Loranne Vella | Shedding light on the complexity of feminism

Maltese writer, translator and winner of best novel at the National Book Prize 2023 for ‘Marta Marta,’ Loranne Vella speaks to LAURA CALLEJA on the process of crafting an award-winning book, as well as her journey as a writer

Loranne Vella (2018)
Loranne Vella (2018)

Could you tell us about your trajectory as a writer? 

I describe myself today as a writer, editor and translator, but this comes after some 14 years working exclusively in theatre. It was only when I left Malta to work as a translator at the European Parliament in 2005 that I made the shift from theatre to literature. I took small steps at first, and for the first 5-7 years I wrote only books for children and adolescents. I was amazed to see that they were quite a success, both with readers and with the judges of the National Book Prize. Around 2012 I felt confident enough to start working on a literary novel not aimed at a young audience, and this resulted in 'Rokit' which came out in 2017 and won the National Book Prize the following year. During this time I was still translating children’s books from French and Spanish into Maltese. However, after 'Rokit', I felt the need to start moving away from children’s literature and focus mainly on literary work.

The following work was 'mill-bieb ’il ġewwa', a collection of short stories. These were written because after 'Rokit,' I felt the need to write stories which would not take me five years to finish. However, while I was in search of a publisher for this collection, I decided to take a break from writing and work in performance for a while. This led to the creation of a performance group called Barumbara Collective in Brussels in 2017 with whom I worked on an interdisciplinary performance at Valletta Contemporary in 2018, titled Verbi: mill-bieb ’il ġewwa. Once the story collection did find a publisher (Ede Books in 2019) I could start focusing once again on working on a full-length novel—Marta Marta—which I wrote between 2019 and 2022. In 2023, Joe Gatt and I created Aphroconfuso (https://aphroconfuso.mt), an online literary journal in Maltese, of which I am also a co-editor and regular contributor. I am, however, also working on a new novel.

What was the process of crafting your award-winning book like?

'Marta Marta' was written mostly during the Covid years, so it was the result of endless months at home reading and writing. It was also the time when I decided to read mostly French literature and theory in the original, something which is immediately felt once you read 'Marta Marta'. The idea behind this was that I wanted to add a different layer to the feminist activism that I was seeing happening in Malta, which was mostly borrowing from theories from the US and the UK (readily available to us in English).

How did it feel to win the National Book Prize in 2023? Why is the NBP particularly important to 'Marta Marta'? 

I’m always happy to see my work rewarded with a prize, obviously.  But there are other rewards that make me very happy, such as when readers get in touch with me to tell me how they felt while reading my work. 'Marta Marta' is not just a story but also a political work, as I believe all literature should be to some extent. It is not simply throwing light on how things are—in this case, in terms of gender oppression in Malta—but also about how things could be different. Most of my writing is about how to find freedom from oppression. Rokit was about political oppression whereas Magna Mater was, among other things, about bullying. 'Marta Marta'  is about the different oppressions related to gender. The access to legal abortion, for example, is still not available in Malta and if a novel like 'Marta Marta'  could help change this unhappy situation, I would consider that to be a success for me as a writer. So perhaps the visibility awarded to this novel by the National Book Prize is one way of making this more possible.

Who are some of your favourite Maltese authors working today?

As the co-editor of Aphroconfuso, I am in contact with new writing in Maltese on a daily basis, and I can say that there are quite a number of amazingly good writers who are writing in Maltese today. Some have already been published elsewhere, such as Ryan Falzon’s 'Sajf', or Warren Bartolo’s translation of Sappho’s fragments, Noah Fabri’s 'Dar Imħawra' or Rowena Grech’s 'Ktieb tas-Sħaħar'. Not to mention the poetry of Antoine Cassar, Matthew Schembri, Leslie Vassallo, Matteo Pullicino and Maria Theuma. Then there are those who are writing in Maltese for the first time—such as Omar N’Shea, Davinia Hamilton, Romeo Roxman Gatt, Jimmy Grima, Karl Baldacchino and Joe Gatt, to name a few. Their work is really amazing and I’m very excited to have this opportunity of reading them, and of editing and publishing their work in the journal.

What’s next for you? 

I am currently working on a new novel which has no title yet. It is about the idea of getting out of the house and walking, away from home, away from the city and from all the comfort it offers. I am documenting this writing journey in a diary, entries of which are published every two months on Aphroconfuso. This diary entry appointment is my way of making sure that I write regularly and that I make progress with writing my novel. Because writing is like walking, one step after another, and after a long while you look back and you see that you’ve ventured quite far already.

In collaboration with the National Book Council, MaltaToday will be interviewing the winners of the 2023 National Book Prize and Terramaxka Prize for children and young adults. More information regarding the awards can be found at ktieb.org.mt/