I recently finished the book In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri and I’m left still processing my feelings and thoughts on it.
I have been a fan of Lahiri’s work for years. I have read and own all her other books and loved reading all of them. I think the obvious reason I’m so pulled into her writing is because much of what she writes about is relatable to me. In The Namesake I felt exactly as the protagonist, Gogol.
Her latest book, In Other Words, is a short book that’s autobiographical (her first) and translated from Italian. Lahiri learned Italian and the book shares her journey in learning this language and being able to speak it fluently without losing who she already is. She learned Italian here in the States, took lessons, recalls her love of the language from her past (even doing her doctoral on Italian architecture and its influence on English playwright) and then she traveled to Italy and decided to write in Italian.
She reflects on how hard it is to learn a new language and then still hold true to your mother tongue and this resonated with me throughout the entire book.
Some of you may know that I wasn’t born here in the US. I was born in New Delhi and moved to America when I was 3 years old. At the time it didn’t really mean anything, but as I grew up here, it was hard!
I spoke Hindi and Telugu apparently all the time. My parents spoke Telugu at home, but my mom told me that she and my dad were told by teachers that if I had any chance of “succeeding” in this country, I would need to learn English. The school encouraged them to speak English at home so I was exposed to it, and in turn, and unfortunately, I lost my ability to speak it. I still understand it 100%, but I can’t speak a word of it or conjugate a sentence.
Imagine seeing family and not being able to communicate with them in that language. Sure, everyone speaks English, but it’s a part of me I totally get discouraged about and makes me feel like a total outsider. Even at work. There are many people who speak Telugu at my office, and with each other, but when I’m there, they switch to English. I’ve told them they can continue speaking it if they want, since I understand, but I think that makes them feel awkward and they just nervously laugh and continue in English.
I took a class in college where I learned about W.E.B. Du Bois and his idea of double consciousness. It’s an idea where you are aware of who you are, but you sometimes still feel disenfranchised from two communities.
One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa.
Growing up, I felt like this. I didn’t quite fit in with the American kids since it was new and something my parents and I had to learn, and at home and with family, I felt like an outsider within the Indian community too.
I sometimes still do. I try to immerse myself within my culture because I’m proud of it and my heritage, but I totally have this fear for when REB and I visit India (which we hope to do within the next few years). I know things are totally different in India now, but I’m almost scared to go just us because I can’t speak a lick of Hindi anymore and feel like this will be a language barrier. Maybe it won’t be, but if I go to India, I don’t want to only see the big tourist cities and what not. I want to see my family, have him meet them, and it would be pretty cool if I could speak with them, and not just in English. I know they won’t be offended if that’s all I speak, since again, India is totally different not. Almost everyone speaks English, but maybe part of me feels like it would be “self worth” to be able to speak in Telegu or even Hindi with them.
My sister and I were talking about this and she said something that really stood out: “we’re all trying so hard to stay in touch with our ‘roots’, but what does that mean anymore?” She said we live in America where it’s all about being a melting pot and embrace unity, but we’re still so focused on ourselves. It’s scary to feel lost in a crowd so you’re holding onto those roots so we know who we were because we’re looking for meaning.
I know she’s right, but I also know I don’t want to let it go. I’ve even thought about re-learning HIndi, as if I’m a toddler learning to speak, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. That’s not an excuse, I realize, but I maybe I should try. So how do I identify myself? I’m an American, but I was born in India. I’m happy to have two cultures in my life and even though I want to try to be better at being in touch with my “roots”, I’m setting up new roots here in America and that’s more than OK. I won’t ever forget where I’ve come from, and I will embrace it as best I can.
Yikes – I got off on a terrible tangent – I hope you’re all still with me!
Regardless, I highly recommend reading In Other Words and all of Lahiri’s other books. She’s an amazing writer and has a beautiful way with words! Even if you can’t relate to what she’s writing, she has the ability to make you stop and think about what you’re reading. Even if it’s a work of fiction. So definitely add this to your reading list this year!
Have any books ever stood out to you on a personal level?