Singing through the wreckage | Lara Calleja

Young author and activist Lara Calleja speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about her debut short story collection – and second published work following the 2016 novella ‘Lucy Min?’ – Kissirtu Kullimkien, which toggles between politically charged screeds against Malta’s overdevelopment drive and compassionate pleas for the marginalised members of society

Your debut novel Lucy Min? came out in 2016. How would you say this collection builds on what you learned when you wrote that book, its general reception and the feedback you’ve received since?

Kissirtu Kullimkien is definitely more political. Lucy Min? is written almost as a diary-form-novel with sporadic chapters about bold events that seemed to shape Lucy’s life.

However, while Kissirtu Kullimkien is certainly more political in many ways, it still gives vent to strong emotions that we can all relate to, irrespective of our differences.

I also naturally found myself using the same ‘writing tone’ – it’s a style I’m comfortable with, as it is very direct with all of its sharp edges and ‘shamelessness’.

For both books in fact the feedback was constant, simply because they both appeared to speak to people on a very personal level. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the ‘ideal purpose’ of literature, but the compliment is something I cherish, since, at the end of the day, relating to people is something which I prioritise as a basic necessity in both life and art.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for the fact that the characters are not in any way exceptional (‘m’huma ħadd speċjali’) but it is for that reason which I believe they easily resonate with all kinds of different people. Obviously, however, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Being open to constant criticism is a crucial part of the process.

Kissirtu Kullimkien rails very explicitly against issues such as overdevelopment and its many pitfalls, the plight of (particularly African) migrants in Malta and the mistreatment and marginalisation of all who would be considered ‘Other’ to the mainstream. Is writing a form of activism for you first and foremost, and were you at any point worried that this could overwhelm the artistic and narrative thrust of the stories?

A few months after Lucy Min? was published in 2016, I started writing again. At the time, the ongoing construction of a massive apartment block was happening just opposite from where I lived. Halfway through its completion, I went through a nervous breakdown – the noise, the dust, the ongoing chaos – it was too much and since I was going through a stressful time of my life, this made things much worse.

Though I always was politically engaged, it was during that time that my writing started shifting towards a more explicitly political bent. Some two years later, I also became an activist with Moviment Graffitti. There I found solace to belong within an organisation who had a structured approach to fight for a better standard of living, in every respect. People from all walks of life send us messages of concern and heartbreak, with issues ranging from bad working conditions to construction trauma and to all sorts of political issues, which affect the day-to-day life of many citizens.

However, I’ve also made sure that the political content of the short stories is balanced out evenly with its emotional resonance.

Lara Calleja
Lara Calleja

The collection is dedicated to the veteran author Immanuel Mifsud, and its political thrust mirrors Mifsud’s latest, often caustic missive, L-Aqwa Zmien. What kind of affinity do you feel towards Mifsud as an author, and to what extent would you say he’s influenced your work?

I have a profound respect for Immanuel Mifsud. His work was a wake-up call for me in many ways when I first came across it at the tender age of 17. Kimika was the first book of his that I had read, notable for its hard-hitting subject matter of drug abuse and prostitution and populated by dark but still resonant characters; all recounted through a very personal perspective, rather than the usual ‘us and them’ approach. The fact that I could relate to such characters at 17 years old – just fresh from Church secondary – was mind-blowing. I also appreciated his writing style, with its short and direct sentences. I feel an affinity to this stylistic approach even as an author myself, because it makes the work all the more accessible. I started writing the manuscript for Kissirtu Kullimkien back in 2016, so its themes were directly inspired by my own personal preoccupations at the time. On the other hand, I was happy that Immanuel had launched L-Aqwa Żmien during a time when our literary scenario was very much in need of that kind of writing. A lot was happening in the political sphere but no author appears to have been writing about it in such a direct way. Actually, the fact remains that Immanuel is one of the very few local authors who are vociferous on political issues.

He is unshackled by petty concerns and his voice is honest and genuine. Though cynical at times, he remains a sensible human being who is kind to the world around him… something that also comes across in his writings, despite the darkness that otherwise characterises it.

As one of Malta’s youngest published authors, what would you say are some of the key thematic and aesthetic priorities that you’d like to see tackled by your peers and yourself right now?

I would be lying if I said that our scene didn’t improve from when I first started really getting into Maltese literature, some 17 years ago. However, I feel there’s a lot of room of improvement in terms of fiction writing, or at least a large chunk of it. There’s very little variety in theme and tone across the board, I feel. This may or may not be a result of our ‘claustrophobic’ geographical and cultural reality, in which we’re all influencing each other without realising it. The formation of certain ‘literary circles’, inevitable as they may be, also contributes to the relatively homogenous output we’ve been seeing.

I also think that authors tend to tread too lightly when it comes to challenging subject matter.

Literature must be a safe space, like all forms of art are, and the author should never be in a position where they have to dance around issues such as sex, drugs and other not-entirely-pleasant aspects of our society which are also, however, undeniably a part of our national character. We also need to be more political in our outlook, and less concerned about any reputational fallout that may result as a result of our writing.

What do you make of the local literary scene and what would you change about it, particularly in light of the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Publishers are certainly suffering due to this situation, but such struggles are hardly a new thing for the industry, which does its very best to provide us with the best possible books. The market for Maltese-published books is already tricky enough to begin with, given the obvious statistical limitations of the market – i.e., Maltese-speaking people who are also literarily-inclined – but the distribution situation plunges the knife even deeper.

There’s a highly unfair system at play, where a single massive distributor in Malta literally buys books from the publishers at a ridiculous prize – cutting off more than 50% to the retail selling price. The publisher, with the ridiculously remaining net price, has to pay off authors’ royalties, design, proofreading, printing and pay wages to their employees. The National Book Council has thankfully flagged this issue more than once. I hope it will be given priority once all this is over, and that it is tackled in a way that benefits the publishers, authors and readers.

What’s next for you?

Currently, I am at crossroads, figuring out I had to change some crucial lanes in my life. So I am taking some time off to see where I want to be heading. However, writing has been with me for years and years, so it’s a crucial basic necessity. I do hope that with an open mind and constructive criticism, my writing will develop further in the years to come.

Kissirtu Kullimkien is published by Merlin Publishers