If Jhumpa Lahiri had not been so celebrated already as a fiction writer par excellence, this book from her would be a decent offering in English and perhaps a remarkable one written in Italian by a non-native speaker of the language.
by Chandra Ganguly
Everything in the book In Other Words written by Jhumpa Lahiri is written in Italian, with translations in English on the adjacent page, by Ann Goldstein. And even before I open the book, I am intrigued. I am about to read Jhumpa Lahiri in translation. How much would be lost in translation? And how much transmitted? And why was the title of the book not in Italian? The more I thought about it, the more it troubled me, why would a book in Italian not have the title in Italian? The answer is perhaps that the book was imagined as a translation of her from Italian into English versus simply a work in Italian that would and could stand on its own.
The tale of alienation and immigration, of loss and search for identity, voice and place in a new world is a story every person living in exile can identify with. Characters in all of Jhumpa Lahiri’s previous works have inhabited that space. And what takes a moment to absorb when reading this book is that this is Lahiri at her most honest and vulnerable. This is a first hand account of immigration, these are confessions, thoughts, ruminations written in her diary, later translated and formulated into a book by her publishers. I am both enchanted and a little embarrassed by the intimacy of her revelations, by her raw appeal for acceptance, “I ask of Italian, with a slight impatience: Permesso? May I? (p.17)…. Relationship takes place in exile…. In a state of separation… I have no friends in Rome. (p.35) I trade certainty for uncertainty. (p.37) My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself. (p.59) Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere.” (p.133)
If great works of art are about “shape-shifting” then sadly this work falls short because Lahiri embodies here an immigrant in love with all things Italy, especially Italian the language, and even though that love takes her to Italy and to the extreme step of forsaking English and America, that love feeds and informs only that love bordering on obsession and nothing else. As an immigrant reader, I felt I was peeking into my own personal diaries of loss, rejection and anger.
When her husband is adjudged a better Italian speaker than her based on the color of his skin, her anger is the anger of any person who has faced discrimination, “Here is the border that I will never manage to cross. The wall that will remain forever between me and Italian, no matter how well I learn it. My physical appearance. I feel like crying. I would like to shout: “I am the one who desperately loves your language, not my husband….” Because of my physical appearance, I am seen as a foreigner… People who don’t know me assume, looking at me, that I don’t know Italian… They don’t understand me because they don’t want to understand me; they don’t understand me because they don’t want to listen to me, accept me.” (p.139)
In the two works of fiction in this collection though, she shines as the consummate storyteller she is. The Exchange begins like this, “There was a woman, a translator, who wanted to be another person.”(p.67) The translator, in a bid to find herself, moves to a new place and lives simply and thinks she is finding herself till she loses a black sweater and has to wear a replacement. “The translator felt disconcerted, empty. She had come to that city looking for another version of herself, a transfiguration. But she understood that her identity was insidious, a root that she would never be able to pull up…”(p.79) But then the replacement becomes herself, “She didn’t want to find the one she had lost, she didn’t miss it. Now, when she put it on, she, too, was another.” (p.81) This story is semi-autobiographical, Lahiri says in an interview. And in her acceptance of a new sweater, Lahiri points to the summation of her experience living in Rome and living in Italian. She finds herself despite the walls and even that finding of herself despite its reconciliatory note become a part of the immigrant story, that trajectory of loss and discovery on foreign lands because there is no Aha moment in the entire work.
If Jhumpa Lahiri had not been so celebrated already as a fiction writer par excellence, this book from her would be a decent offering in English and perhaps a remarkable one written in Italian by a non-native speaker of the language. What sets it back is its lack of “shape shifting” soul stirring epiphany – the book does not shake us awake, it does not illuminate us on the state of the exile. What it does is confirm what we knew all along – being an immigrant is bloody hard even for one as dedicated as she is to learning the language and perhaps most surprising, even to one who has won a Pulitzer prize and who had won us over as her readers long before she had to say it in other words.
Chandra Ganguly lives in Palo Alto, California. She writes about the clash of cultures, loss of identities and the search for meaning. She is a pursuing her MFA in writing at Bennington College.