Julie Christine's Reviews > In Other Words

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
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I realize that the wish to write in a new language derives from a kind of desperation. I feel tormented, just like Verga’s songbird. Like her, I wish for something else — something that I probably shouldn’t wish for. But I think that the need to write always comes from desperation, along with hope. Jhumpa Lahiri

Twenty-one summers ago I was finishing up one graduate degree in International Affairs and preparing to start a second one in Linguistics, moving from an inquiry into the effects women's levels of education in the developing world had on household income, birth rates and infant mortality, into an examination of how language affects our creativity. I intended to pursue a Ph.D in Linguistics and was mulling over a dissertation on expatriate writers in France who wrote in their adopted language. I planned to explore how writing in French had changed their approach the language of their stories, how this second, or some cases, third or fourth language, influenced the content and rhythm and expression of their thoughts.

Then I was offered a job, a great job, in my first field. I pondered the inherent financial and professional insecurities of a life in academe and I turned from the Ph.D path, away from Linguistics.

Oh, the irony as twenty years later I try to make a living as a writer, having turned from the path of financial and professional security and stability because it wasn't a life authentic to me. If someday I achieve a measure of commercial success, I will relocate lock, stock and barrel to France, where I can immerse wholesale into a language and culture that fills and sustains my heart and intellect.

Along comes Jhumpa Lahiri with In Other Words, a luminous meditation on how immersion in another language changes a writer's soul. In this evocative and earnest collection of brief essays on learning to express herself in Italian, Lahiri touches on everything I felt to be true or what I have experienced with equal intensity living in France and living in the French language: the daily intoxication and despair, the loss and discovery of self, the intimacy and estrangement that come with linguistic and cultural displacement.

This is not a book on what it's like to live in Italy. It is not a travelogue, a glimpse into a place any of us fortunate enough to have traveled there or who dream of going can mine for memories or tips. It could be set in Poland or Peru. This is a memoir of the mind of a writer who finds herself humbled by language. Lahiri writes of her first experiences crafting a story in Italian, “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer. I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic. I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

I am reminded as I savor these hesitant, glorious essays that my instincts two decades ago were right. Even then, so many years before I began writing, I understood the metamorphic potential that profound engagement with another language held for a writer. In Other Words has given me reason to take up that dream again, this time not at a scholarly remove, examining other writers' lives and work, but as a way to enhance my own.
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Reading Progress

November 11, 2015 – Shelved
November 11, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
June 29, 2016 – Started Reading
June 30, 2016 – Shelved as: best-of-2016
June 30, 2016 – Shelved as: bio-autobio-memoir
June 30, 2016 – Shelved as: italy-theme-setting
June 30, 2016 – Shelved as: read-2016
June 30, 2016 – Shelved as: social-political-commentary
June 30, 2016 – Shelved as: travel-narrative
June 30, 2016 – Shelved as: writing-companions
June 30, 2016 – Finished Reading
July 1, 2016 – Shelved as: shorts

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Dianne (new) - added it

Dianne What a great review, Julie - I love how this book dovetailed with your own experiences. Nice to see you back on Goodreads! Have missed you.


Julie Christine Dianne wrote: "What a great review, Julie - I love how this book dovetailed with your own experiences. Nice to see you back on Goodreads! Have missed you." Thank you for the lovely comment, Dianne! So glad to be back reading and reviewing more regularly. These past months have been topsy-turvy and my boat is just now finding calmer waters . . .


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael Seems so brave of Lahiri to attempt writing in another language (wondering if English itself was already a second language for her). When I think of people that had success in their second language (Conrad and Nabokov come to mind), I can't help thinking of the even greater challenge of those who take up poetry in their adopted language (e.g. Brodsky).


Cheryl I now know we both share something in common: a soft spot for French culture and language :) What a fluid review, Julie. I learned a lot about you in only a few paragraphs - guess this is the power of books. I've been meaning to visit this new work of Lahiri's because the subject interests me, so thanks for the introduction.


Julie Christine Michael wrote: "Seems so brave of Lahiri to attempt writing in another language (wondering if English itself was already a second language for her). When I think of people that had success in their second language..."

It's endlessly fascinating, Michael! And yes, English is something of a second language for Lahiri, though the first she formally studied, as opposed to picking up from family at home.

I know from studying Italian at a French university that nothing improved my understanding of French grammar like studying a third language in my second. A wonderful experience!


Julie Christine Cheryl wrote: "I now know we both share something in common: a soft spot for French culture and language :) What a fluid review, Julie. I learned a lot about you in only a few paragraphs - guess this is the power..."
I think you would love reading this, Cheryl. What a beautiful comment. Thank you.


message 7: by Jaidee (new)

Jaidee Julie a lovely whimsical review and a little window to your own interior world was just lovely :)

BTW my partner is reading your book at the moment and loving it....I hear a few aaaahs....which is sweet :)


Seemita A wonderful review.


Julie Christine Jaidee wrote: "Julie a lovely whimsical review and a little window to your own interior world was just lovely :)

BTW my partner is reading your book at the moment and loving it....I hear a few aaaahs....which is..."


aaaah from me, Jaidee- how sweet- thank you for letting me know. Hugging myself over here!! xoxo Julie


Julie Christine Seemita wrote: "A wonderful review."

Seemita, thank you so much for the comment!


Elyse Walters I look back on the year after reading this book -- (which for me was about 'dreaming' again too) -- I remember the day and place when I took a leap forward....it directly came from this book. I was in Napa in Dec. -- shortly after having read it - It was the most personal -and painful 'inner' looking partial day -- and then a corner turned. I picked up a pen --and started writing my intentions. Paul joined me. -We looked back at the end of the year -- and the moment was clear. Hard to put in words -- but I 'still' have a range of emotions when I think of this book. Your review speaks to me --Thanks!


Julie Christine Elyse wrote: "I look back on the year after reading this book -- (which for me was about 'dreaming' again too) -- I remember the day and place when I took a leap forward....it directly came from this book. I was..."

What a gorgeous comment, Elyse. Thank you for sharing such a personal connection with this beautiful book.


message 13: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Your review is so much more eloquent than mine. Thank you.


Julie Christine Kim wrote: "Your review is so much more eloquent than mine. Thank you." Oh Kim. I love your review! Thank you xoxo


message 15: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Julie wrote: "Kim wrote: "Your review is so much more eloquent than mine. Thank you." Oh Kim. I love your review! Thank you xoxo"
By the way, I teach French as a learning language and I'm never more aware of the fact that it's not my native language than when I have to look up the gender of nouns, in front of my students. I use this as an example of the importance of dictionaries and encourage them to use the real (not electronic) ones that I have scattered around the room.

It is also my dream to return to France to live. Those 3 years back in the late 80s were absolutely life-changing.


Julie Christine Kim wrote: "Julie wrote: "Kim wrote: "Your review is so much more eloquent than mine. Thank you." Oh Kim. I love your review! Thank you xoxo"
By the way, I teach French as a learning language and I'm never mor..."


I love this. We never stop learning! I was a French major and attended university in Chambéry in the early 90s. Where did you live?


message 17: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim I was fortunate enough to live in Paris for most of the 3 years (to be clear, I was there 2 different times, 3 years total), but there were a few months where I lived in different suburbs. I took classes at the Alliance Française, the Sorbonne (pour étrangers) and I was an au pair.


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