The Obstacles of Language

A small break from the typical mini-reviews I post here to share an interview I’ve been thinking about all morning.  This NPR interview with Jhumpa Lahiri discusses the reasons why she’s written her new book, the non-fiction memoir In Other Words, in Italian.  The now-trilingual Lahiri mentions that her new language has allowed her an artistic freedom that she felt she was unable to capture in Bengali or English.

I’ve been mulling this over for a few reasons.  First, her answers in the interview actually makes me reconsider the last book I read by her, The Lowland.  As a reader taken in by her stories, Lahiri has always had a distance to her writing that I thought was a sort of minimalism or other stylistic effect.  I had never considered that it was an indication of discomfort with the language.  This distance ended up bleeding into her characters in The Lowland, to the point that they were isolated & emotionally detached at the end of the story.  Again, I thought it was a comment on how certain choices could give an individual their freedom but cut them off from others in the process.  There’s a chance that this is still a valid reading, but now I wonder if Lahiri’s struggle to express herself fully in English unwittingly informed some of this theme.

I also want to be clear here–I use the words “struggle” and “discomfort” as a writer herself who finds the limits of my main language as difficult to overcome to express what inner thought seems unexpressable.  I extend that meaning to what I’m trying to say about Lahiri’s work also.

What I also find fascinating about this interview is that there is little mention about the alchemy of thought that occurs when one learns a new language.  To be a little less formal here, OMG, I’m totes jealous that she can speak 3 languages.  But seriously, I think back to when I was learning Spanish in high school & how the process of unraveling that language suddenly highlighted the structure and technicalities of English that seemed so boring & useless previously.  I can only take that memory & imagine what the experiences of having 3 languages & a sizable set of memories & thoughts shaded by all three must be like.  I wonder if this helped contribute to Lahiri’s newfound comfort with her “failures” and missteps with this new language.

I recommend you check out the interview if you are curious about how writers push themselves to find ways to share what they are trying to say.  I know that this peek into Lahiri’s process has inspired a new prompt for my writing group tonight.