Arts & Entertainment

Italian novelist Chiara Barzini revisits her teenage life in LA

Chiara Barzini used her personal experiences as a frustrated immigrant as fodder for her new book
Chiara Barzini used her personal experiences as a frustrated immigrant as fodder for her new book "Things That Happened Before the Earthquake." She spoke with KPCC's Morning Edition host Alex Cohen about the novel.
Jeanette Montgomery Barron
Chiara Barzini used her personal experiences as a frustrated immigrant as fodder for her new book
Chiara Barzini used her personal experiences as a frustrated immigrant as fodder for her new book "Things That Happened Before the Earthquake." She spoke with KPCC's Morning Edition host Alex Cohen about the novel.
Penguin Random House


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There are plenty of novels and memoirs from immigrants who made the difficult transition to a new life in here in Southern California.

A new addition to the canon comes from Italian writer Chiara Barzini. In 1993, her family left their idyllic life in Rome to try and break into the film industry. Barzini hoped she'd wind up in a glamorous spot, like Beverly Hills or somewhere along the beach.

Instead, they wound up in Van Nuys. 

Years later, she decided to use many of her experiences as the basis for her new novel "Things That Happened Before the Earthquake." Below is a short passage from it:

The signs that we were in the wrong city at the wrong time were ineluctable. First the echoes of the riots, then our cat Mao died under a car in front of our new home, but most importantly the only shops around our house were 99-cent stores. How could my father become rich and famous if he surrounded himself with cheapness? The forces were speaking clearly to us: go back to your country now.

These days, Barzini is living in Rome once again. But she recently dropped by KPCC to talk with Morning Edition Host Alex Cohen.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

How did growing up in Van Nuys affect your experience as an immigrant? 

We woke up the first day in our new house and I was very determined to go downtown, because I thought it was incredible we were living in this sprawled out place. That made no sense to me. So I walked down to Sepulveda Boulevard and I asked someone "How do I get downtown?" And the guy just looked at me and said "You want to walk?!" It was shocking that there was no center to L.A. And no beauty. So we were all upset at the beginning.

​In the story, a teenage boy is fatally shot in a drive-by shooting. Did you witness that sort of violence in real life?

One of my classmates, who was Iranian, was killed in a shoot out in a shopping mall.  This happened very shorty after I arrived. Afterwards, I tried to pick up the pieces of that and tied to figure out what that meant. He was just a kid and he was wearing baggy pants. People got the wrong impression of him and he was killed for that. It was my first sort of wake-up call to where I was and the anger that teenagers felt.

To hear more about Barzini's experiences and how they shaped her book, click on the blue play button above.