In her deeply personal new book, In Other Words, acclaimed novelist Jhumpa Lahiri notes that “writing in another language represents an act of demolition, a new beginning.” It’s a neat summing-up of what takes place in this brief, meditative memoir—Lahiri’s first work of nonfiction—as she shares the story of her passion for Italian and how she set out to master it.
Lahiri became enamored of Italian during her student days and studied the language somewhat casually in the years that followed. But her interest deepened over time, and in 2012 she moved with her family to Rome. Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies (1999), was also seeking a “new approach” to her art, and over the course of the narrative, it becomes clear that by unlocking the Italian language she makes unexpected discoveries about herself as a writer.
But the endeavor is a humbling one. Lahiri is candid about the difficulties she encounters in gaining command of a new language. When she attempts serious prose pieces in Italian, she finds that the process of composition as she has practiced it throughout her career no longer applies. “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer,” she admits. “I’ve never felt so stupid.”
Lahiri’s many fans will not be surprised to learn that she succeeds in her linguistic undertaking. She wrote In Other Words in Italian, and it’s presented here in a dual-language format. As the narrative unfolds and the new language forces her to relearn the rudiments of her craft, she achieves her usual artistry and delivers an impassioned valentine to the most lyrical of languages.