Like a punch in the stomach | Loranne Vella

Author and performer Loranne Vella, whose debut short story collection Mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa was just shortlisted for the National Book Prize, speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the varied influences that inform her work

Loranne Vella and fellow performers launching ‘mill bieb il-gewwa’ with a reading and performance in November 2019 (Photography: Joe Gatt)
Loranne Vella and fellow performers launching ‘mill bieb il-gewwa’ with a reading and performance in November 2019 (Photography: Joe Gatt)

First of all, congratulations for being shortlisted for the National Book Prize. You’re no stranger to the Prize, of course, but how does it feel for this book in particular to be receiving this kind of attention?

Thank you. I’m very happy, of course. mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa is my first collection of short stories, so yes, it’s the first time that I find myself in the short story category of the National Book Prize. It has always been important for me as a writer to not get stuck in any one category, or genre. I wrote these short stories just a few months after handing the manuscript of my novel Rokit to my publisher at Merlin. Having spent almost five years in the company of [lead characters] Petrel, Benjamin and Veronica, I desperately needed to experiment with a style and methodology that would be the opposite of Rokit. This experiment resulted in a collection of very short stories – some are barely three pages long – with just one quick but penetrating glimpse at each character, a technique comparable to that of a camera zooming in and out of different apartments in the same building. I wrote most of the stories during the summer of 2016.

Short story collections are fractal, multifaceted beasts by nature. But is there a unifying factor behind mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa? If so how did you first pin it down, and how is its influence felt throughout the stories?

Short stories can read like a punch in the stomach. These are the kind of short stories that I enjoy reading, and consequently the ones I wanted to write. I thought of writing a series of stories which I could treat as different sides on a multifaceted object, a many-headed monster, if you like. Before I actually wrote any of them, I was thinking of myself, the writer, as this inquisitive, voyeuristic eye looking from the outside at characters alone in their homes. I knew this was going to be the unifying factor – each story as an apartment, with the building as the collection. I also knew that there might be one empty apartment, in which case I would focus on an object instead, and I would treat it in the same way as I would a human character. This does not mean that the characters in mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa necessarily live in the same block of flats. Whether they do or not is irrelevant. This building is the image I had in mind a priori, the one which served as a trigger for the whole project, and which I carried with me throughout the writing process almost till the very end.

(Photography: Joe Gatt)
(Photography: Joe Gatt)

The collection is also tied to a theatrical performance. Were the stories the main prompt, or was it the other way around? How would you say they inform each other?

The stories came first. I was ready to submit mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa for publication in 2017. The only problem was that I couldn’t find a publisher. It seems readers prefer novels to short story collections. This was problematic for me because I knew that the characters would end up haunting me until they found an audience. I can’t seem to be able to move on to the next project until I complete the previous one. And completion for me means making my work public. So while I waited for a publisher to show interest in this collection, in 2017 I got busy creating a performance art collective in Brussels – Barumbara Collective. As you know, I dedicate half my creative time and energy to literature, the other half to performance. However, I hadn’t been involved in theatre work for a while. Now I can truly say that the disappointment I felt when I received my first ever rejection letter from my publisher gradually, or perhaps very quickly, evolved into this creative urge to (re)approach theatre but this time round through my literary work.

So the second large-scale project by Barumbara Collective became this interdisciplinary performance art event titled Verbi: mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa, which took place in December 2018. This performance was a collaboration of eight Maltese and other European artists from different artistic spheres – drama, dance, installation art, photography, film, light design, music and sound design, literature – and it was manifested in a contemporary art space, Valletta Contemporary. As the title shows, it was inspired by some of the stories in this collection where each story focuses on an individual character in the act of performing mundane activities such as drinking a cup of coffee, taking a shower, combing one’s hair.  These seemingly habitual and quotidian actions (which I refer to as ‘everyday verbs’), in reality reveal more profound characteristics when examined closely, such as remembering specific moments in one’s past every time one such action is performed, the different ways in which we struggle to hide our fears and weaknesses, the actions we take to shape our future.

At the centre of each story is the idea that our actions hide and yet reveal who we are.

The event, which was the most ambitious performance project I ever produced, was a success and now more than ever I felt it was necessary to publish the short story collection on which it was based. The publication became an unexpected follow-up project from the performance event because it took the shape of a literary-photographic collaboration with photographer and publisher Zvezdan Reljic/Ede Books. Zvezdan, as photographer, was one of the eight artists involved in ‘Verbi’. For the publication, he worked on a new set of photographs, different from the ones used in the performance. As one would expect, the performance left its mark on the stories, and as I revisited them to prepare them for publication, I rewrote some parts, developed others, and removed two stories completely.

The poem Il-verbi ta’ kuljum, which now heads the collection, was specifically written for the performance but as it became emblematic of the underlying theme, I decided to include it in the collection as well. mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa came out in November 2019. Once again, the book launch, like almost all of my book launches, took the form of a performance/photographic exhibition.

(Photography: Joe Gatt)
(Photography: Joe Gatt)

What do you make of the local literary scene? What would you change about it?

Since I live abroad, I’m not sure I can answer this question properly. I write in Maltese, for a Maltese audience, and I am involved in several local literary events such as the annual Book Festival organised by the National Book Council in November, the annual Mediterranean Literature Festival in August or some of the monthly Open Mic sessions, organised by Inizjamed. I am also aware of the relevant work by groups like HELA, the Hub for Excellence in the Literary Arts, and am in contact with many other Maltese authors, poets and translators who contribute immensely to the literary scene in Malta.

It makes me very happy to see collaborations between different writers, such as writers translating each other, or editing each other’s work, which was the case with mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa, edited by Antoine Cassar. Also, this year, L-Akkademja tal-Malti is celebrating one hundred years since the founding of L-Għaqda tal-Kittieba Maltin, by preparing a special edition of its journal Il-Malti.

For such a small island I feel that a great deal is going on. I am always impressed by the sheer amount of new publications every year. I am also aware of the incentives that are now in place targeting authors and publishers when it comes to publishing works whose selling point is literary rather than commercial; subsidiary funds which target the film industry to promote the rendition of literary works into film; translation funds that promote Maltese literature overseas, and so on. The abolition of censorship just a few years ago obviously also plays a huge role in the freedom which Maltese authors now exercise in their creative work. I know all this but I know it from a certain distance.

There is definitely much more going on in the day-to-day business of the Maltese literary scene, but this is what I see from where I am. If I could change anything, I would like to hear readers say they enjoy reading in Maltese as much as they would in any other language.

(Photography: Joe Gatt)
(Photography: Joe Gatt)

What’s next for you?

Since October, I’ve been busy working on a new novel which is very different from anything I’ve written so far. I won’t mention the title yet because it has already changed four times, so by the time it’s ready for publication it might change another four times or more. If Rokit is mostly about men (Petrel, Benjamin, Albert, Sacco), this one is entirely (so far) about women. It is not just about female characters but also about what it is to be a woman from the point of view of four very different characters, one of whom is a radical feminist.

But characterisation is not the only big difference. I am writing in a way in which I’ve never written before. The focus is not on plot or character development, as was usually the case in my previous longer works, but on language itself. I am experimenting in how to write about certain things in Maltese which are, most of the time, expressed not in our mother tongue, but in English. I have no idea how long it will take me to finish this work. I’m hoping this time it will be less than five years.

Mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa is published by Ede Books