"I don't recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it's the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me." - In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri
One of the things I love best about travel is how it forces you out of your element. This fact is terrifically ironic, given that I am well known (at least to my spouse) as a person who thrives on routine and who is notoriously resistant to change of pretty much any kind. But travel is my exception - maybe because there is no choice - and I have come to find that I need and crave the awakening of the senses - sights, smells, sounds and tastes - that accompany journeys to places both far and near.
Language is an extreme example of this sensory stimulation - and one that I have found, if you are lucky enough to stay for a while as I have once or twice in my life, starts to rewire your brain. It is a special kind of wrestling with culture - word order and sentence structure, phrases and concepts that exist in one but not the other, and the alternatingly frustrating and elating experience of acquiring just enough words to finally express something - anything! - in a comprehensible way, no matter how awkwardly. For anyone who can relate, Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) is a perfect (armchair or actual) travel companion. A memoir of culture and language, she writes of her longtime passion for the Italian language, finally moving with her family to Italy to immerse herself, and begins a diary - in Italian - which becomes this collection of personal essays on language. The essays are elegantly translated from Italian into English, so if they are rough in Italian, as the author laments from time to time, the English reader won't know it, and will just enjoy her lovely and very personal reflections. While the description of struggling with the language can sometimes feel a bit obsessive, the essays also explore the many facets of cultural identity and belonging (growing up with two languages and cultures as an American child of Bengali parents; being accepted or not as a speaker of Italian who doesn't look Italian), and perhaps most interesting of all, on how writing in a new language forced her to strip away everything she had come to rely on writing in English, and to write with a new and different part of herself. I had the great privilege of reading In Other Words on a recent trip to Budapest (most of the reading done during a regrettable delay in Charles deGaulle), and it left me inspired, I think, to be a little more attentive and observant on our trip.
Books are also wonderful anchors of memory, fixing places in time. We recently made very brief trip back to the mountains of North Carolina. I can't think of a prettier view for reading a book. This trip, I finally (finally!) finished Louise Erdrich's LaRose (Harper, 2016). I remembered being in the exact same place a few years ago, reading Ethel Rohan's Goodnight, Nobody. An incredibly peaceful place, despite our short visit. The kind of place that opens up enough space to miss (non-work related) writing a little. I came home and - for the first time in a long time - accepted a few books for review that I'm quite excited about. Looking forward to being back soon with some thoughts to share. Where have your books or travels taken you this summer?