I turned eighteen-years-old in Florence, Italy. I was touring the country on a trip that my art history teacher had meticulously organized for about a dozen of recently graduated seniors in high school. We had attended St. Agnes Academy, a Dominican college preparatory for girls in Houston, Texas, which is why the eight weeks that comprised our travel itinerary were dedicated to exploring the country’s many monuments to the Catholic Church.
On the night of my birthday, I slipped away from my close-knit traveling party, careful to sneak silently past the hotel rooms of the nuns who served as our chaperones, to purchase a glass of wine and a pack of cigarettes. As I walked to the café down the street, I passed the childhood home of Dante Alighieri on Via Santa Marherita. I put my hand on the stony wall of the old edifice and imagined myself as a young Dante descending into a wine-soaked version of Hell. Completely alone, I felt as if I were floating aimlessly in a limbo of my own.
I had no idea what I was doing in that moment, and, moreover, in the larger context of adulthood. After slaving away in high school and writing a smattering of different college application essays, I thought I knew who I was. Yet, standing there in a foreign country, I realized how little I actually knew about myself. I was a lost soul that desperately wanted to be home, but I was oblivious as to what “home” even meant.
This experience from my past profoundly affected my reading of In Altre Parole (“In Other Words”) by Jhumpa Lahiri. As Jen Blair Rickard explains, “Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words is a vulnerable journey of self-exploration by means of linguistic exile. It’s notably her first book written in Italian and her first autobiographical work. Letting go of her foothold in English, she invites the reader on a steadfast pursuit to master the Italian language, and along the way she shares how language has played a role in her perceptions of the world and, likewise, how the world perceives her” (21). Indeed, throughout the memoir, there is a potent struggle for self-knowledge, a struggle that arguably lies at the heart of the entire genre of memoir. However, Lahiri’s complete immersion into the Italian vernacular interestingly complicates the struggle for self-knowledge in the American author’s memoir. The bilingual edition of the memoir allows Lahiri’s monolingual readers to feel the many layers of this isolating struggle for themselves, as the translated text forces the readers to discern the new metaphors for self-knowledge that Lahiri crafts in Italian.
Having considered Lahiri’s memoir in the context of my own experiences in Italy, I would describe this acrobatic feat of language as an example of translingual metanoia. In its most fundamental sense, the Latin word metanoia is a rhetorical device that denotes the “reorientation of one’s way of life.” In the realm of Christian theology, metanoia involves a type of spiritual conversion that is akin to “repentance,” or the stage of salvation wherein a believer turns away from sin (“metanoia, n.”). However, perhaps more relevant to Lahiri’s memoir is the originally pagan use of the term. A borrowing from Ancient Greek (μετάνοια), the word metanoia combines meta (“after” or “beyond”) with nous (“perception” or “mind”) to mean something like “to perceive afterward” (Thompson 14). In Greek mythology, the concept of metanoia is personified as a woman who follows kairos, a handsome young man who personifies opportunity: “A shadowy figure has followed Kairos for millennia. Her name is Metanoia, and she resides in the wake of Opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance in the missed moment […] When personified, Metanoia often appears as a veiled and sorrowful woman, ever ready to accompany those who hesitate in moments of opportunity” (Myers 1-2). Indeed, it is appropriate to envision the character of Metanoia stalking the memoirist, whose retrospective project likewise involves standing in the wake of Opportunity. To produce a memoir, the writer looks back, perceiving things after they have occurred, a task that requires the writer to chase Kairos in the first place. Hence, in the context of memoir writing, the concept of metanoia captures the experience of going elsewhere and then looking back toward a point of origin, somehow changed by the journey.
Such journeys are often literal and metaphorical, as seen in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, for example. However, Lahiri’s real-life journey in In Altre Parole assumes an additional element; that is, it is a specifically translingual journey that enables the author’s experience of metanoia. Indeed, Lahiri describes her total immersion into the Italian language as swimming across a lake, which she imagines as a small but dark and deep body of water that was formed over a millennium ago. Anne Goldstein’s translation of this section reads:
For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown. The other language is always there to support you, to save you. 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. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground. (5)
At the end of this passage, Lahiri calls her decision to cross the Atlantic Ocean to fully immerse herself in the Italian language “the first true departure of [her] life,” which seems to be a surprising statement from a person with a background as international as Lahiri’s (5). The daughter of immigrants from West Bengal, Lahiri was born in London, England but spent the majority of her childhood in Kingston, Rhode Island. There, once settled in the United States, her nuclear family frequently travelled abroad to Calcutta (or “Kolkata”) because her mother desperately wanted Lahiri and her siblings to feel connected to the Bengali culture (Aguiar). Surely, this cultural transmission plays a role in Lahiri’s short collections like the immensely popular Interpreter of Maladies, which itself alludes to the theme of cross-cultural interpretation in its title. However, despite the appearance of such a worldly upbringing, Lahiri maintains that her Bengali mother tongue along with her second primary language—”English arrived, a stepmother” (147)—always reinforced her identity as an Indian-American individual. Hence, Lahiri describes the metaphor of “hugging that shore” as her past of relying on the cultural friction between English and Bengali to rationalize her sense of self. Only by leaving behind the entangled safety nets of English and Bengali would Lahiri be able to “swim,” or truly come to know herself apart from the linguistic baggage of the past.
The reoccurring image of language immersion as a grueling swim across the lake complements another extended metaphor in the memoir; that is, Lahiri represents language itself as a watery substance. For example, in the afterword of the text, Lahiri shares a series of fragmented thoughts that she had written in Italian prior to becoming completely fluent in the language: “Language like a tide, now a flood, now low, inaccessible” (209). This imaginative notion of language ebbing and flowing like water echoes another comparison earlier in the text, in which Lahiri writes, “Like the tide, my vocabulary rises and falls, comes and goes” (181). In each of these moments, Lahiri depicts verbal fluency as a fluid. This central metaphor is multifaceted and carries a number of different connotations about the process of language acquisition. Indeed, learning a new language is certainly a process, but it is not a process with a clearly established beginning and ending. While a speaker works to achieve a level of proficiency over time, that level is only temporary. Without practice and habitual use, language fluency is not fixed; rather, it fluctuates much like water. The implications behind this central metaphor of language as something that is in motion reflects the theme of metanoia in the text. Indeed, several degrees of metanoia are present. First is the literal journey from America to Italy; second, the figurative journey from self-doubt to self-knowledge; and third, the linguistic journey from incomprehensibility to fluency. Additionally, it is worth noting that these three types of metanoia function together. For instance, the figurative journey would be impossible without the literal journey, and the linguistic journey would be impossible without the figurative journey. In this regard, the different types of metanoia function like the world’s water systems, which perpetually flow into each other.
In this vein, Lahiri returns to the image of the lake when she discusses her conversations with her close friends in Italian. She writes, “With friends I can talk for hours, at times for days, without having to rely on any English word. I’m in the middle of the lake and I’m swimming with them, in my own way” (139). Here, Lahiri conveys a sort of acceptance of her imperfect Italian vocabulary. Indeed, she compares the clumsy beauty of her Italian writings with the experimental paintings of Henri Matisse: “Matisse’s method somewhat resembles what I’m doing […] From a jungle of elements, I try to reestablish something coherent” (118). Lahiri explains that, in his final years, Matisse abandoned formal painting to make cut-out paper collages instead. In a similar way, Lahiri thinks of herself leaving behind the richness of her English vocabulary to produce something simpler but purer. Nevertheless, despite the acceptance of her friends, Lahiri confesses her insecurity around strangers. She writes:
Let’s go back to the metaphor of the lake, the one I wanted to cross. Now I can walk into the water, up to my knees, up to my waist. But I still have to keep my feet on the bottom. That’s just it, I’m forced to act like someone who doesn’t know how to swim. (29)
Once more, Lahiri returns to the conceit of swimming across the lake; however, she seems to be drowning rather than floating. The choppiness of her sentence structure suggests the anguish of a tired swimmer by mimicking the sound of splashing water. Indeed, beyond the connotations of the swimming image alone, Lahiri’s words communicate the weariness of linguistic exile: “Appunto, sono costretta a fare ciò chef anno quelli che non sanno nuotare” (28). The actual language of the Italian text emphasizes sloshing vowel sounds to produce a drowning sensation. A swimmer whose lungs are filled with water cannot cry out for help; likewise, a person who cannot speak the language of his or her culture cannot connect with others. As Lahiri realizes the danger of drowning, the lake grows bigger: “In that sense the metaphor of the small lake that I wanted to cross, with which I began this series of reflections, is wrong. Because in fact a language isn’t a small lake but an ocean. A tremendous, mysterious element, a force of nature that I have to bow before” (91). Nonetheless, while the sensation of drowning conveys Lahiri’s alienation as a voiceless outsider, she finds solace in the sense of smallness that she feels at the ocean’s brink. Humbled before the “tremendous, mysterious element” of language, Lahiri’s fear of drowning paradoxically compels her to keep swimming.
This resolute drive to keep swimming, or rather to master a foreign language, facilitates Lahiri’s retrospective insight at the memoir’s end. As previously mentioned, the concept of metanoia involves a subject traveling some distance and turning around to realize exactly how far he or she has come. Lahiri describes such a moment of realization as a kind of “metamorphosis”:
Shortly before I began to write these reflections, I received an email from a friend of mine in Rome, the writer Domenico Starnone. Referring to my desire to appropriate Italian, he wrote, “A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.” How much those words reassured me. They seemed to echo my state of mind after I came to Rome and started to write in Italian. They contained all my yearning, all my disorientation. Reading this message, I understood better the impulse to express myself in a new language: to subject myself, as a writer, to a metamorphosis. (161)
Lahiri’s metamorphosis as a writer encompasses the theme of metanoia in the memoir. As the words of encouragement from Domenico Starnone suggest, the transformation enabled by “another logic and another sensibility” culminates into Lahiri’s refusal to translate the Italian text of her memoir into English. Indeed, the self-knowledge that she gains through the process of acquiring another language is profound enough that self-translation would risk undoing the metamorphosis.
At the end of the memoir, as Lahiri returns to the English-speaking world temporarily, I was reminded of the old adage that sometimes you have to look backward to look forward. Lahiri writes, “In America, when I was young, my parents always seemed to be in mourning for something. Now I understand: it must have been the language” (227). To me, this plainspoken thought encompasses the idea of metanoia, especially in the context of Lahiri’s translingual writing. Having distanced herself from the past enough to adequately reminisce on it, Lahiri revisits the period where she first floundered with Italian in order to progress to the point of being able to pen an actual memoir in that very language. Indeed, even if she finds herself a million miles away from the Mediterranean peninsula, Lahiri will always possess the unique strength of character that she discovered through her pursuit of a third language:
I write in order to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way. When I write, my appearance, my name have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter. I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me. (234)
Besides underscoring the transformative power of language, these sentences strike me as especially poignant on a personal level. While I would like to visit Italy again one day, my responsibilities at home make any return in the near future unlikely. However, not unlike Lahiri, I left Italy with a string of foreign words imprinted onto my soul: “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stele,” the final verse of Dante’s Inferno. I will never forget the night of my eighteenth birthday, when I pressed my hand against the House of Dante and similarly beheld the stars once more. The proof of my own metanoia, those words became an indivisible part of me; now etched on my skin in permanent black ink, they comfort me whenever I feel lost and alone. Thus, while I know the prospect of my stepping foot onto Italian soil again is doubtful, I rest assured knowing that I carry a small piece of Italy with me everywhere I go.
Aguiar, Arun. “’Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri’ Interviewed by Arun Aguiar.” Pif Magazine, http://www.pifmagazine.com/1999/08/interview-with-jhumpa-lahiri/.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. In Other Words. Translated by Ann Goldstein, Bloomsbury, 2017.
“metanoia, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/117322. Accessed 10 October 2019.
Myers, Kelly A. “‘Metanoia’ and the Transformation of Opportunity.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1–18., http://www.jstor.org/stable/40997189.
Rickard, Jen Blair. “In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri.” World Literature Today, vol. 91, no. 6, 2017, pp. 21–21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7588/worllitetoda.91.6.0021.
Thompson, Effie Freeman. Metanoo and Metamelei in Greek Literature Until 100 A.D.: Including Discussion of Their … Hebrew Equivalents. Forgotten Books, 2016.