Sunday Spotlight on Authors Writing in Languages Spoken by Few: Interview with Maltese writer and translator Clare Azzopardi

by Alexandra Büchler

In this final part of our current series on authors writing in languages spoken by few, Alexandra Büchler talks to award-winning Maltese author and translator, Clare Azzopardi.

Photo Gioia Cassar

Clare Azzopardi (1977) is an award-winning author who writes for both children and adults. She is the Head of Department of Maltese at the University of Malta Junior College and has been an active member of Inizjamed, an NGO whose mission is to promote literature in Malta and abroad. With Inizjamed, she has co-organised literary festivals and workshops, often in collaboration with Literature Across Frontiers (LAF). Her work has been translated into several languages and her latest book of short stories Kulħadd ħalla isem warajh (The names they left behind) was published in Croatian, Hungarian, Slovenian and Arabic. Her books for children include the award-winning trilogy about the De Molizz brothers, the Jake Cassar series of 10 novellas, and several picture books including Ġużeppina, Mingu, Is-Sinjura Klaws (Mrs Claus), Meta l-Ħanut tal-Ħelu Mar Dawra (The Sweet Shop goes Walkabout) and Il-Qtates ta’ Max-Xatt (The Cats along the Shore) which she adapted to a libretto for a children’s opera composed by Euchar Gravina.

Alexandra Büchler: You are one of the best known Maltese writers: you have written short stories, a novel, theatre plays and a libretto – but you are also a much loved children’s author. Where does the writing for children and young readers fit in this wide genre spectrum? Did children’s books come first or was it your books for adults?

Clare Azzopardi: When I was at University I was writing mostly poetry. Then my first book of poetry, an anthology with three other poets, all men, came along in 2000, and I realised poetry was not my thing. I needed more words, different plots and rhythms and so I started experimenting more with prose. I think my first narratives were for adults. But there are times when things happen by sheer coincidence: I joined Inizjamed and started attending writing workshops; at more or less the same time, I was commissioned to write a set of workbooks with the best known children’s author on the island; and I started teaching Maltese literature to 11-12-year-olds at a state school. So all of a sudden I was getting a lot of input from multiple, very diverse channels, and a variety of ideas began to take shape. Round about this time, I started writing the short stories for adults which would eventually be collected in The Green Line. At the same time, I started working on my first novel for children, Il-Każ Kważi Kollu tal-Aħwa De Molizz (literally: ‘The almost complete case files of the De Molizz brothers’, but tentatively translated into English as F.A.R.T.S). 20 years on, I still write for different audiences and it’s normal for me to have two parallel projects going on at the same time.

AB: What are your children’s books about and what ages are they for? Have you – and the illustrators you work with – created any characters that have become household names?

CA: I love picture books and it’s a pity that I cannot draw. But then it’s so beautiful to watch illustrators interpret my work and bring it to life. I have a few picture books for children aged between 7 and 9. I’ve worked mostly with illustrator Lisa Falzon (who is actually working on illustrating a forthcoming book of mine) but I’ve also worked with other amazing illustrators like Matt Stroud and Derek Fenech. The topics I tackle are not necessarily easy. For example, Il-Qtates ta’ Max-Xatt (The Cats along the Shore) deals with death and loss, and Mingu draws attention to the ugly reality of bird hunting.

I believe my best-known characters are the De Molizz brothers, from the trilogy that bears their name. These are novels for 11–12-year-olds and I wrote them during my first years as a teacher. The protagonists are Saver and Claudio De Molizz and their cat, Rightangle …

“Well well,” he said to himself, “I’ve slept really deeply. I dreamt I was running after a little boy. I’d have grabbed him by the arm if the alarm clock hadn’t gone off. Just a couple of seconds more, that’s all I needed, and I’d have got him! But tonight, I’ll manage to catch him. Then I’ll lock him up in the cellar …” And he laughed loudly.

   Saver De Molizz didn’t like children at all. He especially disliked young children. As for clever young children, he liked them even less, especially if they wore glasses and went about with their heads brimming with the solutions to difficult sums.

   He stood in front of the mirror and studied his nose, which was long and wrinkled, like a courgette. Then he stretched his lips as far as they would go. Saver had a toothy smile, of which he was rather proud. He splashed his face with ice cold water, put on a velvet dressing gown covered with black cat hair and went downstairs, where Rightangle waited next to his bowl beneath the kitchen sink.

(From F.A.R.T.S, trans. Albert Gatt)

Saver and Claudio De Molizz inherit their father’s company F.A.R.T.S (Foundation for the Attractive Restoration of Tomorrow’s Schools) but their aim is not to renovate schools, but to demolish them. They hate school, have always hated it and believe that all children should hate it too. These characters are illustrated by Mark Scicluna and have quite a cult following … I get a lot of fan mail from children telling me why they enjoyed them and giving me ideas for books 4, 5, 6 … I don’t know why I haven’t written more of these books. I guess this is the drawback of having many projects … I don’t have time for everything.

AB: Malta is a very densely populated place with spectacular historic architecture on the one hand and dramatic seaside landscapes on the other. How does the place influence your writing, the settings and subjects of your stories?

CA: “Saver and Klawdjo’s house was tall and narrow with one room built right on top of the other, like a tottering pile of blocks built by a little child. Downstairs was the kitchen. Above the kitchen was the living room. Above the living room was the dining room and above the dining room was Klawdjo’s bedroom and above Klawdjo’s bedroom was Saver’s bedroom. Right at the very top was the roof. Outside,  an iron  spiral staircase snaked around the house, from the street all the way up to the roof. Whenever Saver and Klawdjo needed to go to a different room, they had to go outside and climb up or down the stairs. The house had been built by Saver and Klawdjo’s father, who wanted to have the most beautiful house in the world. So, he engaged Jojo Plott, an expert architect who was also a good friend of his. When the builders were finally given Jojo Plott’s design, it was so complicated that they simply couldn’t figure it out, so they just went ahead and did what they knew best. The result was a series of boxes, one on top of the other.”

(From F.A.R.T.S, trans. Albert Gatt)

Many of my stories take place indoors, in very small houses or rooms. Malta is very densely built up. Buildings seem to have taken up all our greenery, and all outdoor space; there are fewer and fewer trees and more and more cars everywhere … and this is also depicted in my books for children. For instance in Il-Qtates ta’ max-Xatt (The Cats along the Shore), the illustrator Lisa Falzon depicted the dramatic seaside landscape, but there are also highrise buildings that have come to dominate our shoreline in some urban areas, and the last remaining houses along the promenade are being replaced by boxy apartment blocks. This particular book doesn’t only speak of grief and sense of loss from the death of our loved ones, but also from the death of the environment.

AB: Being located in the centre of the Mediterranean, Malta has been for years on the frontline of what is often described ‘the refugee crisis’. This is a much-discussed topic and I wonder whether the subject has found its way into your writing for children – or have others written about it?

CA: A few years ago I was approached by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an NGO working with refugees, to write the story of Kidane, a refugee from Eritrea. Kidane (this is not his real name but the name we chose for the protagonist of the book) wanted a well-known children’s writer to write his story in Maltese so that children could understand his two year journey from Eritrea to Malta. Marisa Attard illustrated the book, and once it was published, Kidane together with a group of refugees started a series of readings in schools, accompanied by djembe sessions and typical Eritrean food. After every session, each kid was given the book for free. It was a fantastic project, which went beyond merely writing someone’s story. I think it remains one of my favourite books and this book has also been translated into French by Elizabeth Grech.

AB: Malta is a bilingual country with Maltese and English being both official languages. You belong to the generation of writers who fully embraced writing in Maltese, yet this mean that you write for about 350,000 potential readers. Have you ever considered writing in English? What has determined your choice to write in Maltese?

CA: English is not my mother tongue. I don’t think in English nor dream in English. Writing is playing with words and rhythms, rhyme and style, and this I can only do with Maltese, my native language. And even though I translate books from other languages into Maltese, I am still not comfortable translating my own books into English.

As you said, this means that only a few people can read what I write (unless it is translated and published elsewhere) but I don’t mind at all. I would never want the younger generation to look for books in their mother tongue and not find any (like me, when I was a child). I’m determined to give them the best stories ever and of course I couldn’t possibly do this without my publisher who is investing a lot in children’s literature.

AB: What, in your view, characterises the Maltese ‘kid lit’ scene and is there a sense that Maltese-language writers have to compete for readers, given the vast supply of books from the English-speaking world?

CA: For a long time children’s literature in Maltese was riddled with stereotypes. It tended to be preachy and didactic. The main ingredients were some sort of adventure followed by your final and-the-moral-of-the-story-is. Unfortunately there are still a number of books being written today in which the voice of the writer is too dominant, too loud. I believe that a story becomes a good story when it manages to disrupt the stories that we already know, the stories that we accept. I think we have had enough of this preaching and the I-am-the-writer-I-know-best attitude.

In the last 10 years or so, publishers have begun to invest much, much more in children’s books. Writers and illustrators come together to try to narrate the world differently. There are less stereotypes, more girl-heroes, social and complex themes are being tackled and many books have children as protagonists and narrators of their own stories. It stands to reason that our publishers can never publish a vast amount of books because of the small readership. And our small print-runs are continuously in a battle with books from the English-speaking world. But we are not giving up and I believe the ‘kidlit’ scene at the moment is a healthy one, full of interesting characters and topical issues …

Once upon a time
a hunter drove by on a scooter with a plum-coloured shooter in hand.
In the looking-glass sky
was a rose-tinted bird
not that small, not that big.
It was just flying by.

But the hunter set eyes on him
and raised his shooter on the fly

and fired.
Like this.

Caboom.

(From Mingu, trans. Albert Gatt)

AB: You are also a translator and have translated books for children into Maltese. Which books were they and what has been the response to them?  On the other hand, have your children’s books been translated into other languages?

CA: I have translated quite a few books from French, especially the ones featuring the famous character Le Loup created by O. Lallemand and E. Thuillier. Children love Lupu Lupettu and these are bestsellers in Maltese too. But I have translated books from other languages, sometimes using English as a bridge language, fo example books by Lawrence Schimel, Agnès de Lesdtrade and Enric Lluch to mention a few. On the other hand, Lawrence Schimel and Kristina Quintano have translated and published my books Mingu (in Spanish) and The Cats along the Shore (in Spanish and Norwegian).

It’s not easy to have childrens’ books translated. My books for adults have been translated into more languages and this is because when I am invited to a festival, it’s almost always a literature festival for adults and not for children. Festivals bring writers, translators, editors and publishers together. Hence, my stories for adults have appeared in Arabic, Hungarian, Slovenian, Romanian and Croatian. But when it comes to children’s festivals, I believe the language could be a barrier. And maybe I am not pushing myself enough. The National Book Council is doing a very good job in promoting our books abroad, but until now, the emphasis has always been on adult books and not children’s books.

AB: About ten years ago, I worked with you on a lovely international children’s book festival in Malta, which was very well received. Did the festival continue or has it been replaced with other live events for young Maltese readers?

CA: Oh what beautiful memories, and what an amazing event that was. Since then Ħarba was replaced with Żigużajg which is an annual Children’s festival full of plays, films, street theatre, concerts, music etc … it’s much less focused on books and reading but it’s an amazing festival and children still have the opportunity to meet local authors. However there isn’t a book festival dedicated to children. And Ħarba was the only one that brought children’s writers from different countries together for a whole week of activities and story telling.

Many thanks to all three of our authors writing in languages spoken by few. If you missed any, you can catch up here:

Caryl Lewis writing in Welsh

Harkaitz Cano writing in Basque

If you are a writer in a language spoken by few and you’d like to share your experiences, we’d love to hear from you. Please email the WKL Team at worldkidlit @ gmail.com

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