The Love of Language, the Language of Love

How Jhumpa Lahiri taught me to forgive a language.

In the months leading up to its publication, I’ve approached Jhumpa Lahiri’s newest book In Other Words with what seemed to be inexplicable suspicion. Sure, it would be easy to say that I worried that the project of the new book—i.e., to fully immerse herself in Italian, literally and literarily—would mean that she would never write fiction in English again, and that because her writing has meant so much to me (has, in fact, helped pull me out of some dark periods of creative stagnation) the possibility of never reading that wonderfully sure-footed prose in English again felt like a real loss for contemporary literature.

But very quickly something became incredibly clear to me: Lahiri, as she describes it, had very little choice in the matter. The Italian language dug itself into the depths of her heart and wouldn’t go away. Beginning in 1994 when she and her sister spent a week in Florence, Lahiri’s relationship with Italian is exactly that: a relationship, though the probably more apt term would be love affair. Upon first hearing the music of Italian she senses an immediate connection and realizes she’ll “be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it.” As evocative as her prose can be, Lahiri can’t fully explain her sudden passion, but rationality notwithstanding the result is what matters: until she learns Italian, something essential to Lahiri will be missing, even if it’s something she doesn’t yet possess. “There is a space inside me to welcome it,” she understands.

Part of Italian’s appeal for Lahiri stems from her sense of exile, as a member of a Bengali family who was born in London and raised in Rhode Island—such a ruptured identity would understandably be attracted to foreignness, as a way of establishing at least one part of herself on her own terms. Learning Italian, for Lahiri, is not an imposed education, which means it not merely the resulting ability to speak the language that’s important but also the process of acquisition, because in approaching such a large and wholly demanding task Lahiri is able to consider almost every aspect of herself. It is commonly said that learning a new language demands that you relearn your own, and this is also true, in some instances, for the self, too.

Those instances—when acquiring a second (or third or fourth, &c) language relates to something deeper and more essential to the learner than practicality or general interest—and Lahiri’s personal and passionate account of her own instance lead me to a person in my own life for whom the acquisition of a specific language was less about achievement and more about the realization of an ingrained part of her identity. To explain: I fell in love for the first time when I was 20. Her name was Jackie, and holy shit did I adore her. We’d known each other since high school, but now as college students there was that air of adulthood that rather than responsibility and compromise suggested freedom and autonomy. She was smart and ambitious, and so was I, and together there seemed to be no end to what we could accomplish, both separately and individually. Jackie wasn’t a writer (though she was more than capable at it), but she read like one, tackling the kind of novels hardly considered pleasure reading. And most importantly was her preternatural passion for language. In her case, English, yes, but especially Spanish.

She’d taken Spanish all four years of high school, but her interest level at the time was only as much as passing grades required. In college, though, Spanish suddenly sang to her. From listening to her describe it, Spanish didn’t create a new part of her but rather illuminated an emptiness already inside her that had always been there, waiting to be filled. I loved how much Jackie loved Spanish, and I admired the assiduity with which she pursued mastering it. She’d narrate her development to me, and even though I didn’t always understand the specifics I recognized the rarity of her dedication and the beauty of her love.

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Right at the start of our relationship, Jackie spent six months in Pamplona, Spain on a study-abroad program. Soon, she’d travel around Ecuador for a month. Later, she’d apply for and receive funding to travel, alone, in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. She didn’t just want to learn the language; she wanted to be immersed in its culture. Her willingness to seek out uncomfortable and humbling and even dangerous situations in order for her to grow as a person—being with her allowed me to borrow some of her courage to pursue my own goals. A few weeks after we’d gone to Boston to visit our friend Ben, he wrote me an email in which he casually mentioned that his apartment had a room opening up. Though it sounded great, Jackie still had a semester left at Ohio University and we’d only recently been reunited after her time in Spain, so I mostly dismissed Ben’s offer. When I mentioned it to her (in c’est la vie sort of tone), she said, simply, “Why don’t you do it?” I loved and trusted her so much that even the slightest amount of encouragement from her could alter my life forever. Three months later, I moved to Boston, and two months after that, Jackie joined me there.

*

As time passed and our relationship grew, the part of Jackie being filled by Spanish became more and more prominent. It wasn’t just that her fascination with and her goal of fluency in Spanish increased, it was that they seemed to point to something more fundamental, almost troubling. Her desire—her need—to be immersed in Spanish became more and more prevalent. When I first arrived in Boston, I struggled with the transition, and one night I expressed a worry to Jackie that maybe I wasn’t cut out for life in a big city and maybe I was better suited to a place like Ohio. Jackie’s response, while understanding, was also unambiguous: “Well,” she said. “I’m not suited for Ohio. I want to travel and live in big cities. Foreign countries. And I want you to go with me.” Conversations like this were ameliorative, even inspiring, because they gave me motivation to push through whatever bullshit stood in front of me. Picturing a future in which Jackie and I explored the world and never keeping a fixed address—well, that made even the most intense discomfort seem temporary and trivial in the scheme of things.

But there was also something else. What if I had truly meant what I’d said? What if moving to Boston proved to me that I wasn’t actually compatible with dense metropolises? I was 22 then, and at the time Jackie was the only thing I was certain about. I would have organized my plans around hers, including moving to a foreign country. Jackie, though, wouldn’t compromise her ambitions, which was a quality of hers I admired, but it also meant that she’d sacrifice our relationship for Spanish. Incidents like this demonstrated two aspects of the same subject: 1) Spanish (and all that came with it) superseded all other interests, and 2) this included me.

In other words I began to fear that I would lose Jackie to Spanish, that she would eventually realize that the world her adopted language could lead her to was far vaster than the one I would see in my journeys. If anything, I anchored her to the very identity she seemed anxious to abandon: I was English; I was Ohio; I was America; I was reading and thinking and writing. Jackie was living, but not in an indiscriminate fashion. No, from early on Jackie knew she would become a teacher, so her wanderlust had a specific (if secondary) purpose: to learn the cultures of the students she would teach. Later, when she worked for Boston Public Schools, her grant-funded trip to Puerto Rico and the DR was expressly designed to focus on their real environments, as opposed to the vacation-industry construct that emphasized the beaches and the tropical sun and the beauty, but hides the poverty, the racial strife, the sex trafficking, the rampant crime, and anything else that would spoil the sojourn of a wealthy, white guest (god forbid!).

The point is that Spanish became my short-term for all the things a smart, discipline, and ambitious person like Jackie sought out in the world—and, inversely, all the ways in which I wouldn’t (and maybe couldn’t) measure up. Of course none of this was conscious; back then I still hoped that Jackie would take me with her, allow me to tag-along as she navigated her way through unfamiliar territory, because, honestly, otherwise I might never leave America. Jackie, then, didn’t merely have my love but she also promised challenge and progress, travel and experience, and was probably the only person who I’d trust enough to guide me through. She wasn’t going to let my life be uninteresting; she was going to push me toward betterment. With Jackie I could see the future stretch out before like a sprawling landscape, a country in and of itself, a wide expanse brimming with exotic creatures and unaccustomed earth. But what if in this imagined country I don’t speak the language?

*

In the end, I did lose Jackie to Spanish, but not before I broke up with her.

I know, I know. What bullshit, right? I spent all that time fretting over the myriad reasons why Jackie might leave me only to leave her first. What typical young guy arrogance. But the story doesn’t end with the relationship, the same way love never does.

My reason for leaving was simple, if embarrassing: I wanted to sleep with other women. Jackie was the first person I’d ever had sex with, so in Boston as I moved through my 20’s I became preoccupied with my burgeoning sexual desires. I felt guilty over how much time I spend obsessing over the predicament, and I eventually told her what I was going through. There is an irony to this: in a similar way that I worried over Spanish, she feared my sexual inexperience. Then here I was confirming her most fundamental concern; and worse (but also understandable), Jackie was made to feel inadequate, unsatisfying, undesired, as if my interest in other women were a comparative reaction. In a way it was, but not specifically of Jackie—it was more that she was only one person (and in terms of sex the only person), and the motivating longing revolved almost indiscriminately around experiencing others, plural. Variety—or more aptly the notion of being able to pursue whomever I was attracted to, which, at the time, was an enormous swath of women—seemed to be the only way I’d be able to learn about myself sexually, which as a new adult became more essential to my sense of self. I don’t know. Maybe I was just horny and selfish and horrifically short-sighted.

Either way I moved out, and over the next year Jackie and I did that thing that couples do where we were broken up but still saw each other regularly, spoke to each other with the same short-handed intimacy, and still had sex. Meanwhile I dated around some, drank a lot, and embraced what I interpreted as freedom and youthful self-discovery. Jackie, for her part, dated no one. Instead she focused on self-improvement: she exercised, she took up running, she plunged herself into her Master’s degree from BU, and she contemplated the years ahead. At this point, I was still included in this picture, as she hoped that after some time on my own that I would return to her. And, honestly, I believed this, too, and since we both seemed to assume this, it didn’t occur to me how unfair the balance was: Jackie was waiting for me because she loved me and wanted to be with me, whereas I treated her as a back-up, a fall back for when my adventure ran its course. I was a stupid, entitled male, who even if he’d been aware of the inequity (and the overarching societal patriarchy its existence was founded upon) he would have ignored it because it served him so conveniently.

But anyway, soon the situation became—or we finally acknowledged that it had always been—untenable and unequal. She discovered the extent of my sexual pursuits (the ferociousness of which surprised even me, who’d never really felt like an especially sexual being) and told me she didn’t want to see me for a while. In the ensuing months she did what people often say they’re going to do after a break-up: she focused on herself. And this is when she applied for and received funding for Puerto Rico and the DR, from which countries the majority of her current students immigrated. She was a teacher of Spanish-speaking kids; she had a purpose now. And as with everything else she did, she sought to improve herself in order to meet the job’s seemingly endless tribulations. But as important, I think, was that after living in Boston for two years and after our relationship ended, Jackie needed to whet her appetite for the world again—not simply because it could potentially wrest her from emotional turmoil our break-up (and our subsequent relapses) had put her through, but because once the muddied vision cleared from her tear-soaked eyes she realized for the first time that she could. Without me in her life, she was free to go anywhere she wanted—hell, she could live anywhere she wanted. More than a set-back, my leaving her turned out to be a liberation, a release from the personal compromises being with me had incrementally caused her to make, compromises, mind you, she’d never explicitly agree to and which she didn’t even realize had occurred. But now—now nothing tethered her to Boston, to America, or to any paths she didn’t choose for herself. She couldn’t up and move, not yet, but she could get a grant and spend a month in the Caribbean, which of course would only reignite her passion for all things Spanish-language related.

But something else happened too. Unlike during her time in Spain or Ecuador, in Puerto Rico, first, and then especially by her arrival in the DR, Jackie didn’t miss me. There was no one back in Boston pining for her return, nobody for her to long to return to. The last time I saw her before she left, she told me this was deliberate. “I don’t want to miss you,” she’d said. “In Spain I longed for you. That’s the only word for it. And I loved you so much I didn’t care that it prevented me from really being present, there, in fucking Spain, Jon.”

We were sitting on a bench near Canto 6, a hip French bakery in Jamaica Plain, our neighborhood of Boston. It was warm out, it being June, but thin, misty rain seemed to float around us like steam.

“I’m not going to let that happen this time,” she continued. “If I’m going to be there, I have to really be there, you know?”

I did know. I knew perhaps more clearly than she did, having spent four years with her and deeply fascinated by all things Jackie. I sensed then what she was about to discover: Spanish spoke to some essential part of her, and the harmony it would provide her was less about creating a new Jackie and more about revealing the true one.

*

Throughout In Other Words, Lahiri spends most of the time grappling with her own identity—or better she tries to understand why she feels it necessary to uproot her family and move to Italy in order to address the problem. But what, exactly, is the problem? What is it that would drive someone to reorganize her entire life to pursue a passion that doesn’t guarantee fulfillment?

As she takes us through her Italian development, Lahiri considers her choices via direct self-assessment, ponderous ruminations, parable-ish metaphors, and at one point a piece of fiction. It’s a story called “The Exchange” and it’s the first one Lahiri wrote in her new language. “There was a woman,” the story begins, “a translator, who wanted to be another person.” In Lahiri’s formulation, the woman’s central issue stems from a lack, an imperfection. She is “like the first draft of a book” and wants “to produce another version of herself.” Later she describes the languages she speaks (Bengali, English, and Italian) as a “triangle” that makes up “a kind of frame” that “contains [her] self-portrait.”  But instead of seeing a “precise, sharp image” reflected back at her, the vision in front of her is “jumbled” and “fragmented,” full of “fluctuation, distortion, dissimulation.”

As I read these words I began to recognize the equivocating nature of Lahiri’s struggle. She doesn’t understand herself—at least in terms of her fixation on Italian—but somehow knows that the only means available to figure herself out involves a near-complete transformation. Yet she repeatedly characterizes the situation in terms of incompleteness, which strikes me as a very American construction. Our cultural narratives (including our foundational documents) extol pursuit, decisive action, an agency to build onto what you’re born with. We are a nation of amassers—our dream homes can always be expanded, our wealth can always be increased, and our identities can always progress toward betterment. The problem of this narrative, obviously, is that it assumes that we all start from the same basic position and that our personalities can only be added to rather than molded or reshaped or even subtracted from. How, for instance, would a trans child interpret what I’ll call American Assemblism? Might they inherently believe that their gender were somehow fixed and that whatever issue they face can only be solved through addition? Isn’t part of our recent (and woefully truant) acknowledgment of sexual and gender identities also about a reconsideration of preternatural selves? What we’re born with may not need any add-ons; often what’s needed is an almost complete repudiation of the given identity. We’ve come to dispel many myths about our bodies, our minds, and the complex relationship between the two. What seems like the more accurate construction: that at birth something inside of us yearned for—nay, demanded—something that exists on Earth but missing inside of us? Or that our “identities” are nothing more than social inventions and that the bigger issue is the clash between who we are and what the culture insists that we are?

The point is that the way Lahiri and Jackie experienced their specific inner conflicts—the self-doubt, the sense of alienation, the pull towards fundamental life changes, and a nagging feeling of imperfection or incompleteness or even wrongness—is more akin to that of the LGBTQ community than it is to passion for self-improvement. On the contrary they both view their endeavors as ultimately selfish, impractical, or even a betrayal (of family, lineage, tradition, nationality, friends)—because, remember, the last (imagined) stop for Lahiri and Jackie is not bilingualism but a new mono. Theirs is not to add Italian or Spanish to English but to replace it with them, as if these tongues somehow never belonged in their mouths in the first place. Similar to the now common (almost cliché, actually) phrases employed to describe the personal anguish of being LGBTQ—e.g., “born in the wrong body,” “in the closet,” “I felt different from everyone else,” et al—could also be used for Lahiri and Jackie. And much the way the major decisions involved with finally acknowledging the truth—e.g., initiating gender transition, coming out to friends and family, going out in a public not exactly waiting to welcome you with open arms, et al—are necessarily comprehensive (i.e., that they affect every single aspect of one’s life) and irrevocable, and thus racked with guilt and fear and courage and pain and self-loathing—these, too, match Lahiri and Jackie’s own accounts.

I don’t mean to simplistically suggest that either person’s relationship to language were a one-to-one equivalent to sexuality or gender but that similar dysphorias can be found in other, more subtle recesses of our identities. There are no stereotypes about linguistic dysmorphic people, no history of oppression against them, and no accepted notions that they even exist at all. Lahiri and Jackie, in other words, will never experience the malicious hatred and the constant threat of violence that gay and trans kids face every day. But they do live with the nagging feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with their situations, and, moreover, that until they achieve their goals they won’t ever be right.

Jackie’s trip to Puerto Rico and the DR was a success—in terms of the intent of her grant but also in terms of herself. She didn’t miss me, or anything in the US, and even though she faced greater danger than she had in Spain or in Ecuador (she narrowly avoided being mugged when her make-shift guide spotted the signs and ran her off), and even though she was alone this time, she flourished. She traveled to far reaches, stayed on the move, and never sought out American comforts. This journey, for the first time, allowed her to see what she’d be like if she made a home elsewhere, and it felt as uncannily right as she’d suspected.

During our relationship Fiona Apple was one of our shared loves, and there are a few lines in her song “Extraordinary Machine” that capture, I know now but worried then, the contrast between Jackie and my personalities. When Apple writes of her own sensibilities, she sings, “I still only travel by foot and by foot it’s a slow climb / But I’m / Good at being uncomfortable so I can’t stop changing all the time,” but when she depicts her ex (who I can’t imagine is anyone but director Paul Thomas Anderson, which is extra fitting since he’s a hero of mine), she writes, “I notice that my opponent is always on the go / And won’t go slow so’s not to focus / And I notice / He’d hitch a ride with any guide / As long as they went fast from whence he came / But he’s no good at being uncomfortable so he can’t stop staying exactly the same.” Jackie is extraordinarily good at being uncomfortable; I am not. And there is nothing more uncomfortable than existing in a country in which you are not fully fluent in the language. No matter how expert Jackie became, she was daily reminded of her non-native status by people she met, situations that arose, and because no matter how wonderfully at ease she felt she knew she might never really feel like she belonged there. This was Jackie’s greatest conflict: where did she belong? In America, where her inner self remains suppressed and stifled? Or in a Spanish-speaking world, where her outer self would prevent her from ever becoming a true citizen, as least in the eyes of the locals?

One thing became clear to her: it was no longer an option to ignore the problem. Some time later, she told me, in a timid voice riddled with embarrassment and confusion: “I feel like I was born in the wrong culture, the wrong language.”

*

In Puerto Rico Jackie met a local bartender in the city of Ponce. They flirted, they danced, they got drunk, and they had sex. The next afternoon, she called me and told me about it, and my life immediately fell apart.

I did not expect this to happen—not Jackie sleeping with someone else; rather, my reaction to hearing it. People had warned me that when she moved on it would crush me but I never listened. I was reasonable, I told them. I knew she would sleep with someone else sooner or later. I had already, I explained, so why shouldn’t she? But of course reason has as much to do with love as it has to do with art: it can only enter into love or art’s equation after they are already there. When Jackie told me about the bartender, I became a completely different person, suddenly and without thought, and only then did I employ logic to explain what this new me wanted. I’m sure it’s no mystery: I wanted Jackie back.

Yeah, I know, it’s the typical guy move—after a relationship ends, I go out and have indiscriminate sex with whomever is willing, but the moment my ex-girlfriend does the same thing (once!), I immediately launch into a program of getting her back. The dark and deep jealousy the bartender induced in me pushed me to possessiveness, and I was too emotionally distraught—too, in fact, convinced that getting Jackie back would be the only way to end the constant anxiety and sense of futility I’d felt since that phone call—to recognize what I was doing and certainly too distressed to stop myself. I obsessed over it, in fact. I even became convinced that everything that happens to me happens in July. When I was an infant, I caught spinal meningitis in July, nearly dying and fully losing hearing in one ear. I got drunk for the first time in July; I moved to Las Vegas in July. When I lost my virginity––that was in July, too. That same night, that same July, I fell in love for the first time. The Lantern Festival, this huge event I ran for three years in JP, takes place in July. And of course it was in July that Jackie, the one I feel in love with all those Julys ago, traveled to Puerto Rico and had sex with a bartender named Julio, which is Spanish for July.

*

Jackie, though, had already moved on—not since the bartender or even the trip; it was long before that, maybe even when we were still together and happy. I think her love for me, in the end, held her back, and though I wasn’t conscious of it I was complicit in her developmental stagnation. Terrified of life and unprepared for adulthood, it was only my love for Jackie—or more accurately her love for me—that gave me the encouragement to pursue writing and literature as a serious vocation, and emboldened me to move to a big city, and finally finish college, &c. Like most hetero-normative relationships, I needed her way more than she needed me. Earlier I wrote that she pushed me toward betterment, but the truth is that I was merely in her path, and her momentum was so forceful and propulsive that I reaped the benefits at the expense of stymying her progress. 

But she loved me, she really did. At her first apartment in Athens, Ohio, we’d smoke a bowl and sit in her room and talk for hours—about books, about Shakespeare (Jackie at the time had a deep fascination with Renaissance drama in general), about existence, the meaning of life, all that shit—and it was so goddamn entertaining, so engrossing, to tackle a subject with her, because it felt as if our dynamic functioned less like a discussion between two people and more like a gathering of evidence and ideas for one person. In other words, we tried to figure things out as a unit, without judgment, without regard to right or wrong, merely aiming to investigate, scrutinize, and analyze. As Jackie would explain some interesting aspect of, say, Thomas Kyd’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, I could see in her eyes the joy she derived from active interpretation, and, more, I could see how much she loved me, how much she valued our intimacy, physical and emotional and intellectual, and that she was dedicated to me. And I was just as in love and just as dedicated—and though a part of me must have suspected that I was not what Jackie really needed, that the path she should have taken would necessarily exclude me, how could I have done the right thing when she looked at me like that? If there is a language of love, it exists in the subtleties of expressiveness, in the gap between words, in the sensations of touch and taste, and in our eyes—it is, then, a language without language, a form of communication invented by those for whom ordinary words are no longer enough.

*

Years passed. Jackie moved to Colombia, where she teaches at a university, but she’s doesn’t teach ESL but rather literature—books written in or translated into Spanish for Spanish-speaking kids. And she’s dating a local guy with whom she seems to be in love. All of which is to say that she now lives in her true language. She only speaks English when we talk on the phone, or she calls home to Ohio. She’s out there, finding herself—or better yet, she’s defining herself, uses whatever words she chooses. And I harbor no ill will toward her or her ultimate destination. I’m thrilled for her, actually, that she was able to take charge of her journey before it was too late, before I’d held her back too long.

As for me, over the next few years I did much soul-searching of my own. I wrote with a renewed sense of purpose, of ambition and discipline. I dated around and met some extraordinary people with extraordinary talents. But there were also periods of deeply felt self-doubt, of, even, full-on self-loathing—and alcohol, shit was there a ton of alcohol, to the point where I wasn’t reading or writing nearly as much as I wanted to be, to the point where hangovers and blackouts culminated in bouts of sustained depression and isolation. During one of the lowest periods—I was jobless and broke, drinking whiskey alone in my room every night watching Annie Hall for the millionth time—even my love of literature began to wane. I’d open up a book and experience no desire to move through its pages, and when I’d force myself anyway, I never finished it. Not only had drinking ruined drinking, it was also ruining my sober activities.

That is, until I picked up Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’d read The Interpreter of Maladies before then, and its opener “A Temporary Matter” was one of my favorite stories ever, the couple it describes have a sad and oh-so-real break-up that always reminded me of Jackie (though, over the years, a lot of things remind me of her). And though I didn’t hold much hope for Lahiri’s second story collection, I gave it the same half-assed attempt I’d given other books.

But this time I kept reading. In Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri writes about people taking journeys—literal ones like Ruma’s father in the title story and figurative ones like the love story of Hema and Kaushik in the final three linked stories—and she describes their transitions with grace, ease, and tenderness. A struggling couple experience a trying weekend in the Berkshires for a friend’s wedding, but the moment things look their worst––when the husband reveals that he and the bride were “friends and for a while [he] had a crush on her”––suddenly they are thrown into one of their most exciting and intimate moments as a couple. Or a woman mourns the loss of a man with whom she’s shared a lifelong romance:

I returned to my existence, the existence I had chosen instead of you. It was another winter in Massachusetts, thirty years after you and your parents had first gone away . . . A small obituary ran in The New York Times. By then I needed no proof of your absence from the world; I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering and shaping themselves in my body.

I read Lahiri’s book fast and slow. I raced through the narratives but cherished the clean, elegant prose. I read and reread passages over and over. I stared at the pages, inspired even by the look of the words, the sentences. I was stunned at how simple her characters’ lives were, how thoroughly undramatic. Though their circumstances were inherently interesting, their details were wholly normal. But this does not take away from how fascinating and moving and rich Lahiri’s stories are. In fact, it was enriching: she’d mined meaning out of regular human beings leading regular human existences. She didn’t cobble together a bunch of quirky characteristics and let her fiction rest on them. She created people, people just like the ones I knew.

Afterward, I felt inspired to return to writing, to reading, to life, and I became so grateful to Lahiri and her work, as if she’d deliberately written Unaccustomed Earth in order to pull me out of my sinking hole. She was the latest in a list of artists who are of great importance to me—e.g., E.E. Cummings, who first inspired me to write, Philip Roth, whose voice drove me to find my own, Ali Smith, whose brilliant playfulness and economic emotionality continue to stun me—and since then I’ve followed her career and read all of her books.

Which is why, I now realize, I approached In Other Words with such suspicion: I was going to loose Lahiri to another language too. This was, Lahiri writes, a common reaction:

If I mention that I’m writing in a new language these days, many people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it. They say they don’t want to read me translated from a foreign tongue. They don’t want me to change.

This was precisely what I thought, but by the time I read this passage I’d already felt differently. Lahiri’s acknowledgement throughout the book of all the reasons she shouldn’t pursue Italian and her persistence despite those reasons, the nagging, gnawing part of her identity that needed a new way to express—it was through Lahiri’s story that I understood Jackie’s. I saw in Lahiri’s struggle the one I lived through with Jackie, and how it wasn’t merely an ambition they were going after but an integral part of their very selves. And it made me confront a deep, residual resentment I’d held over Spanish, something I had never previously admitted to feeling, not even to myself—because, how absurd to hold an entire language in contempt! But by pretending it wasn’t there, by assuming that somehow the illogic of the sentiment would overrule its undeniable existence, the sore festered and eventually hardened.

And of course it was also about how I viewed myself, how Spanish, or Italian, represented my limitations, how in my foolishness I had dedicated myself to one language, to my native tongue, and how I always knew that I could never truly survive—nay, I could never truly be me—in another one. Obviously it’s true that there are so many languages and dialects in the world that every single person remains linguistically limited, but again these were emotions forged not by rationality but by the language of love, the silent communication of things we don’t have words for. I don’t consciously resent Spanish; I didn’t choose it. And because I always recognized the inherent silliness of it, I tried to push it down, back into the not-words of love.

“These reactions don’t surprise me,” Lahiri writes. “A transformation, especially one that is deliberately sought, is often perceived as something disloyal, threatening.” Jackie’s struggle was not Spanish vs. me, just as Lahiri’s isn’t Italian vs. her readers—they are inner conflicts forced outward. Or perhaps they are more like inexpressible ideas people are demanding they articulate. Many would fold under such pressure, but it is a testament to their strength that they carried on, held onto the wordless light inside, even when they didn’t fully understand its significance, and even when the people in their lives became exasperated at their lack of self-understanding. Lahiri notes that although her mother rebelled against the United States by continuing “to dress, behave, eat, think, live as if she had never left India, Calcutta,” her own form of rebellion is “the insistence on transforming.” She is, like Jackie, like Fiona Apple, “good at being uncomfortable.”

It is not surprising that Jackie and I, young and in love, would each have tender worries and tense reservations in our relationship, that in the years we spent together we discovered we had separate paths to take—what’s startling, to me, is how richly complex our identities are, how language, which Jackie and I both loved so much, isn’t merely the vocalization of one’s identity but can in fact become a determining aspect of it, how entire languages can get caught up in the turmoil, how the love of language can’t always be translated into the language of love.


Featured image: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock.com

About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian, NPR.org, BBC.com, Bookforum.com, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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