Uncovering a land of stories | Clare Azzopardi

The ever-productive Clare Azzopardi speaks to us about her collaborative project with photographer Gilbert Calleja and sociologist Nathalie Grima, L-Art tal-Kliem, for which the trio visited Palestine and its environs to interview some of the Maltese people stationed there. While discussing this powerful book – released in collaboration with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Merlin Publishers and APS Bank – she also chats about her picture book with Lisa Falzon, ‘Mingu’

Clare Azzopardi • Photo: Virginia Monteforte
Clare Azzopardi • Photo: Virginia Monteforte

What inspired you to partake in this project, and what were the initial stages of it like?

The idea for the book actually originated from Ambassador Simon Pullicino, who is based in Tel Aviv. The dream to interview the Maltese people who live in the Holy Land, was his.

And then, when he told us about this idea, my collaborators Nathalie Grima and Gilbert Calleja went for it all the way, because as you can imagine, it’s a unique experience… you would be hearing so much about Palestine, you would be protesting in favour of the Palestinians and writing about them and so on and then suddenly, the opportunity to visit this land comes up.

I remember the ambassador telling us that he couldn’t come up with all the funds himself, and here’s where the race to find sponsors started – which we eventually did, bringing APS Bank and Merlin into the fold.

I confess to feeling afraid en route to the place, but when we got there we never felt afraid, not at any point. Especially after having heard some of the nun’s stories (because the majority of the Maltese women we spoke to were nuns), who lived through both the first and second intifada, who took to the streets to protest with the students, who took the bus regardless without feeling any fear, who worked alongside the local people for years on end, and who continue to make Palestine into their home, irrespective of the conflicts and the tensions.

Did you have any particular expectations of the places and people that you would come across once you arrived? Did the experience live up to expectations?

We went around a lot. We never expected to visit all those various locations in just 12 days: Nazareth, Galilie, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Afula, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah. We would also have liked to visit Jenin, but unfortunately four students were killed due to a clash there around that time, and so we weren’t allowed to go.

L-Art tal-Kliem
L-Art tal-Kliem

As a writer with a keen interest in documenting the inner lives of women in particular, what kind of challenge did this project pose to your craft?

These were women I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise… women who are really and truly courageous. In my last short story collection, Kulhadd halla isem warajh, I presented a number of women – eccentric or strange by turns, call them what you will. They weren’t all heroic, and neither were they strong. There’s one character in particular – Margaret – who despite my best efforts, I simply cannot bring myself to love.

But upon visiting Palestine, I realised that the people – and the nuns in particular – are of a different stock entirely. After having spent a few hours with the Sisters of St Joseph, as well as the Franciscans, you start to realise just how different they are, that they’re nuns who left their native country at a very young age – without any experience but with a keen sense of adventure.

Now of course, the key difference between my short story collection and the women we met in Palestine is that one category of women is fictional whereas the other is decidedly not. The latter trusted me with their – real – names and, together with my friends and collaborators Gilbert Calleja and Nathalie Grima, I hope that I managed to etch them into the volume so that they will never be forgotten.

Which part of the experience still resonates with you?

As I’d already mentioned, the sheer courage of these women certainly still resonates with me. The way they welcomed us and practically told us their entire life story – as Sister Joanna Borg actually said.

But what also sticks with me is the simplicity of their daily life, and the refusal of many things we take for granted… including their very names. Can you imagine forgetting your very name and accepting to live under a new one?

Moving on to another recent project of yours – the picture book Mingu. The book is topical in some ways – dealing with the subject of hunting. Why did you choose to approach this material in this particular format, and what was it like collaborating with the book’s illustrator, Lisa Falzon?

Would you believe me if I told you that, given the choice, I would only ever write picture books? That is, I find this particular genre incredibly fascinating and complex. It allows me to say things in a more subtle way, under the cover of the illustrations, as it were. The illustrations can reveal one layer whereas the writings can reveal another. And the Lisa-Clare duo is perfect on that front.

I’ll just say this. There is a particular moment in the book – the point at which the titular flamingo is healed, gets on its feet and is bandaged up – that clearly alludes to Christ’s resurrection. This is all Lisa – I never made explicit reference to Christ in my script. It’s instances like these when I feel that Lisa and I are in a dialogue, the kind of creative dialogue that can only arise while working on a picture book. This is why I find the genre beautiful ­– it’s sensitive, rhythmic, humorous, sad… it’s a little bit of everything.

And to anyone who may think that I churn out books on a monthly, weekly or daily basis… I’d just like to point out that I had first proposed ‘Mingu’ to Merlin Publishers three years ago, only to have it refused. And thank God it was, too. Because thanks to this initial rejection, we kept working on the project bit by bit, three years on and off, until the entire team at Merlin was satisfied with what we’d come up with. Now I just hope the kids will love it too!

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

Having just come out of a week at the Malta Book Festival, I’d just like to say that, despite the National Book Council’s efforts to change this event for the better, I’m afraid it still remains very far from this aim.

It’s true that the Festival plays host to plenty of activities and features interesting authors. However, as more time goes by, the more I feel that this is neither a book festival nor a book fair… but rather simply a bazaar where certain publishers boast that they’ve released 30, 35 or 40 books in any given year – and I have serious doubts as to whether these publishers even read these books, let alone give them the editorial care that they need.

We’re still a long way ahead to being able to organise a proper Book Festival. Even a cursory glance at the book stands makes this readily apparent: there are very few publishers who present their books in a different way, and give them the dignity they deserve. For the bazaar to be changed into a festival, the entire mentality of the nation has to change in turn: starting with the kids who show up expecting to get books for free, to the adults who are shocked that a book costs €8 or more, and down to the publisher who’s happy to show off having churned out 30 titles in one year!

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