“Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread.” ponders full of contradiction Jhumpa Lahiri in her recent essay in The New Yorker about the power of linguistics. With only two short sentences making us both hopeless and hopeful, Lahiri braces the reader for what is to come: where do words take us, how do we follow them, how do they find us, where does a language end and another begin? What does it mean to write in one and not in another?
Two weeks spent in Italy at an art residency have amplified the importance of linguistics in the creative writing process. Having written previously of my long-standing love affair with Italian language and literature, both here on this blog and elsewhere, I will only share one other detail. I have studied Italian language and literature for eight years and what that affords me, at the very least, is the pleasure of freely switching at any given time to either speak or write it.
Eight years of linguistic studies are not a small thing, but neither are they a big deal. Language is a bottomless territory, an infinite horizon. The amount of words unknown to me in Italian would be long, I suspect. I can easily spend another eight years studying. But having the capacity of fluent expression in a language is one thing and the transformation that unfolds each time one switches from one language to the next is another.
Linguistic change for the writer is an expansion, an opportunity to find new tools of expression in a reality that belongs to a people, “but the change, this new opening, is costly,” warns Lahiri.
Two weeks in Italy spent speaking Italian, almost the entire time, naturally created in me uno sbalordimento linguistico a linguistic confusion and bewilderment amounting to a mild disruption of the creative process. Everything was there: places I noticed, gestures, people, sounds, smells, stories and verses that were gathering in me like storms but didn’t want to come out when I wanted them to.
I worried, of course, and then surrendered to the power of words – to their knowing beyond my knowing. The gift that came out of this sbalordimento linguistico is the possibility of feeling and perceiving at a deeper level. The opening of letting the words choose themselves and not the other way around.
That is how language mystifies us — not any less than life does. Like life itself, no matter how familiar, what remains unknown to us is often greater than what we already know. But we go to it in any way we can even by means of forgetting a fresh pain, wound, or failure. We get to it running, kneeling, walking with our chest forward, or falling.
Our arsenal is contradictory and full of arrows and iPhones, of wrong phonetics (if not impossible), small vocabularies and big ideas that want to be expressed. But we land somewhere, we always do – with a poem, a novel, a story that we remember for as long as we live.