One of my favourite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri, decided to stop writing in English and switch to Italian in 2012. She’s just written (in Italian) her memoir, “In Other Words” – which she had Ann Goldstein translate into English – to describe this experience.
Born to Indian parents who immigrated to the US, Lahiri won the Pulitzer with her first collection of short stories, “Interpreter of Maladies”. She found fame after her first book disconcerting: “All of my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible…But a year after my first book was published, I lost my anonymity.” Her answer has been a linguistic exile in Italy.
I find this idea of escaping to a foreign tongue so fascinating.
I have had two escapes of my own – one from the US to London when I finished university in 1991, and the second to leave the UK for Buenos Aires in 2007. Admittedly the first was more geographical than linguistic (though the phrase “Two countries divided by a common language” remains apt), but both times it very much felt like fleeing. Moving to London in ‘91 meant escaping George Bush Sr’s Gulf War and all that was driving me crazy (politics, racism, you know – the little stuff) about the US. The second move to Buenos Aires meant living in Spanish, which taught me about not being in control, about returning to a much more primitive level of communication, about freeing myself from perfection and remembering how to be happy bumbling along.
I love London’s sense of history – the way pubs from the eighteenth century sit alongside modern glass buildings. I love walking down a street that Samuel Pepys or Dickens described.
I love the incredible variety of people you see walking down the street, and the variety of languages you hear spoken around you.
I love my favourite hang outs, the South Bank and Tate Modern; every time I go I find something to stimulate dormant parts of my brain.
I love the Thames, and how it winds and turns. I love the illuminated magic of Albert Bridge as I head back to South London after a night out.
Most of all, I love the knowledge that it is here, in London, that I have found my tribe. I’ve been able to gather a community of writers around me, and it’s writing in English that has made that possible.
As much as I admire Lahiri’s intellectual curiosity, her linguistic and emotional journeys, as much as I recognize many of the emotions she’s described, for me the answer has been to stay put in my adopted land.