“Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.
“I think of Ovid, exiled from Rome to a remote place. To a linguistic outpost, surrounded by alien sounds.
“I think of my mother, who writers poems in Bengali, in America. Almost fifty years after moving there, she can’t find a book written in her own language.
“In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.
“In my case there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to write it, or even read it. I have an accent, I speak without authority, and so I’ve always perceived a disjunction between it and me. As a result I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language.
“As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met, Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.
“How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.”
Jhumpa Lahiri writes eloquently in Italian translated into English, on the transformative effect of moving through the world in a new language and on the fragile filaments between language, place, belonging, and writing in The New Yorker.