The words that bind us

Nostalgia, lies, loneliness and love remain favourite themes for author award-winning author Pierre Mejlak. He speaks to Teodor Reljic about his latest short story collection.

“Sometimes, a couple who are Maltese-speaking will switch to English in the bedroom… simply because, in that moment of awkwardness, they feel more comfortable using English, because that’s what they know from films, and they wouldn’t really find the necessary equivalents in Maltese…”

Language is indeed an intimate affair for author Pierre J. Mejlak, whose second short story collection, Dak li l-lejl ihallik tghid, was published by Merlin last month.

Mejlak has enjoyed what is probably an unprecedented degree of success for an up-and-coming writer on the local scene. With a number of children’s books under his belt, Mejlak first came to public attention with the novella Rih Isfel, which was eventually adapted into a TV series.

But, bolstered by Merlin Publishers’ drive towards modernising the way local fiction is produced, presented and even launched, his subsequent short story collections – Qed Nistenniek Niezla max-Xita preceded in Lejl in 2009 – have won Mejlak quite a following.

Reading through Lejl, it’s not difficult to see why. Written in a simple style that reflects, with effortless authenticity, the language of the contemporary Maltese, Mejlak weaves emotional – and often deceptively casual – stories of “nostalgia, lies, loneliness and love.”

“If you’re going to write in as authentic a tone as possible, you need to keep the Maltese-English dynamic alive. Because it is alive. We will always pepper our conversations with the other language because that’s the way we talk, that’s what comes naturally to us,” Mejlak tells me over an espresso at Inspirations Café.

When I mention that perhaps, a puritan attitude to Maltese literature is still very much around, he reassures me that “this is changing.”

“Take my launch. A good number of people there were people who wouldn’t have been caught dead with a Maltese book – you could say they were of the ‘pepe’ crowd. But Merlin has done a great job of packaging their books, and ensuring they are polished with the necessary care. It’s actually cool to read Maltese literature now.”

He apologises for being “overdressed”, as he had to come straight from work… and while he remains affable throughout our interview, I am somewhat intrigued with the way he processes my questions.

Unlike a high percentage of people I interview face to face, he doesn’t ramble on and go off on tangents, but delivers answers in compact chunks – indicating that he’s ready for the next question with a smile and a nod. I’m hardly surprised when he later tells me that his “background is in media and communications,” especially when Lejl itself enjoyed an interesting Facebook campaign leading up to its release.

Merlin teased prospective readers with high quality photographs posted at random intervals on the social networking site, tastefully emblazoned with quotes from the collection, the date of the launch… and nothing else. “I left the campaign entirely in the hands of Chris [Gruppetta, Director of Publishing at Merlin] – I don’t think it’s a good idea for a writer to get too involved in these kind of things because they might not have a wide enough perspective. But we both wanted to make sure that we don’t smother people with it, and that the campaign itself is delivered with a certain poise.”

But while Mejlak’s veneer is polished, his work deals with people on an emotional tether. I enjoyed my first taste of Lejl last summer, when Mejlak read the story Mort naraha, pa at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival in Floriana. The backdrop of a balmy summer breeze proved to be ideal, as we listened to Mejlak’s confident delivery of the heartstring-tugging tale of a son globe-hopping to meet his dying father’s lover.

Equally resonant but far more painful is Nixtieq Nghajjat lil Samirah – winner the European Sea of Words award, and included in the American anthology Words Without Borders. Told through the raw perspective of a recently hospitalised narrator, the story could easily have been a ‘Disney’-fied take on the need for multicultural tolerance… were it not for the fact that Mejlak manages to hit emotional pressure points with remarkable skill.

But there’s another aspect of Mejlak’s character that appears to be in conflict with his carefully-honed public persona, and which is reflected in the collection itself. “I am a deeply nostalgic person – I heard it’s a Cancerian’s trait! You know how it is: all they’re expected to do is wash plates and cry over them… and you’ll sooner catch me dreaming about what happened five years ago, rather than planning what I’ll do in five years’ time…”

But while he admits that this trait may not make life easier, it certainly gave him the impetus to craft together the collection itself, which is also informed by Mejak’s life experience... or, perhaps, the more accurate word to use if we’re talking about nostalgia would be ‘perceptions…’

“I was born in Gozo, and I distinctly remember how, on days when the sky was clear, you could see Sicily from a rooftop – sometimes, you would even see the cars passing by! This always gave me a sense that the world outside was close by…” And having been a member of the ‘Great Brussels Diaspora’ of translators, Mejlak carried this feeling into his adult life.

“Abroad, my attitude to Malta always fluctuated – sometimes it looks worse, sometimes better… but what remained constant is the sense of always living in between.”

In a way this is the ultimate plight of the nostalgic wanderer – nothing in the physical world will fully satisfy you, so you’re doomed to live in a miasma of memories and dreams. But this wistfulness is what gives the stories a haunting mood – and lends the collection a unifying thread (it is even flanked by a loose prologue and epilogue).

Lejl in particular has a certain cohesion – “I hoped that the stories would blend together in an indirect way, much like a concept album” – that betrays Mejlak’s current ambitions for the near future.

“My next book has to be a novel!” Mejlak says, claiming that, at the end of the day – and notwithstanding his success in the short story genre – he still has “a fetish for the novel.”

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