Today’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.
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.