Leah Dieterich & Chiara Barzini: Other Tongues
A conversation between Leah Dieterich and Chiara Barzini about writing, language and identity.
I recently read Jhumpa Lahiri’s book about moving to Rome and writing in Italian and was overcome with jealousy. I’ve been interested in foreign languages since grade school but I’ve never spent enough time in the countries of the languages I’ve studied to truly become fluent in any of them. Writing itself can be difficult, and one would think that writing in a language that is not your mother tongue would be even more so, but I suspected that the relationship might not be so simple, and that by becoming once again a beginner, some of the pressure to be perfect would vanish. This novice-hood by necessity would force you to use simpler, more direct language, and perhaps yield writing that got closer to the truth. Right as I was contemplating leaving Los Angeles, I read Chiara Barzini’s book about moving to LA from Rome in the 1990s. It was written in English though her native language is Italian. I had to talk to her about it. - Leah Dieterich
Leah Dieterich: I’m very interested in the different selves we become when we shift the language we are speaking or writing in. I read that you wrote your first short story in English at age sixteen and felt a rush of freedom….that you could be whoever you wanted, so I wanted to know: Who were you when you wrote that story, and who did you want to be, and how did moving from Rome to Los Angeles affect that discrepancy or shift?
Chiara Barzini: I think I was a girl who didn’t fit in anywhere. I had moved to America when I was fifteen and I was very hungry to understand where I was, but being Italian, I was immediately assigned to an ESL class where people didn’t even really speak English. I spoke English and I could read and write English, but it was this automatic thing, you come from abroad, here you go: ESL. So it was a lot of spying [on people who weren’t in the ESL classes] and spotting these books around school and figuring out, Why do I have this book, and they have that book? We’re the same age. What do I need to do to get there? I was trying to define who I was by asserting that I could actually partake in this common ritual of reading and understanding literature and the English language. That’s what I wanted to become: one of those cool kids who read great books.
L: What were the books you were jealous of people reading?
C: My whole fascination was mostly with the Norton Anthology. That was what they were carrying around—this huge brick of a book with very thin pages. I came from a high school [in Rome] where there was no free time, it was ancient Greek and Latin for hours every day. We carried around huge vocabularies, so there was something familiar in the Norton but I didn’t know what was inside the anthology, I just knew that I wanted to have that book. I wanted to read those pages. And then it kind of started with the Romantic poets and I got really excited about that, and then went into American literature: Hawthorne, Poe, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, and finally discovering Gertrude Stein. It was just sort of a revelation.
L: That’s cool that you were interested in Gertrude Stein. I feel like she’s so hard to read, even for native English speakers, that she might as well be writing in a foreign language. Stein might perfect thing to read if you’re not fluent in English, because a lot of her work is really about the sounds of the phrases and how they fit together or clash. I’m thinking of Tender Buttons, specifically. It almost doesn’t make any sense in a traditional way, so I could imagine it might sort of level the playing field.
C: Yeah it was like, So I’m not crazy. Or it’s ok if I am crazy.
L: Who had you been high school in Rome? How would you have described yourself there at fifteen, speaking Italian versus the person you were when you moved to Los Angeles and began speaking English? Had books been a big part of your identity in Italy?
C: I was very young when I went to high school in Rome, only fourteen, so I was probably just an annoying teenager who thought everything sucked. I honestly remember being that person. Very negative and slightly depressive, but I do feel lucky in that I was able to develop the seeds of a political consciousness that helped me navigate things when I arrived in the United States. Especially when it came to issues like race and immigration, even though I was young, I was somehow prepared and open to have those kinds of conversations in school. Books have always been around me and part of my identity. My grandfather was a writer and I was the only person whom he allowed inside his studio. I spent days on his lap going through old Encyclopedia Britannicas. When I catch a whiff of those dusty, thin pages now, I get nostalgic for him. Again, at fourteen I liked books, I loved Calvino for example and Dino Buzzati, but it was in America that I matured as a reader.
L: Let’s get back to that first short story you wrote in English. What was it about?
C: I actually found it a while ago and it was really funny. If I remember correctly it was about a sort of Thumbalina character. But instead of a fairy tale she was working in a bar and had a really hard time because none of the guys at the bar would take her seriously because she was small as a thumb. She had to be really loud serving drinks and nobody respected her. I think it was one of those exercises like, take a fairy tale and turn it into something else. It was a creative writing class.
L: Did you simultaneously write stories in Italian while you were in high school?
C: I was writing letters in Italian, I was writing to all my friends in Rome, and I had a journal but it was very teenage anxty, like I hate LA and duh duh duh and this happened and that happened…reading over it, I’m just so bored by it. There’s nothing creative about it. I think at that point, Italian was the language of the internal life, and then English was the language of: What are you becoming? What are you putting out there? What are you creating?
L: Since then, you’ve done other kinds of creative writing in Italian—your screenwriting, for instance—so what made you decide to write Things That Happened After the Earthquake in English?
C: English was very formative for me. My high school was in English and then my college years were in English. I stayed in America for a long time—almost fifteen years—[even after my parents moved back to Italy] so to me, it became the language of escape. Escape from my childhood and my origins. It really allowed me to put on a different dress. It was fun, because it was a mask I could hide behind.
C: I felt less pressure and responsibility, but also I think my voice really came out in English. There’s a certain element of sarcasm and detachment that is very hard to have in Italian. Italian is more, at least in writing, a literary language. English allows you to be literary even when you’re being trashy. It doesn’t have a moral high horse about what literature should be, and that was really important for me. Also, the story takes place in LA, the dialogues in my mind were in English, so I couldn’t help but do that. I have a really great friend who is an author, Francesca Marciano and she is also a screenwriter and fiction writer and she writes her fiction in English. So I went to her, we didn’t know each other yet, but I knew of her and I’d read her books. I went to visit her to ask her for advice, and I asked her, “What do you think I should do? I’m living in Rome—should I be writing this in Italian even if it’s kind of coming out in English?” She said “Do it in English…follow your heart and do it your way and you’ll find someone who will publish it.” Of course, at the time, I was also very worried that like, well you know, I don’t have an agent, I’m living in Rome, I’m completely disconnected from the literary world, how is this even gonna work out? She just said, “don’t think about that. Just get the book done and then it’ll come together.” And that’s exactly what happened.
L: Is it going to be translated into Italian?
C: Yeah. I’m actually in the middle of promoting it now it Italy. I think Italians are very shocked by it where as Americans are [not.] All the scenes are not as shocking [to Americans] but Italians are like “can you believe they have metal detectors in high schools?” “Can you believe that there’s crack at Disneyland?” So it’s funny because they’re very focused on the sex and the drugs, and I feel like Americans were more focused on how does the book fit into like a certain kind of literature that has to do with California and Los Angeles.
L: Did you translate it yourself? If so, what was that process like for you? If not, what was it like to be translated by someone else into a language that you yourself speak?
C: I translated it myself with the help of a writer friend who is also a translator. It was a very difficult process because I feared I would never find Eugenia’s voice if I wrote it in Italian, but after a few pages I was back in there, same mood, same book, just a tiny bit different. I see the two versions now as non-identical twins. Each one has a little extra secret about something that the other doesn’t. I am very happy with the Italian version and it gave me a lot of courage. Now I know I don’t have to hide behind a mask. I can find a way to write in both languages and make them my own… It is a bit of a long process, but it’s one I trust. So far the book is in English and Italian, but I am hoping for Dutch, French, and Spanish. I read some French and Spanish and I’d be very curious to see what could come of that.
L: You were saying that writing in another language is like putting on a different dress or wearing a mask. The mask image definitely resonates with me. I grew up in a tiny rural town in Connecticut, and there was one boy in my high school French class who went abroad during our junior year. I was so jealous of him—that he was going to become fluent in another language. We began writing letters to each other in French like pen pals. (This was in 1997, so pre-email, really). I wanted the opportunity to use my French more and he was actually very lonely in France and had gone away to escape a bad family situation at home. Writing to each other in French, which was neither of our first languages, allowed us to share more openly than we would have in English. There was this remove, both because we were writing rather than speaking, but also because if anyone else found the letters who didn’t speak French, they wouldn’t be able to read them. So there was an added protection there too. I made a short film about the experience actually, and the narrator says the same thing, that writing in another language was like wearing a mask or playing a character.
C: Oh cool! Do you have it? I wanna see it.
L: I will send it to you.
L: I read a piece a couple of years ago in the New York Times called “Born Again in a Second Language,” by Costica Bradatan. He talks about how when you write in another language there’s this place where you’re between that language and your native one, where you cease to be. You’re in a kind of limbo. I wondered if that was something that resonated with you at all.
C: Absolutely. I love that image. This idea of like, a disappearance that happens, or this abolishment of your personality. The language you’re born into holds the memory of trauma, of evolution, of disappointment, of the first love. There’s all that story behind it, whereas the new language is kind of like an empty slate. It’s kind of a meditation, I think in some ways, it is like a nowhere zone.
L: Speaking of meditation, I know that you do or have done Transcendental Meditation and I wondered if you could describe the feeling of being in a meditative state and compare that to the feeling of writing (or even speaking, I suppose) in your non native language. Is your head as full of chatter when you’re writing in English as it might be when you’re writing in Italian? Or when you’re writing English, is the chatter still there, but in Italian?
C: I shamefully admit that after years of diligent [meditation] practice I completely fell off the wagon. I am not sure when it happened or why, but I think it has to do with kids and routine and very little to do with language.
L: The way Bradatan puts it, there are also “two selves:” the self in the native language and the new self in the new language. I really related to that, because when my husband and I were in an open relationship, I was dating a woman who was from Spain and I wanted really desperately to speak Spanish (just like I had desperately wanted to speak French in high school) so I asked her to speak only Spanish with me. Looking back, I think another reason I did that was that I wanted to try to maintain these two selves and these two relationships and keep them separate. There was the self who spoke English with my husband and the self that spoke Spanish with her. So if I said “I love you” in Spanish, it didn’t take away from the “I love you” I said in English to my husband. At least that was how I rationalized it in my head. I don’t know if it really worked though. (Laughs)
C: I think it makes sense, and also amazing that you’re in an open relationship with your husband, I applaud you for that.
L: Well, no longer.
C: Ah. No longer, okay.
L: I want to go back to something you were alluding to before, when you were talking about how you found your voice in English. Do you think that is in part a product of the fact that when you’re writing in a language you’re not as familiar with, you don’t have access to clichés or generic phrases, so maybe it forces you to be more original with the way you word things?
C: I think, in a sense, my language became this weird Italian version of the English language. I would always have people edit my work because there were too many Italianisms. But after a while I kind of was like, “look you guys, this is it, this is who I am.” Half and half. The language is gonna be half and half, and I’m gonna be half and half when I talk, and it’s gonna be weird and people are gonna be like Where is that accent from? or What’s that word? What are you talking about? I think it makes you who you are. There are a lot of imperfections, even in the novel, not necessarily in terms of language, but this imperfect state of being which is what happens when two very different halves come together.
L: Have you read Jhumpa Lahiri’s book In Other Words about writing in Italian and if so, did you read the Italian or the English?
C: I read it in Italian. I think she does an exceptional job of writing in Italian. It’s really crazy because I met Jhumpa not that long after she moved to Italy, and we are at times in touch and she was friends with Francesca so I would see her at dinner parties and basically in the span of a year she mastered the Italian language and prose. It’s really crazy. Even her accent is incredible.
L: I’m so in awe of that. I’ve read all these things that say that if you don’t start speaking the other language at a very early age, like by age three, you basically have no chance of ever being fluent, but it sounds like maybe that’s not the case for certain people.
C: I think it’s hard for most, but there’s definitely some geniuses out there and I think she’s one of them.
L: I also think it’s really interesting that she made a point of not wanting to translate the Italian to the English herself.
C: I think the English was translated by Ann Goldstein, the woman who translates Ferrante, if I’m not mistaken.
L: I read an interview with her where she talked about not feeling at home in any language because she was raised in India speaking Bengali but also learning English very intensively and now that she’s invested so much time into learning Italian, she said that she doesn’t feel at home in any language. I wondered if you felt more at home in Italian or English, having spent so many years in America before moving back to Rome?
C: I think I feel at home in English when I have to express a creative idea even if it’s something I feel or an idea that I have, if it’s something new. And in Italian I think I feel at home because I can speak of subtler emotions.
L: That makes sense.
C: Feelings are Italian, ideas are English. Let’s put it that way.
L: Is there a word or phrase in Italian that you particularly love that doesn’t translate into English? I know you were saying you used to literally translate idioms.
C: There’s a bunch. I thought it was very funny when I was doing the Italian translation of the book, I was thinking about all these words and realizing that some word [in Italian], something that had to do with care-taking, doesn’t translate into English. Italian has many different words that mean “to look over / to look after / to care for someone / to protect someone.” The word I was thinking of is Vegliare—it basically means to look over someone while they’re resting. There’s a lot of care-taking words that don’t have an English equivalent.
L: I’m not surprised. Our sort of every-man-for-himself kind of mentality in America doesn’t necessitate those words.
C: On the other hand there’s a lot of English words for things that sparkle and not that many at all in Italian. I think of the idea of the bright lights of America, the big cities, the idea of everything that is new, shining and luminous, and in Italian, there’s like one word for it.
L: What about your children? Do you speak to them in English ever?
C: That’s a very tough spot for me because I really have been so adamant about wanting them to speak English and taking them to America this summer. They did the whole book tour with me. Anita, the younger one is two years old so she’s very malleable, but Sebastiano developed a kind of refusal, you know, like: what is this language that takes my mother away from me? I can’t understand what she says when she’s talking about these things and it basically pisses me off, so he refuses to speak English with me. He goes completely blank when I try to speak to him in English, but if there’s other people around him that speak English, anything that doesn’t have to do with me and the English language, then he’ll go with it, but it’s been a struggle.
L: I find this idea of a language taking you away from someone very interesting. Did you feel like writing in English was a way to distance yourself from your family as well?
C: I never wanted to distance myself from my family, even though I essentially did so by staying in America after they moved back to Italy, but it was never about the language. We moved to the United States together so in a sense we all had a fascination for the English language and its idioms. If anything the English language has brought us together. It allows us for more humor and we can say some delicate things in English, especially my brother and I. Italian is the language we fight in, English is the language we make up in. (“It’s all good, I love you” is a great classic.)