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Book Review: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

19th February, 2016

Book Review: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

In Other Words is Lahiri’s first non fiction book. Jhumpa pens down the story of her decision to master the Italian language after spending a life as the daughter of immigrant Indian parents in America which left her with no sense of belonging to either side. The book is written in Italian and translated into English by Ann Goldstein, editor at The NewYorker.

Review:

The book takes you on a journey with the writer as she talks about how she developed a fascination for Italian and the reasons for her decision to write in Italian rather than English when she is at the peak of her success. While many critics feel this to be a rash and unwise decision, Jhumpa puts forth her reasons for doing so in a convincing manner.

The chapters are short and make a fast read. The comparisons to her choice of Italian as a medium of expression compared with Ovid’s works is a delight to read. Her metamorphosis to write in Italian, though she will never be acknowledged as an Italian writer offers food for thought. The reader would love pacing through Jhumpa in the busy streets of Rome as she reminisces how much she yearned for such a life while in America and slowly trains herself in taming the language. The particular incident about how her husband who did not speak Italian well enough as her (who had spent twenty years learning the language) being often regarded as someone of Italian descent while her fluent Italian did not attract much attention as she did not ‘look Italian’ are beautifully expressed.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

However, by the end of the book, I couldn’t help wishing she had emphasized on the thoughts she made a fleeting passage through and cut down (or edited out) the ones she kept talking about. I found the book repetitive in many chapters, like how stand-alone diary entries are written- the same thoughts represented in different ways (eg: how Bengali, her mother tongue is like an alienating mother and English was a more welcoming stepmother; or how she felt stretched apart between the two languages she knew earlier; or how she carried a dictionary and learnt new words (THIS IS WRITTEN SO MANY TIMES, in different constructions).

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

Though I do appreciate the fact that she has strode great lengths by mastering the lexical nuances of a new language to the point that her thoughts come to her effortlessly in Italian, I did find the repetitions a bit tedious. At certain points, it felt like a minor exercise to practice her Italian than masterful writing. This book is a huge achievement to the writer that is Jhumpa, for she has widened the  reach of her pen, however for the reader, it does not seem to be at par with the finesse that was Jhumpa in her writings in English.

In Other words is a book of discovery, of getting acquainted with another person within yourself by finding freedom  in the strangeness of a new language. This would be a great book if you have been following Jhumpa Lahiri’s work for some time and would like to know about the changes she has incorporated in her life. The writer talks of how she paddled through the foreign waters of language and anonymity, and found liberation  through love for Italian. Though this book is unsteady like a baby that has taken its first few steps, I hope to see more works of Jhumpa in Italian that showcase her masterful writing in the future.

Title : In Other Words
Author : Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated by : Ann Goldstein from Italian

Publisher : Hamish Hamilton
Published : 2016
Language : English
Pages : 224
Rating : 3/5

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In Other Words

About the Author

Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri an American author of Indian origin. Lahiri’s debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was adapted into the popular film of the same name. Lahiri is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama. Her book The Lowland, published in 2013, was a nominee for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. In Other Words is her first book published in Italian. Lahiri is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.

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This Post Has 33 Comments
    1. I don’t think so Deepika. This would appeal more to her fans or those who want to know what she has been doing for the last few years. I did not find it appealing enough as her earlier works (setting aside the fact that she learnt a new language and wrote in it). I would recommend The Namesake (either the novel or for a crisper version you can check The NewYorker where the story was first published before it was expanded to a novel) or Interpreter of maladies for her short stories which are well written.

  1. Unfortunately I haven’t read much oh Jumpa Lahiri’s books. Namesake is the one I remember most. I was impressed with the fact that she could write a book in another language. I’m still trying to learn french and it’s been a tedious four years. lol. I suppose mastery isn’t going to be easy. Maybe her future works, if any, in italian.

  2. Great commentary on this book.

    Despite some of the flaws that you point out this sounds interesting. The issue of language and literature is a topic that that I tend to think about.

    As you recommend however, I would probably start with a different work of Jhumpa Lahiri’s for a first read.

  3. I was intrigued by this book when I read the essay that she published in The New Yorker a month or so ago, but after reading the NYTimes review (and yours!), I’m not sure if I want to pick up this book at all. Maybe if I’ve finished reading everything she’s written and really have a craving for more. What made you decide to read this book?

    1. I picked it up because even though I liked some of Jhumpa’s works I really hated The Lowland. And I didn’t think it was her best work at all, considering the fact that it made it to the Man Booker Longlist. So when I heard about her decision to study and write in Italian I wanted to give it a try. Try The Namesake/Interpreter of Maladies.

  4. Ooh, I love that photo to start with! 😀 You always take such nice sunshiney pictures they are GORGEOUS. Ahem. And also I would probably get very annoyed with the repetition too. I always feel like, when authors do that, that they kind of expect the reader to be dumb and not remember stuff? Which is a bit insulting. >_< But I'm glad you still enjoyed a lot of this one!!

  5. Great review! I LOVED The Namesake (and thought the movie version was pretty good too.) This is such an interesting undertaking for her. I wonder if she will publish fiction in Italian? Does she address that?

    1. Yes, I loved The namesake too. Do check out Intepreter of Maladies. It is a short story collection by her and very very good. She says she wants to publish only in Italian henceforth and nothing in English again. But at the end she has left some dubious sentences which can be interpreted in either way.

  6. I enjoyed reading your review! I had been curious to read this book after enjoying her article ‘Teach Yourself Italian’ in The New Yorker, but it sounds like I may give it a pass now. Your description of the book reminds me of Dianne Hales’s Italian language learning journey in La Bella Lingua, but that was a very enjoyable read with a lot of rich information on the history of Italy and the Italian language. You might enjoy it. 🙂 I am trying to read more Pulitzer Prize novels so I will probably check out Interpreter of Maladies!

  7. Hey crazy, I actually got to read your posts only now!! I know what i have been missing on! And wow! great blog and i loooooooove the photos.. Who took them? looks very mature and professional… Gonna visit your blog more often to draw inspiration to start writing and reading again 🙂
    And anyway i can borrow your books? 😀

  8. Sounds like an interesting read. Do you think maybe some of the repetition comes from the translation? Could it be that she’s adding more to things that have been discussed previously but with a subtlety that her translators didn’t pick up on?

    1. It is possible Becky. But from what I infer, I think there is a clear repetition. If these chapters were published separately as articles, it would have been lovely. But as a book it begins to feel a little dreary.

  9. Hi Resh!

    Glad to find you here. I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s books but just heard of this one. The fact that she wrote in a language not her native was mind-blowing. I don’t think I could ever do that even though I’ve learned English almost all my life! Great review!

  10. Excellent review.
    I really appreciate Lahiri’s commitment to language and writing. She certainly was born to be one.
    I think I would enjoy In Other Words, but I may have to become more familiar with her work before I do. I have only read The Namesake and that clearly ins’t enough. But I will finally be reading Interpreter of Maladies for the #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge. I have owned it for such a long time and there’s no excuse for me not to read it.

  11. Being a lover of all things Italian and a learner of the language, I felt it is not a book for everyone. I agree that she didn’t give much thought to certain parts which was essential to the reader.

  12. Hi Resh, thank you for the wonderful and fair book review. I’ve read the book and was left very unhappy because it seemed she could have put so much more in it, some more personal anecdotes would have made it just a bit sweeter. It also seemed to me she kept on repeating the same exact feelings in other words, just to practice her italian. She is still my favorite writer and The Namesake is my favorite book though so I had high expectations. Also because my English is acquired and I married an italian and had to learn the language later in life. So I have to wait patiently for her next book…

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