Reinvention: a love affair with language

Tilly Nevin reviews approaches to the interplay of language and creativity

I recently read Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and Elena Lappin’s What Language Do I Dream In?: A Memoir one after the other, a happy coincidence.  Lahiri’s In Other Words, a collection of essays, is a type of memoir recounting her relationship with the Italian language. After years trying to learn Italian in America by using ‘teach yourself’ books, Lahiri made the bold decision to move to Italy and the even bolder decision to write only in Italian. She describes her relationship with the Italian language as a love affair— the language is Beatrice to her Dante, “the poets inspiration, forever unattainable” and “marked by distance, silence”.

Elena Lappin speaks five languages, Russian, Czech, German, French and English, a result of her peripatetic childhood—”five languages in search of an author’. Born in Soviet Moscow, her family moved first to Prague and then Hamburg. The author then studied in Israel, moved to Canada and then America and finally Britain, where she has lived the longest. Her work begins with a revelation, the discovery of a biological father she was unaware of, which in turn triggers her mediation on the languages she has lived in, languages which she has made her own and the language she has chosen above all others: English. She writes, “as a writer, I died when my parents decided to emigrate and I knew it. And then came the miracle of being reborn in English.” Both writers realise that language can represent a choice, an opportunity to be reborn.

For Lahiri, Italian allows her a creative freedom as the writer she has never found before, because she elects to use it. It is not forced upon her by anyone, as the Bengali of her parents or the English of the culture she grew up in—but never felt she belonged within—were forced upon her. Lahiri is used to linguistic exile but her exile in In Other Words is self-imposed. For Lahiri, the authors can be reborn with each new language chosen. Her exile is a kind of test, a hope flung wide, that the creative impulse is something innate unleashed by the language of her choice rather than dependent on her ‘mother tongue’; the creative impulse precedes language and Italian allows her to know this as a certainty.

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Lahiri’s essays were all written in Italian, translated by Ann Goldstein to English and produced in a bilingual tradition. I have not read Lahiri’s previous work, written in English, so I can’t judge whether her voice carries across, but there is a striking simplicity to the translated English—and from the sections I can read, to the Italian as well. Lahiri’s Italian, the writer herself acknowledges, will always be imperfect, but this allows her a freedom, a bravery; “from the creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security”.

Critics have patronisingly applauded Lahiri’s return to the US and what they presume will be a return to her use of English. But the book with all its imperfections makes something perfect, beautiful, sincere and brave, one that I think writers will return to again and again. So many writers, such as Lappin, recreate themselves in different languages. Just as Lahiri writes “a translation is a wonderful, dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers. It entails a doubling, a renewal” this book is a renewal for all involved.

Lahiri’s experience as the daughter of immigrants, caught between two languages, parallels Lappin’s on many levels. Lappin’s work is full of warmth, wise, full of comic anecdotes. It’s a history of her family as much as her own memoir, going back multiple generations and projecting forward into the future, to her children who must also make their linguistic choice, having each “arrived in a different linguistic constellation”. She finds her identity not just in language, but ulimately in her Jewishness, an identity which drives her to leave Germany, to find her linguistic home elsewhere. Moving so much gives her a fearlessness and reinventing herself becomes easier and easier.

Yet loss also pervades her work. Lappin has not lost her history—she instead possesses a collective cultural memory due to her Jewish identity—but she has lost home after home. In English she finds a home for her voice, but she still feels a deeply personal loss. Lahiri writes of speaking Italian in Rome and a shop assistant assuming she had learnt the language from her husband—because of the colour of Lahiri’s skin. Her voice is not enough in the speaking world, a loss she feels everyday that she tries to write in Italian, but also when she uses English.

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Both writers still find different kinds of displacement greet them wherever they go, but they use this displacement to empower them, to recreate themselves and their work, to create daring, unforgettable work.