Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie talks to Maltese author and performer Loranne Vella about her collection of short fiction, what will it take for me to leave, the influence of performance on her work, memory as a liberating and imprisoning force, European feminism and her upcoming novel, Marta Marta.
Hello Loranne. It’s been a while since you wrote your collection of short stories, what will it take for me to leave, which was recently published by Praspar Press and translated into English by Kat Storace. How has it been from the first time you wrote the collection until now?
It’s been five years since I wrote the book. It’s amazing for me that so much attention has been given to it through the translation. Perhaps it has been given more attention; there’s more focus on the translation than the original. I don’t know how to take that. I wrote it in 2016, so it’s been a while, and in the meantime I’ve worked on another novel. One of the questions that you said you would ask me was, ‘how did this collection of short stories come about?’ I have to mention what came just before that, because we all know that one thing leads to another. Between 2012 and 2016, I was working on the novel that came before what will it take for me to leave, which was called Rokit. It was my first novel for adults. It was a very ambitious work for me – a voluminous book. It took me four years to write it and really get to know the characters and create this complex plot with time travel and space travel, and as soon as that was over I said I want to do the opposite of that! During the summer of 2016, I gave myself an exercise to write one story per day, a very short story, without planning what to write. I said to myself that I will go somewhere, to a cafe or a library, and look around me, open a book, see an exhibition or something, and form an idea and write a story, and it’s done. And those were the stories that made up what will it take for me to leave. It took me a whole summer. However, certain aspects are still there. I mentioned that in the novel where I touch on time travel and in these stories I travel back in a different way, with memories, for example.
Time travel strikes me as a trope of feminist writing. The philosopher Julia Kristeva writes a lot about time travel and how we hold each others’ pasts within ourselves. Were you thinking about that as you wrote?
Up until this collection of short stories, I have to admit that I never really confronted the feminist question on a large scale, and I never called myself a feminist until very recently. My way of dealing with being a woman and also writing was to fight off any comments like ‘you’re good as a female writer’. This idea of placing me in a category where I can only compete with women writers, not all writers, bothered me a lot. This came very early on, which was the reason why I started writing Rokit in 2012. I wanted to write a novel where you wouldn’t realise whether it was a woman or a man writing. At the same time, I wasn’t being an activist feminist at all. But after writing what will it take for me to leave something happened, and this brought me to the question of feminism. There’s a little story here: the original book is Mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa. Mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa [what will it take for me to leave in Maltese], and when I wrote the stories I sent them to my publisher and he said, ‘I’m sorry, short stories, they’re not very popular’ and I received my first rejection letter and I became very worried.
What I did was I created a performance collective. I come from the world of theatre, and I had been doing theatre since 1991, but when I left Malta it was very difficult to continue, which is why I focussed on writing. But I was missing the stage and I thought maybe these stories have potential, not as literature but maybe as theatre pieces. To cut a very long story short, I created this collective – Barumbara Collective – with artists, not just theatre people, but also photographers, musicians, digital artists. We were a group of eight people and in December 2018 we put on my most ambitious theatre performance to date. It was based on these short stories. We called it Verbi: Mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa. There the idea of the verbs [after which each short story is titled] came along. The first, ‘everyday verbs’, wasn’t there originally – that came afterwards, through this performance. The photographer involved in the project, who is Serbian but lives in Malta – I found out that he is actually a publisher and after that collaboration he said we could publish the stories. So the photos included in the book are his.
One thing that comes through really strongly is that the body is so vividly written in the text. I was wondering what it was that led you to embed the body so deeply into the stories ‘everyday verbs’, ‘layer by layer’ and ‘comb’, in particular. I definitely felt the fleshiness of the words. Do you think this came from the performance you had done and that it informed the text? Or were there other things going on there?
That’s a good question. I feel that when I am dealing with characters, the veracity, the genuine character of a persona, is maybe the result of all those years of doing theatre. For me, it was very important to have credible characters, even if they’re fantastical; that they have to be credible for the spectators and for the readers. I like to work a lot on detail. Detail is about zooming in, doing microscopic work, making sure that things really work on a very small scale so that they can work on a bigger one. Working with these short stories is different to working on a long novel: this veracity has to come out in a much shorter story. Coming from the world of theatre, I was always very interested in the body, and the work on the body. One of the key questions in theatre is whether the work of the actor is true or false, in the sense that the actor is acting. Is that a true action or a lie? Is it fictitious, is it always pretend? The way I dealt with it was that the action is real. It is real for the actor. What the spectator sees is the story unfolding in front of their eyes, and that is also true.
And speaking of action and the body, when I wrote the stories I didn’t have a title in mind or know what was bringing them all together. They are gelled together. There was a point when I was thinking about this in terms of a building with different floors and different apartments, and the camera on the outside was zooming in like a drone [reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window] – seeing one room then coming out again and going in another room, and there’s a main character in each room with their fears – and this idea of a room, of a home, is very important, as the body is the first home, so it’s like a Russian doll. This becomes really interesting when you notice the title has changed so much from the Maltese to the English version, because in Maltese it says ‘from the front door inwards’, like take a look inside (me); it’s about looking in, whereas the English title, which is taken from the story ‘disappearing act’, is about someone who is very comfortable at home, in this space, in this world.
Something you said earlier has really stuck with me, about the way in which we perform our identity and whether the actor on the stage is in this infra-thin between the performance of himself and the Other, that there’s this multiple set of identities he is holding. I’m just thinking that it’s really prescient, thinking about contemporary debates regarding identity politics. Has that informed the way you have understood the book more recently?
Actually, it was also what I was thinking about while I was writing it, because many years ago – it must have been when I was in my twenties and I was studying the dramaturg Luigi Pirandello – one thing that really interested me was the way he dealt with his characters. Pirandello talks about the ‘polyhedron self’, that every person is like a many shaped object, and when a person meets another person it is just one side meeting another side, but the rest of the shape is not perhaps in full view, and that stayed with me all these years because I felt that is how I lived my life. It is all about relationships. We are not alone. The way we live our life, experience the self, is what is being created in the presence of the o/Other.
It’s so interesting reading your work in an age of huge image sharing, because you are giving us a glimpse into people’s lives. We begin to reveal a few layers on social media, it’s very performative, but it definitely gave your collection of short stories a contemporary piquancy.
I was thinking about this today. I was born in the seventies, and there is not one single video clip of me before I was in my late twenties, maybe thirties. There are some photos, though not that many, and they are really special – I know them by heart. The first few are black and white, and they are very precious. And the reality today, my son, he’s nine years old, and he plays the piano, and yesterday I happened to find the video of the very first few weeks when he was trying to play some notes. And there is evidence. I had forgotten that moment, because I hadn’t seen it in many years. And he could see it. He could confront who he is now, only nine, with how he was five, six years ago. And I was a bit jealous, because when I was growing up I couldn’t confront myself with a previous me. This idea – which is really the core of this collection of short stories – that we have memories with which to travel back in time, to get a glimpse of who we were, because we are changing all the time. And this idea of going back – you mentioned memory objects – for people who do not have the facility of looking at a video clip which shows them, very quickly, they don’t even need to conjure up any memory. If they don’t have that, then they have created something else as a substitute. It’s not a substitute – this came first actually, of keeping objects that will trigger off a memory. Not necessarily a 100% true memory, but it’s enough for us to have a connection with our previous selves. This really is the core of the whole book. That, and this idea that because of these many previous selves, and because we are multifaceted, we also have the capacity of being plural rather than singular.
I’m wondering if there are any key influences – philosophical, artistic, literary – that informed what will it take for me to leave?
Not directly in the sense that I read a lot, though up to that point I was mostly influenced by other authors, literary authors. It’s only recently that I am focussing more on philosophical rather than literary works for my own writing. It was actually philosophical thought filtered already by other authors. What I wanted to get from reading other authors was discover how to create my own style of writing, my own narrative techniques. As for the analysis behind that, I tend to analyse my own life a lot, so there’s a lot of autobiographical elements in the stories.
You asked me if there were any authors that influenced this collection. It’s been a while, and I know that I did not read specifically for this collection – I did a lot of reading for the novel that came before that – but a few books I was reading at the time come to mind. One of them is Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing. It’s about this elderly woman who has dementia and solves a question from when she was a young woman. I found it amazing because we were really in her mind. It’s in the first person, and she tells her own story. It’s so funny, but also very profound – and it had a profound effect on me, and may have indirectly influenced the story ‘piss and holy wafers’. There was an old relative of mine that I used to visit all the time, and you see all these old people, and the nurses caring for them say ‘how are you doing today’, and I don’t think that anyone knows what their story is, what they were doing before this. So that is something that I wanted to tackle, by really going into the inside of one of these characters and finding the story in there.
I was talking with my grandfather about your book, and we were talking about how much you need to pin down a memory and how much the real is whatever your mind holds, constructs, makes exist.
Sometimes memories can be liberating but they can also be a cage. How to have a healthy relationship with our memories, so that we don’t cling to them so much but we don’t let them go either – that, to me, was a really important question. All my life I knew that I have to take care of my memories. I am a diary person, I have a whole cupboard with the diaries which I intend to reread very soon before I start losing my memory. All my life I have been taking care of my memories with photos, letters, diaries. There was a time when we started texting each other and I remember copying my first messages as I felt that if my phone broke, where would they go. Soon I realised this was a crazy idea.
Would you be happy to share any of the content from your next project?
I would be very happy, as we have now reached the last stage and it will go to print in a matter of weeks. It’s a novel – another voluminous one – and it’s about women, really. That which I felt was lacking a few years ago, I realised I have to tackle in my own way. It’s about feminism; feminism in Malta specifically. It’s a story about these five characters, and they’re all under the same roof but of all different ages. The older characters are eighty years old and the youngest one is twenty-one, and it’s their story. There are five chapters and each one is telling her story. Each one of the five characters has had to face oppression, mostly because of patriarchy, and there is a lot of work on that. So my reading suddenly really changed these past three years. I really wanted to tackle feminism from a European perspective. I had to tackle it from that vicinity. So my reading started with Simone de Beauvoir then moved onto much later thinkers like Monique Wittig. Then I moved to Paul Preciado, because one of the characters, the youngest one actually, is a hard core feminist, an activist, a radical feminist, which if you take something like that to an extreme, ends up being transphobic. I wanted to deal with this because these are questions the younger generation in Malta are dealing with in their everyday lives, but there is no literature, there is nothing, written in Maltese. We get a lot from America, from the UK as well, and I wanted to offer something different, something that cuts across and asks these questions, but in Maltese, because we are not fluent in our language when we come to questions of such a profound nature.
It sounds like this new work is aiming to create a political imaginary.
Basically, with each character the propulsion in their life is coming from the books they’ve been exposed to. The older women, they were mostly exposed to the lives of the saints, because they come from a very conservative and religious background, which we have to deal with in Malta. So, those were the books that they were reading (the Bible, the missal, the lives of the saints). You see what the other characters are reading, the gender fluid character Damian who becomes Jeanne, he/she has travelled a lot, but they are Maltese, so it’s what they are bringing back. And the youngest one, she is only visiting Malta for the first time in the story, because she comes from Belgium, and her parents are Maltese. She is going there with her baggage of knowledge and research and ideas, and she is trying to implement them in this reality where certain questions are not tackled. The hot issue in Malta at the moment is abortion, because we are still fighting for reproductive rights, and it’s on hold. The discussion is not even open, so this is why I don’t want to hear the slogans being stolen from different cultures; I want us to create our own slogan in Maltese to fight this war, because this is also an oppression which we are facing.
And just one final question. Does this new book have a title?
Yes, It’s called Marta Marta. The title comes from the Bible actually; it’s the story of Mary and Martha, and tackles the idea that women exist either in the kitchen or the nunnery. Also the title refers to the fact that Marta comes from Aramaic and means ‘the mistress of the house’, and the whole story is happening in this house. The house is the fifth character in the novel, and it is a she because in Maltese the word house is feminine. I hope it does well with the Maltese public. I gave it to some readers who have already come back with some beautiful comments, so it’s given me a lot of hope and encouragement.
This interview was written as part of our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
We also welcome pitches and contributions from writers, artists, film-makers and researchers outside of the Lucy Writers’ community. Please enquire for book reviews too.
For submissions relating to trans and non-binary culture email firstname.lastname@example.org
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For reviews, non-fiction submissions, artwork and general enquiries email firstname.lastname@example.org
Submissions are open from 6 January 2022 until late March 2022.
For the full Call Out, click here.
Feature image of Loranne Vella is courtesy of Praspar Press. Lucy Writers would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Jen Calleja and Kat Storace of Praspar Press, Loranne Vella and Kathryn Cutler-Mackenzie for this excellent interview.