To Love a Language: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s Transformations

September 29, 2021   •   By Jacqui Cornetta

JHUMPA LAHIRI SETS people off. At least she has since she traded the pen for la penna in 2012. As one critic claims, she doesn’t handle it with the proper care; her Italian reads “as if actually she were writing in a language that was all her own, and that just happened to coincide with the language sixty million Italians use.” Another puzzles over Lahiri’s hermetic turn, particularly her most recent novel Whereabouts (Dove mi trovo) and its chronicles of “a listless depressive with seemingly no deep passions or excitements and no significant relationship with any other living being.”


Lahiri’s pivot toward the Italian language made many critics dance around a series of unanswerable questions. Why choose to abandon the language that gave you (and us) so much? Is that selfish? Why take up this arbitrary one?


But all language is arbitrary. And Lahiri has taken to heart today’s strangely authoritarian adage: get rid of what no longer serves you. There’s something wonderfully defiant about the way she dumped English, like a child asserting that he no longer plans to wear shoes. Most people can’t pick up and inhabit a new linguistic context by virtue of the realities of interdependence and everyday constraints both economic and imaginative. Others have a new language thrust upon them. But what if we could all choose our languages?


It’s hard to imagine droves rushing toward languages that don’t evoke money, prestige, or nostalgia. Language flows where power goes. Yet even if the allure of Italian tracks with that trifecta, Lahiri’s shift was wholly unpredictable. Is that what caused critics discomfort — or is it her command of Italian that chafes?


¤


While family circumstances gave her Bengali and English, Lahiri’s “Italian project” began as a fiery romance. “I feel young again, I feel in love, and it’s incredible to not have this feeling for a person, but for a language: it’s even better.” She can’t put her finger on why, but it’s something about how the language feels. In her first book written in Italian, In Other Words (In altre parole), which she calls “a sort of linguistic autobiography,” Lahiri confesses, “What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.”


Loving a language is a sensual, full-body experience. The way it feels in your mouth, the way it makes you contemplate the relationships between people and things anew. And experimenting with language can feel like a liberatory experience in drag. One of the two endnotes in Lahiri’s English self-translation of Whereabouts illustrates that eros:


Portagioie, the Italian word for jewelry box, is a compound of two polyvalent words. Gioia (pl. gioie) means both “joy” and “jewel.” Porta […] belongs to a constellation of words pertaining to acts of bearing, bringing, carrying, and transporting, which in turn give rise to terms for “door,” “gate,” and “port.” Portagioie, therefore, could also be interpreted, in Italian, not only as a box of jewels, but a container of joy, a doorway or gateway to joy, something that brings you joy.


In cross-linguistic adventures, objects and phenomena can come together in ways they never have before. For writers and readers who get off on genre-bending, this can be truly intoxicating. If only every publisher of English-language translations allowed for these kinds of whimsical digressions on language. The only other endnote in Whereabouts is the Italian version of an excerpt the protagonist quotes from Corrado Alvaro’s novel The Sea (Il mare), which seems superfluous in a text that exists primarily because some readers don’t understand her Italian version of the novel. Italian is Lahiri’s joy box.


The playful insistence of these endnotes connects to a memorable reflection on the philosophy of language in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Selin, the agonizingly clever Harvard freshman protagonist, learns about the debate between linguistic relativity and universality in a Linguistics 101 course. Her professor poses a Chomskyan concept of language as universal instinct, where all languages are “equally complex and identically expressive of reality,” as the antithesis to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which contends that the specific language you speak affects how you process reality. Despite her professor’s exaltation of Chomsky, Selin admits, “In my heart, I knew that Whorf was right. I knew I thought differently in Turkish and in English — not because thought and language were the same, but because different languages forced you to think about different things.”


Like The Idiot’s lingua-curious characters, Lahiri’s experience of inhabiting another language hasn’t just been a matter of exchanging one set of words for another, switching out the dictionaries. Italian has given her “a new life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being.” That that new reality feels so good seems, in part, due to the strain placed on her other languages. Thus Bengali and English, and the tension between them, become primary characters of In Other Words. “Those two languages of mine didn’t get along. They were incompatible adversaries, intolerant of each other. I thought they had nothing in common except me, so that I felt like a contradiction in terms myself.” That estrangement and the crushing pressure to “speak both languages extremely well” (both to please her parents and “to survive in America”) alienated her not only from herself but from the words she knew and was known by.


We can dodge sticks and stones, but language is in our marrow. Not because we come out of the womb talking shit, but because — no matter the languages we learn or how we acquire them — we embody and carry them everywhere, through trauma and joy. Forget rhymes to the contrary; words are a devastating weapon and tracing the harm they do to us can be an arduous task. But when Lahiri asks herself, “Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?” she finds an obvious answer: “[T]he English language.”


If language itself is the problem, why not repurpose it as the solution? Lahiri called her transition an act of “literary survival.” Has love, Italian, saved her?


¤


Roma. Lahiri’s new way of being — la plaza, il caffè, a slower pace of life — has touched the deepest parts of her. In an interview for Lit Hub earlier this year, she considers how, unlike the “imposed” languages of her upbringing, “Italian is an unusual path, an unexpected one, and comes from me only.” When the sting of hubris — “Me only”? What of the Italian writers and teachers without whom the language would have remained as dead to her as Latin? — dissipates, her statement evokes a ticklish feeling: to be immersed in language so thoroughly as to embrace the illusion that it “comes from me only.” That’s a hypnotic state familiar to writers and witty texters, but isn’t language above all a social practice, shared by its speakers, whether they’ve used it for decades or days?


“I write to feel alone,” Lahiri confides in In Other Words. In one of her diaristic meanderings, the unnamed Italian protagonist of Whereabouts declares: “Solitude: it’s become my trade.” Pristine isolation pulses through her Italian chronicles, and Lahiri ponders how the language itself may contribute to a new direction, both “more autobiographical and more abstract.”


Whether it’s the chicken or her blessed egg, Lahiri can’t sever Italian from the fact of her linguistic renunciation; at least in that respect, it’s not alone. She writes that Italian represents “a flight from the long clash” in her life “between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.” Any wayward soul can attest that the independent path doesn’t erase the residue of familial love, but Italian allowed her to fall in love with being in the room of her own mind — no strings attached.


Lahiri writes from that inward-looking cocoon in Italian, but she’s plumbing the same depths she did in English. She says it herself: “The themes, ultimately, are unchanged: identity, alienation, belonging.” Her now decade-long affair has clung to solitude in language — laced with its sensual but safe pleasures — as a sort of libertarian kernel, inviting the sublime. Knowing full well that writing in English once made her feel that way doesn’t stop her from shouting from the Roman rooftops: “I was looking for happiness, and I found it in Italian.”


¤


Earlier in her affair with the Italian language, Lahiri mused, “Love, I think, asks no questions: there’s no why, you just love, and loving is enough.” Something about that love and meeting a language through words, books, and art first — as opposed to through close relationships with actual people, always fraught in some way or another — has given Lahiri new access to her own experience. But now she is asking questions. By translating and curating Italian fiction for an Anglophone readership, particularly voices that have gone overlooked, underappreciated, or excluded, Lahiri is trying to pay her personal discovery forward.


That enterprise, ironically, brought her a new kinship: she discovered that her private loneliness also lived in the works of her Italian literary heroines and heroes. In the 2019 anthology The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, Lahiri’s 40 selections read as “powerful meditations on alienation, estrangement, states of solitude.” The stereotype that writers are loners, rogues, depressives isn’t lost in translation. If only there was a better cure than writing.


The literary tradition Lahiri is resuscitating was formed, in part, in response to a fascist state. There, language was violently repressed and remolded, living dialects flattened into a single standardized tongue. Lahiri acknowledges how the global literary market reproduces this compression on a much greater scale: “To step outside the anglophone world is to grow aware of the near-total domination of the English language when it comes to what is being read and celebrated as literature today. It is a domination that few, at least on the English-speaking side of the border, stop to question.”


More transcultural and translingual literary engagement certainly brings needed oxygen into the stuffy room of near-total Anglophone domination, but it’s hard to imagine modes of translation involving English that don’t somehow play into its stranglehold. Given her implied critique of that domination and her earlier shift away from English, it’s perhaps perplexing that the writer has held fast to translation as the key to liberating literature from what she calls “silence and obscurity.” Just because Italian came to her rescue doesn’t mean it needs saving.


So Lahiri has invited English back into her life after all. Translation allowed for that détente. Now she collaborates closely with the Italian authors she translates. She advocates for interlingual exchange in the classroom and says she’s “less anxious and self-conscious about writing now that translation accompanies it.” Rome is the only place in her world where she speaks “English, Italian and Bengali on a daily basis.”


Now that all three of her languages are more in harmony, Lahiri’s private love of Italian has opened outward, bringing with it new responsibility. Her role as translator, anthologist, and literary grande dame (she was knighted by Italian President Sergio Mattarella in 2019) has positioned her as an international tastemaker. Some flinch at her ambassadorial ascension, as she’s relatively new to Italian, but no language or culture can claim a literary epitome. And that boxing in is precisely what Lahiri has run from all her life.


Ultimately, Lahiri’s transformation — from loving a language as solitary pleasure to social affair — feels preordained. Any charge we take up to understand ourselves through language admits a desire to make sense of our connections to others. And even if we insist it’s solely the declensions and vowels that seduce us, language, whether bone-deep or like new, breathes our sticky entanglements. As Lahiri writes in the introduction to her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Ties: “In the end it is language itself that is the most problematic container; it holds too much and too little at the same time.”


¤


Jacqui Cornetta is a writer, translator, and performing artist whose work appears in CircumferenceLost & Found: CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative, The Puerto Rico Review, and elsewhere. They received an MFA from Queens College CUNY where they now teach.


¤


Featured image: “Jhumpa Lahiri (2016)” by the Mercatus Center is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Image has been cropped.