Mirror, Mirror: Toti O'Brien
Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Wilderness House, The Hamilton Stone Review, Dragon Poet Review, and Atticus.
I have been long fascinated by authors writing in a language that isn’t their native one, or in more than a language. Being this also my case, I am aware of the complexities involved. Though I never took such change of expressive channel as a feat or a bravura performance—it is done, people do it, I did it—I know how awkward the process can be, and how deeply it modifies those who undertake it. Therefore, I have grown a sensitive ear to the matter and I have thought about it. A lot.
The insights that gave me foundations and then steadied my step as I, with twists an turns, moved towards my tongue of destination, all belong to a little-known book by Argentinian authors—The Babel of the Unconscious 1. I say little-known because whenever I mentioned it to authors/friends like me teetering between idioms, none of them had heard of its existence. And that isn’t all. When, intending to share it, I sought the book at the library, I found a single copy in the entire US—in a small town up North, so distant it felt like the other end of the world. How had it traveled so far?
I could not share my personal copy. It is in Italian. And who speaks Italian outside the Apennine Peninsula? Not a whole crowd.
I am suggesting The Babel of the Unconscious to those wishing to explore inter-language writing. A collection of essays by a group of psychoanalysts, it addresses the experience of several famous authors. It is rich with testimonials as well as interpretations. It is well informed and yet understandable. Its main strength resides in its multifaceted vision, showing how the tongue-transfer meant different things for different people. For some a path of cross, for others a cruise. For some a prison cell, for others a stroll. Some lived it as a loss. Others felt they had found an invaluable treasure. For no one the journey was anodyne: it can’t be, though in most cases it was lived without much publicity.
One more book on the subject was important to me—Writer in Exile, by Andrew Gurr2. Here as well famous authors are studied in depth. Gurr accurately analyses the fashions in which writing transforms itself when ‘away from home,’ keenly observing how the writer’s voice is modified by displacement. He differentiates statuses such as immigrant, expatriate or exiled, and identifies nuanced mutations corresponding to diverse circumstances. He formulates theories, maybe a bit arbitrary and still fascinating.
I was drawn to Jhumpa Lahiri’s affair with the Italian language due to my own affair with writing-in-between. One of her interviews on the subject3 caught my eyes years ago, but it so disagreeably impressed me that I archived the idea of going any further. The book she had just published on the matter4 could wait.
The interview contained an account of Lahiri’s arrival in Rome, where she had moved in order to better absorb the language she wanted to make her own. Her description was brief, the rest of the article thick with argumentations—that could explain why a cameo of palpable narrative focused my attention.
Perhaps not. What honed my receptors was the fact the Rome is my hometown. I have lived my childhood close by the place where Lahiri plopped her suitcase: Via Giulia. Close, but not in Via Giulia, for sure. The street name, as I read it, poked a hole through the screen. Because, see, Via Giulia is a universe of its own, proudly extruding itself from the urban fabric like a thread of gold incongruously woven into a coarse linen smock. Sure, Rome is an inextricable mixture of architectural styles, epochs, eras, timelines, sacred and profane, lowbrow and highbrow. Working class, bourgeoisie and sheer privilege are packed in close quarters. Like in Paris, street addresses can’t give too precise a clue about inhabitants’ statuses. That is truer in the historical center, where renaissance palaces brush sides with new, old, decrepit apartments buildings, workshops, bars and mechanic garages.
Still to enter Via Giulia, past the gaudy cacophony of Campo de’ Fiori, is to access a dimension of monumental estrangement. All becomes clean and quiet, chilled and somber. The Consulate of France and its fellow villas are too tall, the street not wide enough for the sun to shine at ease. If the shade and silence could soothe, they rather intimidate. This is another world—a shard of gemstone accidentally stuck among the prismatic cells of a beehive. And you miss the honey, don’t you.
So Lahiri and family arrive in Via Giulia. That is where the picture begins to feel lopsided. Because to me Via Giulia isn’t Rome. Though the fact that she’d arrive there of all places makes me wonder, I suspend my judgment. I almost pity her, imagining the creepiness of the scene, the dire inhospitality.
It is August. I have spent many months of August in Rome. On occasion of the festivity of Ferragosto, around the 15th, the exodus is quasi-total, impressive. If you stay in town—some do—you pray that your car won’t break, that you won’t need a doctor and you haven’t forgotten to fill your refrigerator, because the urban landscape is a post-catastrophe one. It’s a day for feasting at the seaside or fasting at home.
But the newly arrived know nothing of Roman-Mid-August-Black-Outs. This as well comes close to elicit my sympathy, and then it feels odd. How could someone who falls in love with a language to the extent of packing up, moving in with her entire family, have not the slightest clue about local customs?
That is when it dawns on me she must have fallen in love with the language, not the culture, the people. It is a revelation, as I had never thought such divarication could happen.
So in mid-August, Via Giulia, on arrival, tired from the oversea flight, with two children, there is a problem with keys. An emergency, in fact. Of course no locksmith is in sight. It is Ferragosto. One is wondrously found and he charges 200 Euros (too much) while delivering no receipt. Well, you made him work on Ferragosto, sweetheart. I understand you don’t understand. Local customs.
Here the recite ends, but an aftertaste of old dear stereotype lingers. Here we are (the Italians). As always. Lazy. Loafers. And thieves.
Depends which Italians. Locksmiths might not be the best ambassadors of my native society. Or else the Roman-Holiday snapshot I found so disturbing was just an initial reaction, understandable at that. In other interviews and public talks, Lahiri praises her new Italian friends while reporting her general ease with the lifestyle.
Therefore the first vision I had—of someone who, enticed and then coveting a particular good grown/discovered/made by a group of humans in a certain region of Earth, decides to appropriate the good that the group in question has grown/made/discovered, but is slightly or severely annoyed by the humans surrounding the good—
Therefore, my concern that Lahiri might harbor towards the Italian language a somehow colonizing attitude was gradually and slowly dispelled. I decided to give In Other Words—the memoir she wrote about her linguistic travail—one more chance.
Not yet knowing what to expect, I am quite surprised to see the Italian (by Lahiri) juxtaposed to the English (by Ann Goldstein). Side-by-side translation of prose is unfamiliar to me. Besides Shakespeare’s theater, I am sure it was done for some major novel. But I intimately connect this format with poetry. It wets my appetite for language so carefully wrought that the presence of the author-made-text must be tangible. Readers have to visually experience and acoustically reconstruct it if possible, even if the word meanings remain obscure.
This book isn’t poetry or prose poetry. It isn’t a lyrical essay. It is nonfiction prose. For a few chapters, though, I bridge left to right. First Italian. Then English. Lahiri can write in Italian and Goldstein in English, of course. Should I insist? What will this double take produce? A few more chapters in I haven’t captured yet its possible scope, besides hyperbolizing a process that, I said, I can’t bring myself to consider properly heroic. Hard, yes. Crucial and loaded with consequences. Not exactly Herculean, not Promethean either. So I decide to give full attention to Lahiri’s narrative, making sure I don’t break its flow with the mirror drill in which I have engaged myself, perhaps by excess zeal.
I have now read the book many times, as I do for works I plan to review—that in this case I won’t as it would be redundant. If somebody abruptly asked me, “How is it?” I would say, “Good”. “Should I read it?” “Please, do. I’m glad I did”.
I found it to be an honest personal journey, quite direct, quite frank, often vulnerable. Sometimes tender, emotional. Always clever, endowed with original insights. It addresses themes of identity and displacement that are meaningful to me and certainly to the great majority, in our present world. It’s the story of a person’s difficulty in finding roots within language, of her creative struggle for solving a painful state of suspension.
Does she succeed? Not sure.
When I read—anything—I pay attention to the word or expression that is repeated the most. To an attentive reading, predominant words easily stick out. Indeed, it is hard to miss them. Forget of prepositions and articles. Nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs… the most recurrent ones subliminally dig a groove. They create a veiled leitmotif besides the declared ones. Bit by bit they help the reader hear what is really said—they open up ulterior levels of meaning.
What most hammered my eyes in In Other Words is perfection—and its opposite, imperfection. Lahiri is aware of this last. She devotes a chapter to the imperfetto tense in Italian and its metaphoric valence. Her struggle with it might well symbolize the sense of imperfection often bothering her—caused, she explains, by the fact of feeling incomplete both in Bengali and in English, the two languages of her childhood.
Tension between those partial linguistic identities, so disparate to impede harmonious development of the self, prompted her to seek a third language not imposed or fallen upon her, but of her own choice. Everyone knows this part, as she has shared it out loud. In the book, she dedicates a whole chapter to the triangulation, and it is a strong one. It transudes the intensity of her need/will to break the binary pull (see the Tarot card of the Chariot where two horses, one red and one blue, yank the rider to the right and left) and to figure out a third pole as a means for re-distributing the pressure, for escaping paralysis and gain a measure of freedom. Psychologically. In a strictly linguistic register, Lahiri was never stuck. On the contrary, she mastered one of her tongues—English—to perfection.
Perfezione appears twelve times in the book, which is quite a record. I didn’t calculate imperfections, which are also numerous. I should have, as they are mirror images of the same object. In my total I counted all forms in which perfection appears: the adverb perfettamente and—more frequently—the adverbial phrase alla perfezione, which means the same. The translator doesn’t always differentiate them. It’s fine.
Yet Lahiri’s insistency on the adverbial idiom implying the use of the noun strikes me as meaningful. It directly plants on the page this ghost, this massive presence—abstract as you like and still ponderous, exacting and crushing. To perfection. That is how most people in Lahiri’s view know, don’t know, should know a given language. That is how she wants to know Italian, her guinea pig, and she frets because such encompassing mastery doesn’t happen in the minimal time she estimates appropriate.
Reiteration transforms the words ‘to perfection’ into a dedication of sorts—as if the book, the effort, the writing, the language, all were escape-goats to be slaughtered in front of some unquenchable deity.
Such claim of complete domination, full-possession related to language makes me vacillate. Is it founded? Until this afternoon I believed it wasn’t. Language is a work-in-progress for me, to which no gilded stillness can stick. But I have changed my mind. There is a kind of language you can perfectly own, as such mastery only depends on time and tenacity. You can perfectly master dead languages.
If I think of Brazilian, my favorite language, I can’t sort it for a split second from the voice, the cadence, the gestures and features of Brazilian people I know. Of Brazilian people, tout court. Yes, the love also came through masterworks such as Grande Sertão, by Guimarães Rosa5. Literature enriched my passion by means of authors and books. But it didn’t precede (tough the order doesn’t matter, I guess) and surely never overcame the love for the people of which it is the expression. That is true for any language I know.
Definitions of language are myriads since linguistics exist, and semantics—as their own disciplines and as branches of philosophy. The gamut of interpretations is infinite. Is a language a system of signs? Sure. The language of colors, of flowers… But if I ask myself what language is for me, the truest answer I can produce is, ‘how people communicate’. It is how people talk. And sometimes they write. There are unwritten languages.
I cannot extricate words from people. I believe there’s no way to expressively articulate a language without consciously or unconsciously addressing someone who speaks the same language. I believe that what leads, motivates, helps or hinders transitions through languages—for those, writers or not, who go through such process—is the range of interlocutors we host in our mind, in our psyche, speaking this or that tongue. What could be more alive? What could be more personal?
I have mentioned how I initially saw a misalignment, in Lahiri’s account of her Italian experiment, between love of the tongue and love of the people. They didn’t appear to coincide— quite hard to understand, because I can’t function that way. For some reason, seemed to me, Lahiri treated Italian like a dead language. I could picture her plucking it like a flower, a rare colorful thing, an exotic orchid. Maybe in a public garden.
Her love for Ancient Greek, for Latin, her delight in Ovid’s Metamorphoses have confirmed my impression. To consider Italian another form of Latin—similarly handling it like an archeological finding, a codex—isn’t totally unthinkable. Nothing is wrong about it. It just strikes me, perhaps, because I’m both alive and Italian.
Recently, Lahiri has compiled an anthology of Italian short fiction6. I have found it at my local library. No, I didn’t have to request it from a distant region... I am grateful for the gathering of small literary gems, some of them un-translated so far, she carefully assembled. Yet I have found her choice of only deceased authors confusing. I have wondered if copyrights laws could be at stake, but of course they can’t.
As I researched the press, trying to decrypt why she would leave the living out, an unrelated statement shocked me. This is how, in yet another interview, she describes the anthology: “I see it as a fragmented self-portrait in forty voices that speak to me and for me.”7
Why does this pledge of intimacy chill my blood? It revives my concerns about a colonizing, appropriating or rather expropriating intention. Self-portrait? For me? Now, though, the decision of selecting only dead authors sounds wise. Perhaps they would be pleased by her commentary. Perhaps they’d disagree, but we’ll never know.
Back to In Other Words, my favorite chapter—‘The Triangle’—is preceded by ‘The Wall,’ which is my least favorite. Here Lahiri has a raging tone engendered by linguistic frustration, also colored by an attitude that brings me back to Via Giulia. She expresses the pain she feels when locals, in Italy, treat her like a stranger in spite of the fact that she desperately loves the language, has studied it for more than twenty years, reads only Italian literature, can speak Italian in public, does live radio interviews, keeps an Italian diary, writes stories. She refers to casually met individuals who haven’t read the papers, have not recognized her, know not… just folks, normal people.
One such moment occurs in Salerno, near Naples, before a shopkeeper to whom the author would like to yell her complaints, but she doesn’t. The flame flares when the shopkeeper says that Lahiri’s husband speaks better Italian than she does. To realize that her devotion to Italian doesn’t make an insider of her, causes Lahiri an irrational pain, nevertheless atrocious. She believes that ‘those who don’t know her’ treat her as a foreigner ‘because of her physical aspect,’ therefore building a wall of exclusion she’d never be able to pass—which of course would be awfully unfair.
Her tone is very harsh in this chapter, heavily judgmental: “They don’t understand me because they don’t want to understand me; they don’t understand me because they don’t want to listen to me, accept me.” “Such people look at me but they don’t see me. They don’t appreciate that I am working hard to speak their language; rather, it irritates them. Sometimes when I speak Italian in Italy I feel reprimanded, like a child who touches an object that shouldn’t be touched. ‘Don’t touch our language,’ some Italians seem to say to me. ‘It doesn't belong to you.’”8
Not only the tone disturbs me, and the gloomy picture of intransigent xenophobia it draws, but the fact that such vehement accusation doesn’t affect Lahiri’s friends, who instead make her feel at home and a peer. Who are they? A few are known, and anyway it is quite obvious. Publishers, authors, journalists, translators. Perhaps not all of them, but naturally this is the milieu in which she evolves. To them she has no objection.
She is enraged though, against those salesgirls and cashiers to whom she asks “a head of garlic, a stamp, the time” and they reply improperly. She makes them—the people—appear like a bunch of incurable racists—that of course members of the intellectual elite are not.
But these Southern Italians shopkeepers aren’t either. If they address her with the three words of English they speak they don’t mean to offend her, to exclude her. Their reasons could be various, and yet probably none of them has a negative tinge. Her reaction to them is wildly subjective. They inadvertently irritate an invisible scar they do not know about. And they have their own scars.
Lahiri’s In Other Words has been a springboard, allowing me to resume my musing on languages and how we meander within them. How we get in, we get out, sometimes we get lost. The points of disagreement I found made me think some more.
A small sentence rang especially true—when I read it I felt a kind of relief, as if I had expected it. Half way through the book, Lahiri states: “I know that my writing in Italian is something premature, reckless, always approximate. I’d like to apologize”9.
Her words bring me back to the year 2004. It was August and I was in Rome, in the company of a talented songwriter visiting from the US10. I wished to share her voice, tunes and lyrics with a local audience, and to give her exposure. So I booked her a show. I asked if she’d like for me to introduce her songs, translate titles perhaps. Being of Italian descent, she thought she’d try by herself with the little bit that she knew.
I’ll never forget that night because as she climbed on stage she said: “Please, forgive me for butchering your magnificent language”. I was floored. First, because with those few words she had put the audience at ease—actually in a wonderful mood. I was proud of her but that wasn’t the point.
I had been just exposed to a lesson I would never forget, and realized that in my wandering life I hadn’t learned it yet. Yes, I had often apologized for my foreign accent at readings, or before performances. I had joked, promising to the listeners that whatever they’d misunderstand would be by my fault. But I had never achieved, not even conceived such an obvious act of humility. Yet so due, so civil, so right.
1 The Babel of the Unconscious: Mother Tongue and Foreign Languages in the Psychoanalytic Dimension, by Jacqueline Amati-Mehler, Simona Argentieri, Jorge Canestri, International Universities Press, 1993
2 Writers in exile: The identity of home in modern literature, by Andrew Gurr, Humanities Press, 1981
3The New Yorker, ‘Teaching Yourself Italian’, by Jhumpa Lahiri, 12/7/ 2015
4 In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Knopf, 2016
5 Grande Sertão: Veredas, by João Guimarães Rosa, first edition1956
6 The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin, 2019
7 Literary Hub, ‘Jhumpa Lahiri on Editing an Anthology of Italian Fiction’, by Jhumpa Lahiri, 9/10/19
8 In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, p.139-41
9 In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, p.85
10 More about songwriter Anny Celsi can be found at https://www.annycelsi.com