In Other Words
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In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Goldstein

In Other Words is a revelation. It is at heart a love story of a long and sometimes difficult courtship, and a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language. For Jhumpa Lahiri, that love was for Italian, which first captivated and capsized her during a trip to Florence after college.

Although Lahiri studied Italian for many years afterwards, true mastery had always eluded her. Seeking full immersion, she decided to move to Rome with her family, for ‘a trial by fire, a 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 the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.

Presented in a dual-language format, this is a wholly original book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Vladimir Nabokov: a startling act of self-reflection and a provocative exploration of belonging and reinvention.

Review

Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories. She has since published two novels and another collection of stories, picking up numerous awards along the way. Her latest book, In Other Words, is a departure from her previous work in that it is autobiographical, and notably, was written in Lahiri’s newly adopted language, Italian.

In Other Words was first published in Italy as In altre parole, and has been translated into English not by Lahiri herself, but by editor and translator Ann Goldstein who is best known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. In the Australian edition of In Other Words, the Italian and English language versions of each page face one another – it is possible to read either language or both within the same volume.

This memoir is a voyage through language and thought, and is an exploration of what it means to be a writer and to really tell one’s story. It feels incredibly personal. Beyond the love of language, beauty of words and magic of literature, In Other Words feels honest in a way most books don’t. With this book, Lahiri breaks open her heart and puts it on the page.

Lahiri’s first language is Bengali, the language of her parents. She uses In Other Words to explore ways in which language is formative of identity, how her parents’ language made her feel ashamed, and how she has always felt like an outsider, a visitor, an interloper in any language. Lahiri also examines how language separates us from the world even as it helps us to understand it. She explains that while her fictional work is often perceived as autobiographical, writing fiction was actually a way for her to hide behind words. Here, with astounding clarity, she reveals herself.

In Other Words is broken into short sections that each resonate with their own timbre. The language is clear and beautiful, the metaphors palpable, the pace slow and dreamy. There are two pieces of short fiction, little jewels tucked away within the voyage of self-discovery. I highly recommend In Other Words to lovers of language, literature, memoir, journeys, and words.


Ed Moreno works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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