My twin shared a post on her blog about my mother’s upbringing “They shared the same bowl.” I grew up with my mother—obviously—and had not quite seen how somewhat different my upbringing must have been in the eyes of others. My mother knew five languages before she was six years old. At one point the minimum known languages in our household for each member was three. My mother had by the time I was in high school added two more languages to that original five.
A few days after reading my twin’s blog post, this article from NPR came up on my Face Book feed. Jhumpa Lahiri Finds Freedom In Italian Memoir: ‘No One Expected Me To Do It’ In the interview Jhumpa Lahiri talks to Ari Shapiro about taking on the brave move of writing her latest book in Italian. The name of the memoir is In Other Words.
From what I understand, Jhumpa Lahiri spoke Bengali and English, and had been studying Italian for years before moving to Rome. “I’ve always been searching to arrive at a certain voice that will probably elude me forever,” she tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro.
The article is far shorter than I would have liked. Her journey to demolish and reconstruct herself with her words even she admits is something writers do even when they write in only one language. I completely understand that—but the reaching for a voice that is our own, or unique, or gives expression to something deep inside ourselves is probably universal for most writers—most people. They just do it in different ways.
I grew up speaking Afrikaans and English, listening to the German my parents used to keep secrets away from my twin and myself—our older sister understood German, so I’m not sure what they spoke to keep secrets from her. There were times, however, when the Afrikaans, and familiarity opened up the German so we could peek inside their words.
Language has long fascinated me. I have very rusty French, my American Sign Language has become near non-existent (and this grieves me, as I think it among the most beautiful. I just can’t spell in the air more than three letters; beyond that I get lost and can’t tell what the word is). My Afrikaans is terrible now. And yet, there are times when I’m trying to say something and all those words come crashing together. I’ll be speaking in English, and only a word in French comes up. Not useful, as the person I’m talking with doesn’t understand French. Gestures come to me, at times, in ASL, to express things I want to say, and Afrikaans feels like the words I’d give to a lover—but I can’t remember them.
This is the place from which I write. Something a bit beyond the words themselves, and frankly not even my words, but other people’s other cultures—which is why I’m often so fascinated by surviving ancient cultures and mythologies that are not European. And yet, from this place of crashing languages and words make expressions—my voice—sometimes hard to reach. At one point, while I think writing in Italian is so much more wonderful, I started to build a language to describe my philosophy of perception. Some of those ideas conveys part of my voice, but I sometimes struggle to convey in English—the language in which I write. I know that half the work is not merely saying what I want to say, but working towards finding a voice so my readers can see these worlds I build.
Jhumpa Lahiri said, in the interview about the voice she’s been searching for, and working towards, by even writing in a language she may not be as familiar with:
“I just want it to be true, and I want it to be strong, and I want it to be pure. But these are lofty ideals, and language is a very messy thing; it’s a very complicated thing. And that’s why I say that that voice is an illusion, it’s an ideal that I’m moving toward. You know, the closer you get, the farther away it gets. But I think, isn’t that the point of creativity, to keep searching?”