Writing Metaphors

By Susanne Carter

Jhumpa Lahari’s In Other Words, which she describes as a “linguistic autobiography, a self-portrait,” explores what it means for a writer to adopt and express herself in a new language. Her fifth book, published in February of 2016, is also a reminder of how effective metaphors are as a writing tool. In this guest blog I discuss Lahari’s use of metaphors in her first non-fiction writing. In the Writers’ Notes, I offer suggestions for writing metaphors.

Speaking to a group of students at Montclair State University about her latest book, Lahiri asked, “What is a metaphor? It’s a way of using another language, the language of an image, that allows you to reinform some experience.” In Other Words is a series of metaphors that are poetic in beauty and compelling in insight crafted by Lahari to describe her experiences learning to speak, read, and write a new language.

The rich metaphors that are prevalent in Lahari’s previous novels and short stories—belonging, identity, assimilation—are found in In Other Words, too, but are more personal in nature because they were chosen as part of her “self-portrait.” Born to Indian parents, Lahari spoke her native language, Bengali, until the age of four. When her parents moved to the United States, she learned to speak English. But neither linguistic identity ever felt right, she said during an NPR interview. “I’ve always been searching to arrive at a certain voice that will probably elude me forever,” she said. But writing in Italian, said the Pulitzer Prize writer, has given her “the freedom to express myself as I want to” for the first time.

A Contradiction I Couldn’t Resolve

In one of the book’s extended metaphors, Lahari describes the experiences that led her to reject both her “mother” (Bengali) and “stepmother” (English) languages. As an elementary school child in the United States, she was expected to speak only Bengali at home to please her parents while at school she had to turn into another person who only spoke English. “I couldn’t identify with either,” she said. “I remained suspended, torn between the two. The linguistic coming and going confused me; it seemed a contradiction I couldn’t resolve.” (p. 149)

Lahari writes that she “jousted” between two languages that “didn’t get along” until the age of 25, when she traveled to Italy and discovered Italian. The new language created another metaphor in her search to find a voice of her own. She writes:

The arrival of Italian, the third point on my linguistic journey, creates a triangle. It creates a shape rather than a straight line. A triangle is a complex structure, a dynamic figure. The third point changes the dynamic of that quarrelsome old couple. I am the child of those unhappy points, but the third does not come from them. It comes from my desire, my labor. It comes from me. I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path. (p. 153)

Sensual and Maternal Love

In another of the book’s continual wave of metaphors, Lahari describes her experience learning to read, speak, and write in Italian, although almost Sisyphean in difficulty, as a sensual love affair. She writes:

When you’re in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar longing in me. I don’t want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity…

When I discover a different way to express something, I feel a kind of ecstasy. Unknown words present a dizzying yet fertile abyss. An abyss containing everything that escapes me, everything possible. (p. 45)

At other times, Lahari feels more of a more maternal love toward her new language. She has now become the mother of two. While English has become Lahari’s “hairy adolescent,” her adopted Italian is a newborn in need of nurturing. “I want to protect my Italian, hold it in my arms like a newborn,” she writes. “I want to coddle it. It has to sleep, eat, grow.” (p. 46)

Writers’ Notes:

Although many writing guides would lead us to believe that we can sit down and brainstorm an impressive metaphor by going through a series of exercises, I don’t think that writers who use them effectively such as Lahari follow that recipe, or any recipe for that matter. Writers who craft beautiful metaphors are able to view the world from different perspectives and in seemingly incongruous but creative combinations that don’t occur to most of us. They are comfortable playing with abstractions and expanding their worldviews by building new and novel connections. They are willing to take risks with language.

Creating metaphors involves cultivating a new way of thinking and seeing the world instead of engaging in writing exercises. Here are some ideas for encouraging metaphors to flow:

  1. Reading the works of writers such as Lahari, who are masters at crafting metaphors, is one of the best ways to absorb and nurture that ability.
  2. Reading poetry that is rich in imagery can also contribute to thinking (and writing) in more metaphorical ways.
  3. Being open-minded and receptive to viewing the world in new ways fosters creativity.

Knowing that the best metaphors flow with seemingly effortless ease from the pens (or keyboards) of writers will save a lot of futile effort. Metaphors that are forced or fabricated, instead of flowing naturally, don’t work.

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How do you use metaphors in your writing?