Jhumpa Lahiri is, in my opinion, one of the best modern day writers, hands down. I still remember the first time I picked up her first book, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, at a Borders about a decade ago. I was perusing the fiction isles and the tables with notable publications and came across the book and read the back jacket. Since I am always looking for opportunities to be exposed to other cultures or geographies and my knowledge of India and Indian Americans was lacking I decided to purchase the book. I began reading it when I got home and soon discovered that I couldn’t put it down, that the stories were so real to me and the emotions that it evoked so intense that I had to just stay and finish and allow Lahiri’s amazing world to simply take over my existence until she was done. I was astounded by what I read and couldn’t believe that a writer could so perfectly write like she had. It still remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. From this point on I have gifted her books to as many people as possible and have sung her praises far and wide. I’d like to think that I played even the smallest part in adding to Lahiri’s fan base and list of admirers. Speed ahead a year or so and her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, came out and it was just as good, albeit different, as her first book. I quickly read the novel she had written a couple of years earlier, The Namesake, and I connected to that story more than most books I’ve read in my life. It quickly began to feel like Jhumpa Lahiri wrote specifically to me and my experiences, for I too felt so often caught between cultures and even have had identity crises, especially concerning my name(s), much like Gogol, the protagonist of the novel.
This year Lahiri published another book, its title is In altre parole. Why the weird title? Well, because it was not written in English. The English translation will be published and available to American readers in February of 2016, so until then the only people who will be able to get their hands on it must be able to read Italian. Yes, I was surprised as well; especially because this marked yet another serendipitous and fortuitous connection between myself and the author I so admire. I was born in the United States but lived most of my life in Italy, Rome to be exact. I then moved back to the States and have lived here (mostly) ever since, with a few years here and there back in Europe and a fun year in Asia. Although I live in the US, my life still is very much tied to my Italian-ness as I’ve made it my life calling to be a teacher of Italian. It is a rewarding, amazing, frustrating, and exhausting job and I would not have it any other way. It’s what I do, who I am.
Jhumpa Lahiri wrote her dissertation a couple of decades ago on the influence that Florentine architecture had on certain British playwrights after a visit to Italy with her sister. After this experience and a second visit to Venice, the author decided to learn Italian. She took some courses, but it wasn’t until she was on a panel in Italy and had to be translated by an interpreter that she realized that she wasn’t really learning the language, especially one that she really wanted to be privy to (I assume she must have had this experience in each country she visited all across the world, and yet it is interesting that Italian is the one language she felt attracted and alienated from). What followed were years of private tutoring and a personal mission to conquer something that for her meant so much. This all culminated in the decision to take her family and move to Rome (another connection!) permanently, so that she could finally take the necessary steps to be able to make a claim on a language that was of her own choosing and not one forced upon her either by tradition (Bengali) or geography (English).
What came from the experience? This collection of essays and a couple of short stories were all written in Italian by the author. Of course she had help correcting and editing them (she admits this herself), but it is so clear they are her own work for those of us who have read her other publications. Her voice is still present, her quiet reflections, and although this is nonfiction as opposed to her usual works of imagination, the beauty of her words and the deliberate choice of poetic styles is still very much in the foreground. The book is amazing and I am so glad I was able to read it in the language that she wrote it in, as though I’m sure the translation will be excellent, it will not be the code in which she chose to express these very personal and thoughtful notions. I am really glad I can decipher the code. This book is a must read for anyone who loves languages, anyone who studies them, anyone who wants to, and especially learners and teachers of Italian. Once again, I cannot recommend this book enough.
***Update 10/22/2015: I got to meet Jhumpa Lahiri and she signed this book for me. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life as I found myself speaking to someone whose works I have been admiring for all these years. She was kind, gracious, and her Italian is superb.***