What do you do as an encore after winning the 2000 Pulitzer Prize with your very first book? If you're Jhumpa Lahiri, author of the exquisite story collection Interpreter of Maladies, you produce three more critically praised, best-selling works of fiction exploring themes of dislocation and fractured identity. In writing them, Lahiri drew on the experience of her parents, who clung to the traditions of their native India long after coming to the U.S. from London when she was 2 years old; by contrast, Lahiri seemed to assimilate effortlessly. But her new book, In Other Words, reveals how deeply she's felt displacement and alienation herself, and the thrilling distance she'll go to make sense of it.
The memoir chronicles Lahiri's obsession with Italian, which leads her to take on the radical experiment of writing this book (translated by Ann Goldstein) in a language she's still trying to master. The process is like a love affair. At first she flirts with the strange new words, finding them exotic yet oddly familiar; she craves time in their company. Over the course of two decades, she hires a series of tutors, but she wants more—nothing short of full immersion will do. In 2012, she moves to Rome with her husband and two children, seeking a complete metamorphosis. There she vows to stay true: to read, write, and converse only in her adopted tongue. "In learning Italian," Lahiri observes, "I learned, again, to write."
This linguistic autobiography feels urgent and raw. Through it, Lahiri appears to forge a new sense of belonging. Still, why would a writer who's spent decades polishing her prose style abandon it? "Writing in another language," muses the 48-year-old, "represents an act of demolition, a new beginning." Using discomfort to shatter her own status quo, she produces a startlingly different voice—still Lahiri's, but stripped down to its essence.