Le lettere dal carcere di mia cuore: A love letter inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

Author’s note: For those you can’t read Italian, I have provided the letter translated in full below the horizontal line.

Gentile Jhumpa,

Prego, permesso. Non ho scritto nella lingua italiana per vent’anni o più. Ma, adesso, non posso pensare queste parole, i miei pensieri, in inglese.

Leggere il suo libro chiamata In Altre Parole è come ritornare alla mia casa, mia patria. Come lei, sono Americana. All’università, ho studiato la storia del Rinascimento. Durante studiare, sono stato in Firenze per un’estate bellissima. Mia prima amore è l’italiano. Ancora, non posso parlare le parole giuste. In italiano, in inglese, o in un’altra lingua.

Lei ha scritto d’un lago. Per me, c’è  una via. A way through and around the incompleteness of which you wrote, an incompleteness I too feel. Although I suppose my reasons are quite different from yours. For I wasn’t born, caught between two cultures as you were, so much as I yearned to move beyond the one I was born into. My thoughts and feelings occur at the intersection of languages. To say that your writing has inspired my own is inadequate. For you have awakened a dream within me. Con ciascuna delle suoi parole, io ricordo un’altre parole che mi manca dopo anni.

Per me, scrivere in Italiano è difficile. La principale ragione è perché la lingua aveva scritto nella mia cuore. Anche, sono i cicatrici, le ferite più profonde. Yes, I had to look up the words for scar and wound. For this letter, I have begun the painful process of searching for the words that I need, and yet I must also continue in English to maintain my familiar rhythm.

Quando sono stato in Firenze, era una programme della cultura chiamata “Firenze porte aperte.” In the evenings, the museums would open their doors for free. Roaming the Uffizi at night while Andrea Boccelli sang in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio is an exquisite memory of my time in Italy. You have returned that memory to me and opened a door. For that, I thank you. Grazie mille.

The words come in fits and spurts. Half Italian, half English, e dove non posso trovare le parole nella quelle lingue, sometimes, even half Hindi mein hai. I hope it isn’t too disorienting for you to read this way. But, it demonstrates my problem: my languages become scrambled in my head like a frittata or akoori on toast. Bits of onion (French), tomato (Italian), peppers (English), turmeric (Hindi), coriander (Latin), cumin (Spanish), and even ginger (Korean) all carefully folded into the eggs yet somehow scrambled when spoken and written simultaneously. Even now, I’m writing these words on the subway in Seoul keeping an ear out for Gangnam station, listening in Hangul while writing in Italian. Koi baat nahi, right? Fortunately, Gangnam is at the end of the Shinbundang line.

Even at the end, my journey isn’t finished. I have another leg that I must travel to reach my destination, and that destination is more than my home. For it’s India—mera jaan. For that is where I’m headed soon. Another intersection of my past and future living in the present moment. Where multiple languages will connect once more, like your triangle. Quite possibly all within not only the same conversation, but within even a single sentence. For that’s the beauty of language in India. That amalgamation, conglomeration, concatenation of thoughts, words, and cultures colliding in space, synthesizing with each other.

On Twitter, I wrote:

“From Florence to Dante, Lahiri is mirroring my footsteps in Italian. Our strides are different lengths, but our direction is the same.”

It was a relief to read that you experienced some of the same failures I did in Italian. Yet, you managed to overcome them, persevere even, where I did not. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I was lazy. Maybe I was waiting for my true mother tongue. Non lo so.

On Facebook, I wrote:

“Non posso parlare le parole in inglese che mia cuore è pensando in italiano. Lentamente, queste parole vengono. Freed from their cage, where they’ve been trapped.”

Trapped in a prison of my own making. For that’s where my words live. As I read, I remember Gramsci’s lettere dal carcere, his letters from prison. But, I am misremembering as they weren’t letters; they were notebooks, quaderni, like the ones you kept. Ricordo questo titolo imperfetta perché i miei pensieri sono il mio carcere. E adesso, i miei ricordi sono…come se dice… freed? Is that the right word? Were my words trapped, or is it me who’s trapped? Non lo so.

But, in each of your words, I remember, I grieve a loss, and I heal a wound—a wound so deep che mi manca le parole, per vent’anni, non parlerebbe queste parole. I know that’s the wrong verb—it should be parlerei—but that’s the one that came to me, a memory, a fragment of my past imagination.

My Italian is messy, imperfect. Ungrammatical. I know that. I considered having someone edit these words, but decided against it, against perfection. Instead, I choose messiness, vulnerability. For these words, however imperfect represent the truth of my experience.

All’università, ho scritto mio thesis sugli ricordi o ricordanze. Questi libri sono i diari della classe politica nel’Firenze. In inglese, sono chiamati “books of memory.” Perciò, per me, i ricordi e le parole sono congiunto nella mia testa.

Memory has become a theme lately in my life—and in my writing. But, it seems that I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say here. My words have returned to their prison for the night.

So, let me end this letter by quoting one of my favorite passages from your book:

Scrivere in una lingua diverse rappresenta un atto di smantellamento, un nuovo inizio.

Here’s to new beginnings, Jhumpa, for you and for me. My words cannot express my gratitude for being able to read yours at the exact moment when I needed them.

Grazie mille,

Jean Spraker


Translation:

Dear Jhumpa,

Please, excuse me. I have not written in Italian for 20 years or more. But, now, I cannot think these words, these thoughts in English.

Reading your book, In Other Words, is like returning to my home, my country. Like you, I am American. In college, I studied Renaissance history. While studying, I was in Florence for the most beautiful summer. My first love is Italian. Still, I can’t speak the right words. In Italian, in English, or in another language.

You wrote of a lake. For me, it’s a path. A way through and around the incompleteness of which you wrote, an incompleteness I too feel. Although I suppose my reasons are quite different from yours. For I wasn’t born, caught between two cultures as you were, so much as I yearned to move beyond the one I was born into. My thoughts and feelings occur at the intersection of languages. To say that your writing has inspired my own is inadequate. For you have awakened a dream within me. With each of your words, I remember another word that I lost long ago.

For me, writing in Italian is difficult. The primary reason is because the language was written on my heart. Also, there are scars, deepest wounds. Yes, I had to look up the words for scar and wound. For this letter, I have begun the painful process of searching for the words that I need, and yet I must also continue in English to maintain my familiar rhythm.

When I was in Florence, there was a cultural program called “Florence Doors Open.” In the evenings, the museums would open their doors for free. Roaming the Uffizi at night while Andrea Boccelli sang in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio is an exquisite memory of my time in Italy. You have returned that memory to me and opened a door. For that, I thank you. A million thanks.

The words come in fits and spurts. Half Italian, half English, and where I cannot find the words in those languages, sometimes, even half are in Hindi. I hope it isn’t too disorienting for you to read this way. But, it demonstrates my problem: my languages become scrambled in my head like a frittata or akoori on toast. Bits of onion (French), tomato (Italian), peppers (English), turmeric (Hindi), coriander (Latin), cumin (Spanish), and even ginger (Korean) all carefully folded into the eggs yet somehow scrambled when spoken and written simultaneously. Even now, I’m writing these words on the subway in Seoul keeping an ear out for Gangnam station, listening in Hangul while writing in Italian. No problem, right? Fortunately, Gangnam is at the end of the Shinbundang line.

Even at the end, my journey isn’t finished. I have another leg that I must travel to reach my destination, and that destination is more than my home. For it’s India—my dearest one. For that is where I’m headed soon. Another intersection of my past and future living in the present moment. Where multiple languages will connect once more, like your triangle. Quite possibly all within not only the same conversation, but within even a single sentence. For that’s the beauty of language in India. That amalgamation, conglomeration, concatenation of thoughts, words, and cultures colliding in space, synthesizing with each other.

On Twitter, I wrote:

“From Florence to Dante, Lahiri is mirroring my footsteps in Italian. Our strides are different lengths, but our direction is the same.”

It was a relief to read that you experienced some of the same failures I did in Italian. Yet, you managed to overcome them, persevere even, where I did not. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I was lazy. Maybe I was waiting for my true mother tongue. I don’t know.

On Facebook, I wrote:

“I cannot speak the words in English that my heart is thinking in Italian. Slowly, these words come. Freed from their cage, where they’ve been trapped.”

Trapped in a prison of my own making. For that’s where my words live. As I read, I remember Gramsci’s lettere dal carcere, his letters from prison. But, I am misremembering as they weren’t letters; they were notebooks, quaderni, like the ones you kept. I remember this imperfect title because my thoughts are my prison. And, now, my memories are…how do you say…freed? Is that the right word? Were my words trapped, or is it me who’s trapped? I don’t know.

But, in each of your words, I remember, I grieve a loss, and I heal a wound—a wound so deep that I lose the words, for 20 years I would not speak (parlerebbe) these words. I know that’s the wrong verb—it should be parlerei—but that’s the one that came to me, a memory, a fragment of my past imagination.

My Italian is messy, imperfect. Ungrammatical. I know that. I considered having someone edit these words, but decided against it, against perfection. Instead, I choose messiness, vulnerability. For these words, however imperfect represent the truth of my experience.

In college, I wrote my thesis on ricordi or ricordanze. These books are the diaries of the political class in Florence. In English, they are called “books of memory.” Therefore, for me, memories and words are joined in my head.

Memory has become a theme lately in my life—and in my writing. But, it seems that I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say here. My words have returned to their prison for the night.

So, let me end this letter by quoting one of my favorite passages from your book:

Writing in a different language represents an act of destruction, a new beginning.

Here’s to new beginnings, Jhumpa, for you and for me. My words cannot express my gratitude for being able to read yours at the exact moment when I needed them.

A million thanks,

Jean Spraker