience – in Italian. Lahiri could have translated the work herself but for many reasons, which she catalogs in her book, she chose to use a translator.

In Other Words is a story about language, identity, and writing. It is also an autobiography of sorts. Perhaps one could call it a work of non-fiction that features the author as one major character and language as another. In Other Words is a fascinating book for anyone who loves languages and appreciates learning about how one’s language affects the process of writing.

Lahiri is a beautiful writer. Her writing manifests story like a gifted singer’s voice embodies song. On entering the story, the reader becomes happily enticed and wholeheartedly enmeshed in her prose. And there is plenty of insight as well. In an early chapterLahiri writes this as she begins to describe her journey into the Italian language:

“I think of two-faced Janus. Two faces that look at the past and the future at once. The ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings and endings. He represents a moment of transition. He watches over gates, over doors, a god who is only Roman, who protects the city. A remarkable image that I am about to meet everywhere.”

Lahiri does indeed encounter the spirit of Janus, metaphorically and in semi-actuality, in her pursuit of a new language. Among the author’s tales of the joys and predicaments involved in her quest to possess Italian, she recounts a story of her family’s move from the US to Italy during Rome’s mid-August holiday, a time when the entire city goes on vacation. In the process, her family practically meets itself coming and going when they lock themselves out of their apartment:

“There is no one in the building but us. We have no papers, are still without a functioning telephone, without any Roman friend or acquaintance. I ask for help at the hotel across the street from our building, but two Hotel employees can’t open the door, either. Our landlords are on vacation in Calabria. My children, upset, hungry, are crying, saying that they want to go back to America immediately.”

The traumatic moment passes, and the family begins their transition to living in the Eternal City. Janus has granted them entry.

One negative of In Other Words is the amount of time Lahiri gives to writing about her inner struggle with choosing Italian over English or Bengali — her parents language — as the language with which she identifies. I grew tired of Lahiri’s self-analysis about three-quarters of the way through but continued reading because this is not a long book. The book is designed so that the left-hand page contains the Italian by Lahiri. The right-hand page is Goldstein’s translation of Lahiri’s work, so though the total number of pages is in the book is 230, the English language portion is 115 pages.

The decision to read the book in its entirety paid off — to my way of thinking, anyway — because of Lahiri’s comments of the Hungarian writer Agota Kristof in the last section of the book. Kristof arrived in Switzerland as a refugee at the age of twenty-one and began learning French when she was twenty-six so that she could write to a receptive French audience. Despite the fact that Kristof’s motivation to learn French was far different from Lahiri’s inducement to be proficient in Italian, Kristof and Lahiri share some of the same struggles and insights about what it means to truly learn, speak and write in a language that is not one’s native tongue.

If you are intrigued by languages, curious about how language brings people together and can drive them apart; if you have wondered about the inscrutable process of learning a new language, how it works and what effect that it might have on your life if you were to choose a new language to inhabit; if you want to acquire some guidance for your writing life, this intriguing book by Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, is meant for you.

I read In Other Words in a paperback edition, but it is available in e-book and audio formats, also. I think it would be fascinating to hear an audio version of the book because in the English translation there are numerous Italian words, and it would add a lot to hear them read aloud by someone who can speak Italian. Requesting an audio book version of In Other Words from your local public library is a good (read that as “free”) way to experience the audio production of Lahiri’s book.


Reading is more than what you think…

I am saddened by the number of people who are suspicious of and even offended by fables, fantasy,  and allegories. Imagination was an ever-present commodity in my home as I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I walked around with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. Music was a continuous soundtrack in our home- always in the background, but often the main event, too. We children envied and emulated the quick-witted and clever around us. Mother recited long rhymes at the drop of a hat, and quoted poems & silly songs during our bath times or in other mundane, potentially boring (for her?) situations. We listened to the opera every Saturday (“Texaco Presents… the Metropolitan Opera!”) as we youngsters cleaned our large, old, kid-filled home.

And then there was the Mass — especially Sunday High Mass — a holy, ritual-filled hour that taught us the transcendence of God, the reality of miracles, and the glory of heaven. Truth, beauty, goodness, all around. Sorrow, alcohol, and physical abuse all around, too. But a book or the movies could serve as a way to cope with pain and confusion, calm one’s fears and present the possibility of a future happy ending. “Bookish tendencies”  are good skills to have when it comes to dealing with the harsh realities of home.

I think my childhood reading of myths and fables helped to teach me to read between the lines in real life — which is another survival skill, by the way.  I am thankful for the books of C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager. and J.R.R. Tolkien both for the comfort their works provided and the skills their stories brought with them. So, my advice to you is to read a wonderful book of fantasy soon, then trust your imagination to lead you to a deeper understanding of the world around you,

Flannery rules…

 

Can this be day three of Fun With Flannery? Again we had a deep and insightful discussion which included viewing a movie  based on O’Connor’s short story, “The River.” We will also watch a film version of her short story “The Comforts of Home” in a future class. The film interpretations of O’Connor’s stories have added significantly to our discussions and understanding of Flannery’s work. So grateful that Prof Prior has included them in the class. Paul Anderson, Director of Programs at the Glen Workshop, was gracious enough to take a class picture of the Flannery Glensters. Good country people, every one of them.😊

Fun With Flannery – class begins…

Prof Karen Swallow is an amazing teacher. Once I can get all of the class members together I will post a group picture. The gentlemen sitting with Karen in the cafeteria are attendees of the Glen Workshop who aren't in her class this year. At lunch they had some questions about Flannery – which she was happy to answer.

To the High Desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, we journey…

 

… At the B19 Gate in the Phoenix Airport- American Airlines. Waiting for the flight to Santa Fe to arrive, then from the Santa Fe airport to a shuttle for a ride to St John’s College and check-in for The Glen Workshop. Never expected to be here too early to get into the dorms 😳but it just might happen! (Hope to include pictures of the Glen Workshop experience, but the WordPress mobile platform just crashed! Maybe pics can be edited in later…)

“What this story needs…”

 Modern LAst Supper

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day when Christians recall Jesus’ Last Supper before his death on the cross. The gathering that Jesus entered into with his disciples on this night was the Jewish celebration of the Passover meal. At Passover, the ancient Story of God’s Covenants with and faithfulness to Israel are recalled. On this particular Passover, the Last Supper, Jesus added a new chapter, a New Covenant, to the Story. This New Covenant, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” (John 13:34) helps us to grasp that the Story, the Bible, is not primarily a collection of rules, it is a love Story.

All of us have a story. I wonder, who holds the copyright to your story? Apple? Amazon? People Magazine? Jesus made sure he cited the source of his Story: “I don’t speak on my own authority. The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it.” (John 12:49). Maundy Thursday is a good day to remember stories, and to ask ourselves if the righteous one, Jesus,  holds the copyright to our story.

Speaking of stories,  here is a touching tale. Sadly, I have lost the name of the person who originally shared this anecdote, but it is so good I wanted to share it with you. If you know the author of this piece, please email me and I will gladly cite the source. Thanks!   

“A woman had held a Bible study in her home for a number of years. One day, a young neighbor and new member of the Bible study group stopped by to talk to the hostess. The new Bible student expressed her concern about the way the Old Testament stories were going. ‘So much violence and confusion, and such terrible things are happening,’ she said. ‘You know what this Story needs?’ the woman offered, ‘It needs a hero.’ At this, the hostess of the Bible study took the young woman’s hands in her own, looked into her eyes and said, ‘Keep reading. He’s coming.’ ”

Image is of “The Last Supper” by artist Janefargo.

Post-it Notes and Wisdom

I lost the quote for the article I was writing, then I lost my patience and finally, I lost my cool. Why, oh why didn’t I use a post-it note to mark the quote in the book? Too busy? Too lazy? Too proud? All three?

This frustrating moment conjured up for me the ending of an old story. Remember the glorious conclusion of Noah’s Ark?  “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Gen 9:16) What a revelation! The first sticky-note reminder ever produced was the rainbow which God stuck in the sky as a prompt to himself that the earth would never again be destroyed by a flood. The rainbow, this gorgeous, vast, visual statement of count-to-ten restraint and love is not primarily a reminder directed toward us, it’s a reminder meant for God – imagine that!  If God uses post-it notes to help his memory, then what’s my problem?

“With humility comes wisdom,” says Proverbs. And it appears that a few post-it notes can’t hurt, either.

Rainbow memo pad