I review my non-fiction books 3 at time, and since they’re not usually connected, in the order I’ve read them. The three latest ones, however, ended up forming a little narrative arc in my head as I reflected on them, so I will follow this train of thought to tell you about them.
We begin with Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, a 15-page pamphlet I read on a day when I wanted instant gratification. Its aim, in a nutshell, is to critique (criticize, really) political language. I won’t waste time explaining why this conversation is pertinent in 2017, but I will tell you that it’s more relevant to you than you think. In particular, Orwell underlines the danger inherent to slovenliness of language, as it leads to slovenliness of thought. As social media users, we’ve all resorted to flat overused metaphors, or replaced an idea with a hashtag (often under the guise of wit or humour) when we couldn’t be bothered to formulate it. Such habits amount to a refusal to think about our words. Every time we disengage intellectually, we teach ourselves to stop questioning, which greatly benefits the people above and around us who need our political support. Put simply, Orwell reminds us of our individual responsibility to stay awake, starting with our use of language. I was grateful for this reminder, but what really struck me about the book is Orwell’s observations on bad writing. They invited me to inspect my own use of words, which in turn lead me to reflect on my writing as a non-native speaker (the resulting blog post is here). The book left me wanting to further explore my relationship with the English language.
At around that time, I first read about American author Jhumpa Lahiri. When I looked her up, I found that she had given up writing in English a few years previously, to devote herself to Italian. She’d published a book describing her linguistic journey, called In Other Words. Her experience seemed to mirror mine, and was being presented to me exactly when I needed it, so I answered the call. I hoped In Other Words would echo and clarify my feelings about writing in a foreign language, and would make me feel less alone. As tends to happen, the book didn’t give me exactly what I wanted, but something slightly different. It showed me that there are indeed many of us who write in another language, but that we all have our own circumstances, so that no single account can reflect my experience. Instead of acting as my companion, the book became an example I could follow in exploring my own story. For example, Lahiri compares learning a new language to crossing a lake, or protecting a child, but for me, it’s more like ascending a staircase. You climb laboriously, one step at time. Some steps are high and require perseverance; some are so small you go up levels without realising. Sometimes you stagnate on a landing. In Lahiri’s story, I recognised many of my own lower steps (keeping a vocabulary notebook, listing equivalent expressions), and a few of the middle ones (refusing to speak/write in your first language to preserve the second), but it didn’t touch on the ones I am facing at the moment. My current concern is to see my native language recede. I now write French like an advanced foreign speaker: the language makes sense and is mostly grammatically correct, but it sounds…funny. Not that my English writing is free from this plight. I’m in a strange state of in-between, where I have two languages at my disposal, but I can’t delve deep in either. Anyway, I guess I should wrap up by telling you that I enjoyed the book, but the truth is that my reading of it was more of an interaction. I had a discussion with it, the way one can only have with a book that speaks to their own life. I’m not sure whether you would enjoy In Other Words if you haven’t had a similar experience. Lahiri’s budding Italian translates in simple vocabulary and sentence structure, so I fear you might find the book cute and easy, and miss out on its meaning for people like me.
Strangely, realising that I could never describe In Other Words to monolingual people took me back to Roxane Gay’s Hunger, read months previously. It is a memoir of her life and body, in which she shares her experience being raped, expanding her body for protection, and living in her fat body today. This is a brave and necessary project, which Gay tackles with skill, in her signature plain but striking language. Glowing reviews of it started popping up on my feeds as soon as it was published. And yet, despite all this, my initially reaction to it was disinterest. Her previous non-fiction book, Bad Feminist, had evoked a lot of feelings in me without much effort on my part, and I think I expected the same from Hunger. When it didn’t happen, I tried hard to understand why, and concluded that Gay’s language must be to blame. Her simple style, which added to her sharp observations and humour in essay form, didn’t work in memoir format – it came across as reluctance to elaborate. Hunger displayed personal experiences and feelings, while also keeping them out of reach. I ackowledged Gay’s right to set boundaries, but she had made a stylistic choice that didn’t work. I settled for this flawed logic for a while, and then I tried to review In Other Words. Here was a book that had touched me personally, but that most readers wouldn’t be able to understand. And the switch flipped in my mind. I realised that Hunger, like In Other Words, relied on simple language (albeit of a very different kind, since Gay writes in her primary idiom) to make its point, so that the reader had to use their own experience, or a bit of empathy, to fill in the blanks. There was nothing wrong with Gay’s words; I was the one who hadn’t put in the effort to feel them. Now that I had encountered a book that was aimed at people like me, I could see it clearly. I had been distracted when I read Hunger (by anxiety, mostly), and had not bothered trying to empathise with it, so it had bored me. I guess this happens to all readers, but I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss the book when it dealt with topics I didn’t understand. I should have checked myself first. When I look back on Hunger now, I think I catch glimpses of its power, but I will have to read it again to do it justice.
Thank you for reading my nerdy little story. Does your mind sometimes draw connections between books you’ve read?
You can find my most recent non-fiction round-ups at the following links:
Thank you to Corsair for the proof copy of Hunger.