Buon giorno, Jhumpa, come sta? Io, sto bene. Acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri has just published her first non-fiction book. Written in Italian, In Other Words (Le Altre Parole), describes her decades-long love affair with the Italian language and chronicles her quest to master it.
In the book, Lahiri talks about her first visit to Italy while still a university student. She became infatuated with the culture and especially the language. She began to study Italian and continued for years. But to make a big leap in her language ability, she moved her family to Rome in 2012 to wrap herself in the language, the city, the culture. In this lovely memoir, Lahiri calls her time in Rome her “self-imposed exile” and examines what drives her to this and what compels her even to write.
I am intrigued by successful authors writing in their non-native language. Lahiri’s formative language is Bengali. She’s won prizes writing in English. Now she’s found recognition writing in Italian. [Joseph Conrad found fame writing in English, his third language after Polish and French.]
This post isn’t a book review because I haven’t read all the way through Lahiri’s book. I’ve seen it. I read the Kindle sample. I’m awaiting my Amazon copy. I love the way the book has been published. Lahiri’s Italian words appear on one side while across the page you see the English translation by Ann Goldstein, translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. In Other Words is a wonderful book to read for anyone who’s studied Italian, plans to study it or wants to brush up on an old love.
The book is getting wonderful reviews and has shot onto several non-fiction best-seller lists. I am particularly intrigued by a story she tells of buying a pocket dictionary early on and carrying it with her for decades as a linguistic crutch as she traveled throughout Italy. Once she takes up residence in Rome, she is able to slowly pull away from its safety because, as a friend points out, she is now living inside an Italian dictionary.
Jhumpa Lahiri, I Feel Your Pain
I had my own little security blanket. The picture above is the pocket dictionary I bought decades ago and carried with me throughout my time in Rome and most of the years since, every time I traveled to Italy. It’s 2 3/4″ by 5 1/4″ small. I bought it in the late ’70s. Look at the price! It’s amazing there are no sauce stains on it. Of course there wouldn’t be because the first words I made sure to know real well had to do with talking to a waiter.
In Rome every Monday through Friday I took an afternoon bus ride from my apartment near Camp de’ Fiori down to near the train station for my 3-hour Italian classes. No English allowed. Total immersion although back in those days just living in Rome was total immersion. My language instructor Gianni, who looked like he’d stepped out of a Raphael painting, would not only teach the Italian language but throw in tidbits of Italian culture and mores as well.
I pomodori rossi sono per il sugo. I pomodori verde sono per l’insalata.
Red tomatoes are for sauce. Green (ish) tomatoes are for salad.
My good friend was also struggling through lessons at the same school. She and I would meet for coffee at the Caffe di Colombia in Piazza Navona (sadly no longer there) and listen to Italian children as they so deftly spoke to their parents. Our mutterings were not kind. “Can you hear that kid?” “The language just rolls off his tongue.” “Yeah, little brat.” “I think I heard the subjunctive tense.” “Brat.”
I miss those days. I miss the bus rides, even on crazy days when the drivers would abruptly strike, leaving the bus sitting in the street and we passengers helpless. Once a very old Italian woman, a fellow rider, began yelling in Italian, “This would never happen in Mussolini’s day.” I miss Gianni and his charming way of teaching us what the word ubriaco means. Troppo vino. I miss those days when Gianni admonished us not to speak English during our coffee break and we foreign students did nothing but. However, believe me, I have never, ever put green-ish tomatoes in my sauce.
I leave my little green English-Italian dictionary at home now when I visit our place in Sansepolcro. Sometimes I miss it…especially when the pool man tries to explain to me the chemical balance of the chlorine. (Say what??) I started writing my article (posted on this site) about the history of Harry’s Bar in Italian long ago but switched to English and published it in English. I don’t have the language facility or the courage of Jhumpa Lahiri to write in Italian. But I can’t wait to read this beautiful bi-lingual book. I won’t need my little green dictionary.