In Other Words–a book review

arihn%20imageToday’s post comes courtesy of Andrew Rihn, who started working in writing centers as an undergrad at Kent State University – Stark Campus. Today, he works as a professional tutor at Stark State College. Andrew says that “the book does not discuss writing centers directly, but the topics it does discuss overlap with the work of the writing center in many ways (language acquisition, translation, identity issues, genre and style, etc).” 

Jhumpa Lahiri, the acclaimed novelist whose first book won her the Pulitzer Prize at age thirty-two, has released her first work of non-fiction: a collection of essays about learning Italian aptly titled In Other Words. The essays are animated by her passion, wide-eyed if a bit innocent, yet crafted by a masterful writer whose love of language is evident in every line.

Spoiler alert: the book never discusses writing centers. Rather, it is a personal narrative of language acquisition. Lahiri, whose life is devoted to the craft of writing, recounts her experience with Italian as one might recount a love affair. Lahiri embraces not only moments of exhilaration, but also those moments that disturb and disrupt, and even those that hurt; I suspect the writing center community will find much to identify with.

51wnsrzeh6l-_sx315_bo1204203200_In all, the book contains twenty-one essays, two short stories, and one longer, lyric afterword. Essays are short, most clocking in at less than five pages. In Other Words was first written in Italian and later translated into English, and both are presented side by side, making its 233 pages appear deceptively long. A fast and focused read, I could easily imagine this book being useful for teaching, or initiating conversations in a writing center (topics include language acquisition, the processes of reading and writing, the intricacies of identity, translation, genre and form, and the creative process).

The essays are short and episodic, focusing on one element of the language-learning process at a time. Many focus on a central metaphor or analogy. For instance, early in the book she compares learning Italian to swimming across a lake. For Lahiri, studying Italian in America was like swimming near the shore, good exercise but not exciting. She could always touch ground with her feet, revert back to speaking English. “But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore.” Throughout the book, she revisits and revises this analogy, swimming through the deep parts of the lake, allowing the lake to become an ocean.

Lahiri writes about the frustrations common to learning a new language: feeling constrained by the lack of vocabulary, disoriented by the grammar, humiliated by the inability to express one’s self. And yet, she approaches these feelings with eagerness, even gratitude. Her discomfort leads to heightened awareness; she can no longer take reading or writing for granted. “I renounce expertise to challenge myself. I trade certainty for uncertainty,” she writes. For Lahiri, perfection and mastery are not goals; she revels in the journey, the struggle, the discovery.

jlWriting center workers will be gladdened to know that Lahiri repeatedly stresses the importance of others in the educational process. For instance, Lahiri describes the steps it took to publish her first story in Italian. First, her language teacher made grammar notes (“For the first story, which was less than five hundred words long, he made thirty-two notes at the bottom of the page”). Then, she showed the story to two readers who read for theme and impact (“they always said the most important thing I needed to hear: keep going”). And lastly, it went to the editors of the magazine (“examining every sentence, every word”). Tutors may recognize some of these steps from their own experience, and seeing them reflected in the process of an author as celebrated as Lahiri is encouraging.

Lahiri teases out the intimate ways that language is bound up with identity, without being overbearing or didactic. Raised in America by Indian parents, she learned to speak Bengali at home, but was simultaneously speaking English everywhere else. As a result, she feels distant from both languages, linguistically adrift, without a truly “home” language. “The estrangement, the disenchantment confuses me, disturbs me. I feel more than ever that I am a writer without a definitive language, without origin, without definition.”

Lahiri also writes heartbreakingly about what she calls “The Wall,” about what keeps her separated from the languages she speaks. When in Italy, people see her skin and assume she is a tourist, that she speaks only English. Conversely, in America, people see her skin and assume that she doesn’t speak English. Or, if they know her novels, assume that English is a second, chosen language. Even when visiting family in Calcutta, people are surprised when the famous American writer speaks fluent Bengali. “No one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are a part of me.”

The great strength of In Other Words is that Lahiri writes about the quotidian experiences of language-learning with a sense of continued wonder and joy, focusing on the initial thrills and chills of learning rather than getting bogged-down with an over-wrought intellectual post-mortem on the subject. Lahiri’s language is alive, and she writes her emotions openly and honestly. When she writes about joy, she writes joyfully and without cynicism. When she writes about pain, she writes painfully and without bitterness. She embraces these feelings, taking care to explain both what leads her to them, and where they lead her. Her frankness is refreshing.

For educators too often beleaguered by cynicism and workplace burnout, recalling and rekindling those feelings of possibility and romance and excitement is valuable, sometimes even necessary.

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