Photograph by Robin Christian
List of Central Players
a poet, short story writer, essayist, translator, and author of Vehicle
interviewer and co-editor-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca
interviewer and co-editor-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca
THE INTERVIEWERS BEGIN THEIR INTERROGATION
THE INTERVIEWERS: Is there a moment when you were writing and you noticed yourself feeling free?
The thought that came into my head while reading that question was a memory from autumn 2006 of sitting in a café in New Cross just after starting university at Goldsmiths and writing my first short story. I can really vividly remember how it felt. Rather than continuing to secretly carry weird ideas or questions or images around in my head, I tried writing something down and going from there, and it was like opening a door into a new room, or a kind of release.
It felt exciting and somehow dangerous or obscene. I remember that if I was bored when I was really young my mum would give me a sheet of paper and a pen and get me to fill the page with circles, which somehow felt accomplished because I had a purpose and I was fulfilling it—and maybe because of this I wrote the whole story by cramming it into one sheet of A4 paper in tiny writing. It was a story about a male politician coughing up a creature that is choking him from the inside. I was thinking about women’s bodily autonomy and how disembodied and unfeeling politics was/is.
I think the story ended up in a student zine, but I haven’t stopped writing since.
Dispatch, July 2023
…you seem to identify as a short story writer. What do you think the short form allows for that the long form doesn't? And conversely, what did the long form enable you to explore in Vehicle…
Telegram, August 2023
Ever since reading Roald Dahl’s short story collection Someone Like You (1953) as a teenager and finding out that my best friend was writing short stories when we were about sixteen, I had wanted to become a short story writer.
The short story is my favourite form because it means I can shift to a completely different place with completely different people every other day or week or month if I like. It’s like putting an array of droplets in a petri dish and seeing what will grow over time. Similarly to a poem, almost everything in the story needs to be doing something, building to something, every line has to count, so you need to know the characters and the world really well. In a book, a reader can forgive you if you veer off and then bring it back. Like a poem, a story has a brilliant, immersive intensity, and you can risk experimentation because it’s short and sweet.
I think it’s also inspired by having grown up being a TV addict rather than a voracious reader—we had constant access to TV but not to books. A short story is kind of the length of a TV show. A story collection is perhaps like a TV anthology like Inside No. 9, or Black Mirror, which I love for being dark, twisty social commentary created by one or two people—I think they have a kinship with my stories.
Vehicle was always going to be a novel. I knew I wanted it to be a compendium of documents rather than a straightforward narrated story, and I wanted there to be a frame story, which I’d been interested in since (half) studying The Decameron in the first year of my undergraduate degree. The prospect of writing a novel seemed daunting, I thought ‘I can’t do this’. But like the poetry collections and short story collection I’d written before, I wrote a few parts, then wrote parts to go between these parts, and so forth, and before I knew it I had a novel and could move the pieces around until it felt right. The final frame story actually came right at the end, and funnily enough I now see that it has similarities to The Decameron: instead of storytellers in a villa evading the Black Death, it’s researchers in a van evading the government’s purging of research—it was also partly inspired by the book They (1977) by Kay Dick, where ‘they’ are stealing the products and materials of creativity.
THE INTERVIEWERS OUTLINE THEIR FASCINATION WITH THE AUTHOR’S INTEREST IN ARTISTIC FORMS & GENRES
Recorded telephone call begins
MB: Neither of us caught onto the Decameron analogy when reading Vehicle—but that's exciting to learn that it, as well as shows like Black Mirror, were shadow architectures that contributed to building the book. It made us of course think about the fact that 'vehicle' is a word that can refer to both a constructed object (car, bus, etc) as well as a pathway towards transportation and transformation (i.e. language as a vehicle for self expression or articulating sociopolitical subjectivity).
EH: You mention that though the prospect of writing the novel was daunting, building it in fragments, almost episodically, helped you construct it into a whole. At what point in the process of writing this novel did the word 'vehicle' arrive as a title and prototype for your short story style-informed novel?
MB: What were some short stories, other forms or words, epics, shows or texts—either original work by yourself or ones written by others—that you were inspired by and informed the construction of Vehicle?
JC: The title, like the frame story, came quite near the end of the writing process. For years the novel was called The Islets. This is for obvious reasons—it’s about the Isletese Disaster, the disintegration of a fictional archipelago. I actually remember summarising the book to my bandmate while finishing the first draft and he said, ‘So there’s this moving set of islets, and then you have a band that is also like a moving set of islets’, which is honestly a connection I hadn’t made; this whole made up of singularities. But then I started seeing other literal and visual manifestations of the archipelago throughout.
The reason that Vehicle came to be the title is, like you said, because it can refer to so many different layers in the book, most vitally its form, which is what the book is ‘about’. There’s the band Vehicle, the ways people move around, how music and other forms of creativity allow characters to travel and express themselves, languages and translation, manipulation as a means to an end. Ultimately, I wanted something that referred to the experimental nature of the novel, that the novel is a vehicle for me to write about many seemingly disparate aspects of my experience, interests and concerns in a prismatic, spectacular, intriguing way that felt true to the collage in my mind. The novel, I hope, is also a mode of transportation for the reader.
Vehicle is like a short story collection happening simultaneously, even within the same page.
I think you can also see the foundations of Vehicle in my short story collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype, 2020) and my poetry collections Serious Justice (Test Centre, 2016) and Hamburger in the Archive (if a leaf falls, 2019). Certain characters, experimentations with form, a preoccupation with writing the self and about translation. I can only really see now looking back at those other books that I was practicing in a way for the novel, or at least gaining confidence and testing things out. But also in my columns on translation for The Quietus and the Brixton Review of Books, and books I’ve read, reviewed and studied.
There will definitely be part of every book I’ve ever translated, and a few recent ones like Milk Teeth by Helene Bukowski (Unnamed Press, 2021/MTO, 2023), The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (Scribe, 2021) and Favorita by Michelle Steinbeck (finding a publisher at the moment) [that] are directly in dialogue with Vehicle; I’m these authors’ translator, but also I think it’s fair to say their writing-peer through this book, sharing similar themes and sensibilities.
Their books gave me permission and validated my pursuit.
THE INTERVIEWERS ASK ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS
Location: THE CENTER OF A TRIANGLE FORMED
BETWEEN LOS ANGELES, LONDON
Subject: The Title
It’s interesting that the initial title for Vehicle was The Islets and that in a way, both of the titles served as a kind of prompt, or framing device, for the development of the text. Speaking of islands, we're wondering how much the geography and political climate of so-called 'island mentalities' has shaped the way you think about how your body disrupts—and by extension, your work—the spaces you occupy. As per your Maltese and English background in particular, we're wondering if experimenting with form itself is perhaps one mode of resisting the insular and conservative turn that's dominated UK politics in recent years (the passing of controversial laws such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, now the Illegal Migration Bill, etc). How do you see fiction and writing itself as a place to play with contesting these narratives of insularity? In other words, how are your artistic sensibilities informed by topography, in both literal and poetic ways?
THE AUTHOR RESPONDS
It’s a non-secret that Vehicle was inspired by Anglo-Maltese relations and Brexit, and is a speculative exploration in answer to the question: what would happen if Malta had a climate emergency? Or rather, a catastrophic one, seeing as the climate emergency is well underway, as we’ve seen in the Mediterranean recently with temperatures nearly hitting the 50s. There were power cuts for days in Malta because wires were melting.
My nationality and heritage has been queried and guessed at since I was very young, and as a nine-year-old I was told off—maybe the first time I had ever been told off—for drawing Malta on the wall-sized map in our classroom in defiance that it was missing. The place where my dad was born was just water. I felt deeply that this was wrong, disrespectful, and connected somehow to a total lack of knowledge about Malta (beyond a holiday destination) and the distrust people had about the way I was unplaceable.
I guess I started preparing for Vehicle the moment I pulled the top off that felt tip pen.
Then for a long while, I buried the lack of Malteseness in my life, almost completely forgot it was part of me, and focused on learning German and about German-language culture and literature. It was only a few years ago, after meeting Kat Storace, now my co-publisher at Praspar Press, that I remembered this part of my identity, and started exploring how I had in a way been discouraged from acknowledging it and encouraged to minimise it by a country that has a politically narrow idea of Britishness and integration.
I question every day whether writing a novel about the climate emergency and the lack of humanity with regards to people fleeing devastating conditions is worthwhile, even ethical. I have read a number of essays that ask these same questions, that ask whether any writing that doesn’t offer hope or a solution is empty and reduces these topics to mere plot-points and themes. Perhaps what sustained me writing Vehicle were a few things.
Firstly, it felt right to simply name in writing the many injustices that are often not named enough, not described in places and on platforms where they should be, so as a record and a protest sign. Secondly, I needed to write the book for me, as it’s largely unpacking my relationship to my identity and my heritage, in the past, the present, and the future—a speculative fiction of myself. Thirdly, the belief that part of the problem is a lack of self-reflection (by myself, by others), and a lack of imagination; of alternative ways of being together, and the possibility that people can change, adapt, transform.
My biggest fear was that Vehicle would be didactic – about translation, about gender, about creativity, about these aforementioned crises. It had to be what it is. My vocation is currently imagination, that is what I ‘do’ (this suddenly sounds like ‘His job is beach’ from Barbie), but with the state of things becoming more and more dire—climate, welfare, the increasing devaluing of the arts (if you’re not wealthy) by the government, the poor pay for writers and translators—I may have to abandon imagination at least in part to enter into the world of action. I’m preparing for it. It’s not an if, but a when.
THE INTERVIEWERS FOLLOW UP WITH MORE QUERIES ABOUT THE AUTHOR’S RELATIONSHIP TO LANGUAGE & TRANSFORMATION
You said that Vehicle offered an opportunity to grapple with various aspects of your Maltese heritage, as well as issues of gender, translation, and music... What are some other parts of your identity or sense of self that you wish to explore in the future in your own work?
THE AUTHOR SHARES A COMPOSITION
All these things
–music, writing, translating–
have actually always been happening
right from the start,
rather than there having been a clean transition.
While playing and touring
I would be writing
like finishing the first draft of Vehicle
in a recording studio
in the downtime
I was going to translate
while in the tour van.
the main change has been
stopping playing in bands
making music in general in 2018
for a few reasons,
being burned out from being on the move all the time,
wanting to feel more settled,
the main band winding down after ten years,
moving out of London
I replaced those late night band practices
playing shows with resting,
band tours with book tours.
Glossary of Terms
Time: As I’ve got older I’ve held on to certain preoccupations, and gained new ones. I have a few book projects currently on the go that are about my ‘old’ or long-term preoccupations. One is Goblinhood.
Goblinhood: goblin as a mode (Rough Trade Books), a work of experimental memoir that leads on directly from a pamphlet essay I wrote for Rough Trade Books called Goblins (2020) that came out a couple of years ago. It will be out next year.
Childhood: I’m exploring my childhood obsessions – films like Labyrinth, puppets, fairy tales—-and then how these have led onto the kinds of things that interest me now in art, music, literature, etc., all told via a quest. It’s looking at lots of things through a goblin lens, putting forward goblinness as a productive way of living one’s life or looking at culture.
Memory: I’ve also written a memoir about being a literary translator called Fair, which is set in a fictional art fair / book fair / fun fair, and I’ve drafted a new novel about an audio describer that explores memory, bias and translation.
THE AUTHOR BEFORE THE STATIC CUTS
To the Editors… For inclusion in your Letters section… I’m making loose plans to write more about the ambiguity and ambivalence experienced while living with infertility, which has taken up a lot of physical, emotional and intellectual space for me over the last five years. My long poem Dust Sucker (The White Review, 2022/Makina Books, 2023) is mostly about this, but I’ve been making notes for a prose book, perhaps written collaboratively with my partner. We’ve actually been talking about writing a sitcom about band practice spaces for years, maybe we’ll finally do it. I’d like to get into writing for TV and film—I’m obsessed with these artforms but have always been scared that I’m terrible at dialogue. It’s probably time to face my fears.
Jen Calleja is a poet, short story writer, translator and essayist who has been widely published, including in The White Review, The London Magazine, and Best British Short Stories (Salt). She was awarded an Authors’ Foundation Grant from the Society of Authors to work on Vehicle, and was shortlisted for the Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize for an excerpt from the novel. Calleja played and toured in the DIY punk bands Sauna Youth, Feature, Monotony, Gold Foil and Mind Jail spanning a period of over a decade as both a drummer and a vocalist.