Book Review of "In Other Words" by Jhumpa Lahiri
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Leah Slawson, English Teacher, Trinity Presbyterian School, Montgomery, AL
In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, isn’t an obvious choice for educators looking to learn more about their craft, and yet it belongs on our summer reading lists. If for no other reason than it is simple, beautiful prose, written with remarkable clarity about the self in the midst of the learning process. For teachers of writing and foreign language, the concept of the book alone is intriguing; a successful writer immerses herself in a foreign language and writes a book in it. The implications for music, visual arts, and mathematics teachers are not much of a stretch either, but the book goes far beyond just the language learning and creative processes, and its larger themes of identity and exile appeal to anyone who is at all self-reflective.
Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, is Indian by ancestry, American by birth, and Italian in residence at the time of the book’s writing. She grew up speaking Bengali in her American home, English at school and in her public life in the U.S., and in early adulthood fell in love with the Italian language. She has devoted years of her life to studying Italian, but always “aware of the ocean, in every sense, between me and Italian.” She made the move to Italy a few years ago, and immersed herself in the language. In Other Words is written in Italian (on the left hand page) and translated to English (on the right hand page) by Ann Goldstein.
The obvious question: Why? Lahiri answers that throughout the book as she addresses the themes of identity, discovery, and creativity. “Writing in a different language means starting from zero,” she writes. “It comes from a void … the effort of making the language mine, of possessing it, has strong resemblance to a creative process – mysterious, illogical.” Never fully at home with Bengali or English, she writes often of both dual identity and at the same time being from nowhere. She meticulously keeps grammatical notes and new words in a notebook, tracking her ‘methodical growth’ as she studies Italian. Somewhere along the way, she also begins writing diary-like entries chronicling her thoughts and emotions about the learning process itself. This is the rich, philosophical material from which this book is mined. She writes about her enthusiasm and effort being contained in the notebook, “a space where I can wander, learn, forget, and fail. Where I can hope.” As both writer and teacher reading those lines, I see the value for myself and my students in the reflective writing process, regardless of the discipline. I also wonder if our classrooms are like her notebook – places where students can “wander, learn, forget and fail?”
Against the advice of many in her profession who thought her idea was career suicide, Lahiri makes the move to Rome and the decision to cease writing in English. Yet in the first months of study and living in Rome, she found the process much harder than she had imagined, realizing the more she learned Italian, the more she could see that she didn’t know and would spend a lifetime trying to acquire. “At least a hundred times while I was writing the chapters of this book I felt so demoralized, so disheartened, that I would have liked to stop … Yet if I want to go on writing in Italian, I have to withstand those stormy moments when the sky darkens, when I despair, when I fear I’m at the end of my rope,” Lahiri writes. She touches the emotion common not just to writers and creatives but to all who endeavor to learn anything new. All new learning has a point of frustration for us and for our students. What teacher hasn’t wanted to avoid a certain chapter and what student hasn’t hit a "darkened sky" of understanding new material or methodology our classes? Learning to "withstand those stormy moments" is the key to success not only in teaching and learning but also in life itself.
In encountering herself while struggling with Italian, Lahiri writes, “I identify with imperfect because a sense of imperfection has marked my life … Because of my divided identity, or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient … Every day, when I speak, when I write in Italian, I meet with imperfection. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.” This is the kind of philosophical depth she plumbs in reflecting on her linguistic struggles.
In a world that seems constantly connected, Lahiri reminds us how much a foreign language separates. In a time when everything can seemingly be had instantly, Lahiri’s experience with a foreign tongue shows us that slowness can be forced upon us. Reading in another language is both more active and more intimate, and the processes of learning to both read and write in Italian demand a silence, solitude, and slowness akin to spiritual disciplines for Lahiri. She allows us to see the metamorphosis she undergoes and the newfound freedom that is hers. She goes on to record the risks, the obstacles, and the resistance of others to the transformation she undertook, yet the “new beauty and new capacities” she emerges with are inspiring to any reader seeking any kind of new knowledge or transformative experience.
The book is rich with insights into the writing process, creative endeavors, linguistic identity, and self-discovery. Language teachers will love it, but anyone interested in metacognition will also enjoy this book. I read it with a pen in hand, and underlined, made margin notes, and found lines of lyrical prose rich in meaning that I will return to again and again.
Leah Slawson teaches AP Language and Composition and serves as mentor teacher to new hires in the upper school at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL. Follow her on Twitter @lmslawson or read her blog.