Language and identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

Debora Quattrocchi reflects on the bi- and multilingual experience.

In Other Words“A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility” - Domenico Starnone.

Native language, acquired language, first language, second language… Which language do I speak? Having left my native country twenty years ago, the language that I spoke in my childhood and adolescence, with my family, friends and teachers, does not exist anymore. In its place is a distanced language, a somehow faint reproduction of it, with a less nuanced vocabulary and occasionally eccentric syntactic structures. The acquired language, English, started as a language of discovery (in my school years it was a door opening onto the allure of an 'other' world), and has turned from a basic tool for practical communication into a more sophisticated and comprehensive instrument. Yet even if I can speak my acquired language proficiently, at times a coarse foreign accent or a linguistic stutter betrays me, depending on the circumstances or the emotional state I am in. And when at other times I find myself merging the two languages to make up playful words, I wonder whether I am creating a third language, at the interstices of the main ones, which like a lizard’s tail sheds and regenerates itself into new life. So… which language do I speak? Which languages do we speak?

In a city like London there are many like me. How do late-bilinguals, who have to learn to operate in a new language at a relatively late stage of their life (in adolescence or even adulthood), navigate between native and new languages and cultures?

The phenomenon of the expatriate, exile, emigrant and his/her integration (or lack of it) in a new country is an ancient one. ‘Strangers’ figure heavily in the historic and mythological repositories of all civilisations, there to be feared, blamed, fought against, uprooted and dispersed but also chosen as judges because of their assumed impartiality or ultimately integrated into the dominant culture. In ancient Greek, 'xenos' covered anything from ‘stranger’ to ‘enemy’ to ‘guest’, accomodating even the possibility of a sudden visit from a deity in disguise.

In the last few decades there has been a surge in autobiographical and scholarly writings that focus on issues of language and identity (see the ‘Find out more’ section below). These often point to the sense of trauma and dislocation of the self that can result from the renunciation of one’s native culture and language in favour of new ones. This seems symptomatic of a general growing preoccupation with the self (accentuated by social media’s emphasis on sharing personal opinions and showcasing identities through personal profiles), also reflected in academic writing by an approach to research that is more inclined than in the past to value autobiographical narratives and self-reflection.

Recent research has investigated how late bi- and multilinguals express their emotions and feelings in different languages and how their sense of identity is affected in the process. ‘Identity’ is a buzzword in many academic research areas, and given that bi- and multilingualism are becoming a more common feature of our globalised world, the relationship between language and identity deserves attention.

When moving out of their native countries, long-term immigrants have to replace familiar things with new ones, reshape their cultural parameters, and redefine themselves in order to fit their new cultural and linguistic surroundings. As an adult (or a young adult) this means having to renegotiate one’s sense of identity, putting old assumptions into question and making room for new beliefs.

Jhumpa Lahiri's book In Other Words (2015) deals with many of these issues. Published in Italian by Guanda and in a bilingual version (English and Italian) by Bloomsbury, the book is Lahiri's experiment with a new language and writing style. Through writing in a new medium the author questions and reshapes her own identity and attempts to dissect the stages of her transformation, which took place in 'linguistic exile'. It is also a literary experiment, as readers are simultaneously addressed in two languages: two tongues physically confronting each other on opposite pages.

Moving to Italy to write this book seems to have been the climax of a process that Lahiri started at birth. She was born in London to Indian immigrants, but grew up in the States. Her Indian parents’ background somehow meant that she was already ‘double’, torn between Bengali (“to please [her] parents”) and American English (“to survive in America”). By adding Italian to her already complex linguistic and cultural composition, and more importantly by choosing to write in Italian and renounce English for the three year duration of this project, Lahiri does not dwell on trauma and destabilisation as many scholars do and tries instead to free and reconstruct herself as a writer and as an individual, through acquiring, and writing in, a new language. In our uncertain times it is useful to reflect on Lahiri’s experiment with language and what it might represent for its author and its readers, in particular those who are bi- or multilingual.

In a chapter called ‘Lo Scambio’, Lahiri writes: “There was a woman, a translator, who wanted to be a different person” - a woman who yearned for a new language, a new identity. This yearning is something many experience at some point in life. In another chapter, Lahiri uses the concept of metamorphosis and revisits Daphne’s episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in order to convey the sense of renewal that comes with the embracing of a new language and culture. Lahiri talks in positive terms of renovation and transformation and yet never underestimates the harsh reality of ‘exile’ and its implications: words such as ‘uprooting’, ‘disorientation’, ‘double identity’, ‘separation’ and ‘estrangement’ recur often in the book. She repeatedly refers to a feeling of being ‘suspended’, ‘split’, ‘divided’, ‘torn’ between languages (and cultures), a feeling that will resonate strongly with many late-bilinguals: “Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world", she writes.

Nevertheless, Lahiri compares her relationship with the Italian language to an intense, absorbing love affair. The reader is reminded of Gregorius Mundus, the character of Mercier’s A Night Train to Lisbon who falls in love with Portuguese overnight and leaves his life behind to embark on a life-changing journey. Of course the circumstances are different here from those of other authors who are forced to embrace a new language for very different reasons, for example escaping from persecution (Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation comes to mind). Lahiri’s language is rich and indulgent, in line with the metaphor of the love story, as when she refers to “a kind of ecstasy” and the “dizzying and yet fertile abyss of unknown words”, evoking Julia Kristeva’s reflections on “the happiness of tearing away” – the joyful madness and sense of unleashed freedom that foreigners might experience when severing ties with the past. That of course depends on the circumstances of the exile...

Aneta Pavlenko, who has written extensively on emotions and multilingualism, asks in her work if bi- or multilinguals feel like different people when speaking different languages: whether they are perceived as different, and whether they behave differently when using different languages. Lahiri writes that “It is not possible to become another writer, but it might be possible to become two”, thus allowing her to double herself as a writer and explore the artistic possibilities that a new language (a new artistic medium) would give her. Interestingly the English version of the book is translated by Ann Goldstein and not Lahiri herself.

Even before embarking on this project, Lahiri found herself at the centre of many cultural crossings and linguistic influences. She often refers to ‘connection’ and ‘detachment’, ‘closeness’ and ‘distance’, and sees her relationship with Italian as “taking place in exile”. Hers is an insider/outsider position, as a writer in a new medium and as a foreigner who chooses to stay for a prolonged time in an alien country, someone who simultaneously does and does not belong. Lahiri writes: “I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures. A peripheral zone where it’s impossible for me to feel rooted, but where I am comfortable”.

This prompts us to rethink the parameters of cultural/geographical/linguistic belonging in an era of fast technology, fragile (even disposable) identities and constant change. What does it mean to have roots nowadays? Being ‘citizens of the world’ has expanded our sense of belonging into a more dilated, fluid concept, and our roots are no longer confined to our place of origin or first language. Lahiri writes: “I am a writer that does not belong to any language”, celebrating her multifarious relationship with language. This is however not just a writer’s privilege, but something that we might all experience at some point in our lives as inhabitants of a globalised, fast-changing world, perhaps particularly so if we happen to be late bi-linguals.

About the author
Debora Quattrocchi is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University. She currently teaches Exploring Languages and Cultures, a module designed to introduce key concepts relating to languages, language learning, plurilingualism and intercultural communication.

Find out more
David Block (2014) Second Language Identities, Bloomsbury.
Jean-Marc Dewaele (2010) Emotions in Multiple Languages, Palgrave Macmillan.
Eva Hoffman (1989) Lost in Translation: A life in a New Language, Penguin Books.
Julia Kristeva (1991) Strangers to Ourselves, Cambridge University Press.
Jhumpa Lahiri (2015) In Other Words, Bloomsbury.
David Nunan, Julie Choi (2010) Language and Culture, Reflective Narratives and the Emergency of Identity, Routledge.
Aneta Pavlenko (2005) Emotions and Multilingualism, Cambridge University Press.

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