Thoughts after reading “In Altre Parole/In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri

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I first came across a beautiful excerpt of the book published in the New Yorker.  I didn’t notice who had written the essay, but the writing pulled at my memory & sense of romance in a way that stayed with me. Then recently, the essay came back across my view via post by Mindy Kaling congratulating the author on publishing her latest book. Only then did I connect the dots to see that both essay & book were written by the author of a favorite book from my past, The Interpreter of Maladies.

In her latest book, Jhumpa Lahiri expands on the essay topic by telling the story of her own journey over many years to learn Italian. That call in her heart taking her to move to Italy to study, and then eventually publishing this book, In Altre Parole/In Other Words in Italian! The recent publishing was of the English version of her book that had been translated by another author. Incredible! I knew I had to read it for myself.

I started the book while on a plane to Jamaica, on my way to my first ever yoga retreat, and less than a month after I had quit my corporate job to pursue the dream of running my first business. That untethered feeling was at once exhilarating & terrifying… like jumping out of a plane for the first time and trusting that someone else had packed your parachute right, only I was my own parachute this time. It was in this state that I dove into her book.

She speaks of exile in both language & country, and I hear a familiar tune well up in my heart.  My youthful search for belonging & home was eventually answered with the simple notion that I belong to myself, and that the world is my home. In Lahiri’s experience, the longing is fresh. She is rebuffed at each step despite her determination. Her search for acceptance & connection in a world that had already put her neatly into boxes was something I recognized too well.

I am Vietnamese in appearance, American in language , and a woman of this world in spirit. This cocktail of identity has been shaken & stirred a thousand times over as I’ve navigated the muddy waters between the worlds of my parents’ roots and my environment’s beckonings.

Once, I wanted to cut away all the roots. To replant them anew in a soil I thought more fertile. To grow wild and unkempt beyond the careful trimmings my parents took to create a better life for me. This yearning for freedom is still my siren song — a constant desire to move on & reinvent. To swim the ocean; seek my fortune; prove my own strength — to myself or anyone who would challenge me.

As I grow older, I recognize now the history that is intrinsic in me; it is a springboard from which I leap fearlessly into the unknown. I can no more cut away the past than I could my own limbs. All those who came before me, I carry within my blood. A life force that now propels me forward.

But I can continue to cut away all safety nets, to find out if I can survive. I have before. I’ve thrived, and in the process, I cultivated a firm belief in myself and in the world at large. At each step, my own will, coupled with my (what some might call naive) faith in the goodness of the world around me, has created lilypads before me, on which I can land for a while before leaping again into the arms of the world.

As I read about Lahiri’s calling to go after something that others can’t seem to make sense of; to leave behind all that she has already accomplished; to start over and look at the world through novice eyes in the name of a yearning for beauty…I am moved again by her courage to  keep going towards the call of her own heart – patiently, steadily, and with unshakable determination. Brava, darling. I’ll be running towards my own heart right alongside you too.



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