Jhumpa Lahiri is at a crossroads.
“Will I abandon English definitively for Italian? Or, once I’m back in America, will I return to English?” she writes in her collection of personal essays, “In Other Words,” first published in Internazionale magazine.
Readers who know the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author may be alarmed at her consideration of giving up English — she writes the kind of fiction a reader hates to see end, so the idea that there may be no more is distressing.
Daughter of Bengali parents and raised in Rhode Island, Lahiri has other books, including “Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake,” which was made into a movie, that are all originally in English.
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But, she explains, she never fully identified with English, or with Bengali for that matter, leading her to seek a third language: Italian.
“For practically my whole life English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety,” she writes.
She watched her parents resist American culture and the language, and feared that her ability to speak and write in perfect English would distance her from them.
So, over 20 years ago, she chose to learn Italian — a language “not in my blood, in my bones,” she writes. She began writing and reading exclusively in Italian in 2012, when she moved her family to Rome.
The collection of essays, translated from Italian not by Lahiri but by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, is a side-by-side translation, Italian on the left, English on the right — appropriate because the new language was the project.
Though she considers the themes of these essays — “identity, alienation, belonging” — to be the same as her fiction themes, she felt that writing in Italian made her a different kind of writer.
And her fiction and nonfiction voices are not the same, at least with a new language involved. She includes two very short stories in this collection that are not at all the vivid, engrossing, often heart-rending tales her readers expect.
Instead, it’s difficult to determine if the story “The Exchange” is being told in summary or if her style is simply more detached. Certainly she does not command Italian as she does English, but that struggle is what the essays are about.
The first lines of “The Exchange” are vague and almost abstract: “There was a woman, a translator, who wanted to be another person. There was no precise reason. It had always been that way.”
A striking difference from the hard-working opening of her story “Interpreter of Maladies,” the protagonist of which is also a translator: “At the tea stall Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet. Eventually Mrs. Das relented when Mr. Das pointed out that he had given the girl her bath the night before.”
Lahiri writes in the last essay that she went to Italy to know her immigrant characters and parents better, but hadn’t expected to become a foreigner to writing itself.
Whatever language she decides to continue working in, her strength as an interpreter and translator between cultures will remain; she possesses the power to universalize the very particular experiences of cultural and linguistic transplants. It allows her to achieve the highest form of art: pieces so transformative a reader cannot help but regard strangers with greater understanding.
Anne Kniggendorf: firstname.lastname@example.org
“In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri (256 pages; Knopf; $26.95)