Bodies traverse histories, tap into memories and are saturated with feelings and experiences in Loranne Vella’s superb short fiction collection, What Will It Take For Me To Leave, translated by Kat Storace.
Time wrinkles and skin holds, memories, experiences, personas, in Loranne Vella’s new collection of vignettes what will it take for me to leave. It is a profoundly sad, at times humorous, very human book of short stories, translated from Maltese by co-founder of Praspar Press, Kat Storace, and translated from life by author and performer Vella. These short stories slip between characters and temporalities, enmeshing their protagonists in complex amorous and familial relationships, as well as fragmenting their bodies between past, present and tomorrow. As Vella writes, “Her eyes were shut./She took a deep breath./And she heard her mother’s voice whisper in her ear”. In all of Vella’s shorts, the body is a conduit for re-visitings.
Intergenerational relationships run throughout Vella’s vignettes, mediated by memories and memory-objects that bring together temporally and experientially disparate parts of the self. In ‘comb’, Vella excavates the origin of one woman’s solitude by tracing the hands (and hair) through which “her grandmother’s comb…five inches long, the colour…of Pears soap, with narrowly spaced fine teeth” has passed. In this vignette, Vella uses this memory-object to bring history to the body, rather than imposing the body onto history. In doing so, she disrupts chronological, linear notions of time to “articulate…submerged problems…that condition us without our fully understanding why or how” (Koopman, 2013), proffering a psychoanalytic notion of time that, mediated by memory, is necessarily anachronistic, a-linear and at once with the present. All oriented about an amber toothed comb: it is petrified time.
Indeed, objects, environments and emotions are conjured in vivid detail in what will it take for me to leave, begging the question as to whether the black and white photographs by Zvezdan Reljić that illustrate the book are really necessary. In ‘layer by layer’ Vella’s sensorial prose brings the body to the text in a markedly everyday, unnerving passage: “she’d woken up with the acrid smell of sweat clinging to her, especially under her armpits, her breasts, and between her thighs…she needed to scrub on the scented foam and let it soak into her pores so that later perhaps, when she would almost certainly break into a sweat again — her pores would waft with the scent of vanilla and sweet almond, and not the sourness of vomit”. When this book ages the paper will weep vanillin too, and the infra thin between the body and the text will further narrow, and the sourness will still prick the tongue, but the sweet almond will still not quite conceal the fear or the pain or the trauma that, as Vella shows, will continue to seep from this woman’s skin.
However, despite these rich moments of prose, passages sometimes feel over written – descriptions overexposing images made by our inner eyes – taking away that sense of immersion that fills the majority of Vella’s short stories. But then we are in again, and these stories shift us in and out of spaces, and they pierce our own skin, and they merge with our own memories. In ‘piece by piece’, one woman isn’t sure “if these fragments were actual memories, or whether she’d stolen them from old photographs”. Neither was I. ‘cup of coffee’ was a man that I had seen drinking at a coffee shop. But then someone else’s name, smell, image passes through the words and we are back with Vella’s characters in care homes, train carriages, merry-go-rounds, always in transit between.
There are, of course, social and cultural issues at play here too. Read under the conditions of a global pandemic and its associated pressures on/exposure of social care services, ‘piss and holy wafers’ reads as a tale of mis-care, directed by an elderly man named Ġuż, whose past trauma becomes enmeshed with his present life in the care home. Mistrust is at the heart of this story, especially of clock-time, which by way of Vella’s time-travelling prose shows us its fragility, its impossibility, and its failure to affix events and experiences to discrete moments in our personal histories. In ‘piss and holy wafers’, Ġuż’s father ‘beats…[him]…to the ground, knocking out a tooth once in a while’, so he tells us that ‘my teeth are still my own, the ones I’ve got left, and no doctor is going to shove some other person’s teeth into my mouth’ when we meet him in the care home. Ġuż’s father – ‘they locked him up’ – so he tells us that ‘just because they’ve locked me up in here, doesn’t mean I can’t still take them for a ride’. Ġuż commits a crime, so the carers tell him that ‘we’re going to have to run you under some water again…you’ve just thrown up’. Ġuż is afraid of care, but it is unclear how much of his personal freedom has been lost to institutionalisation and how much to the shot that killed Rożina and, in many ways, his father, in the life he lived before now. Ġuż has a secret, and it sits loaded in his mind.
Yet, what will it take for me to leave ends with another day happening, moving and passing into the next. That is, perhaps, what makes Vella’s short stories so relatable. Indeed, the final sentence, of the final day of the final chapter of the book is hopeful. Unlike ‘piss and holy wafers’, it is about agency. It is not “Some people simply get up and go”, but that too is about agency, and is my favourite sentence in the book, so I end with that.
This review 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.
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