Thanks to Google Street View, which has been launched in Malta only recently, I manage to make it to Rita’s house on time on a hot, Saturday afternoon. I’ve known Rita for quite some time, as we’ve had the opportunity to work alongside each other on a couple of literary and artistic projects. Setting up an interview with her was only natural after finishing reading Il-Kulur tal-Lellux, her third novel which made it to the top of the Konkors ta’ kitba Letteratura għaż-Żgħażagħ, an annual literary award organised by Aġenzija Żgħażagħ. As soon as her husband Wilfred let me in, I noticed the many paintings scattered here and there, with some lying on armchairs and many others on the staircase. “I’ve brought these from upstairs. Hopefully you’ll like some of them.” She’s a renowned author but her passion for the visual arts is evident in the wall frames adorning every corner of her house.
“I’ve been drawing as long as I remember. I can’t say that I’ve been an artist ever since though, but I do remember myself sketching everywhere, literally.” She chuckles. “I used to draw whole stories, and whenever I ran out of paper I used to resort to walls, even pieces of furniture. You can imagine how many times I got punished for that!” Rita explains how the lack of picture books during her younger years made her want to come up with her own pictures and stories. “I just wanted more. Who could blame me? They weren’t half pleasing as the ones our young ones are enjoying nowadays. It’s unfair!”
Rita grew up in Imqabba, surrounded by long, uninterrupted spans of agricultural land that made Birżebbuga bay visible from afar. “That’s probably the primary reason why I have so many landscapes in my portfolio” she tells me, whilst leading the way to the sitting room. “But let’s set things straight. I’m very much into figures, portraits too. That’s probably because I’m forging characters all the time.” Coming up with stories for Rita is not an activity reserved only for writing. Her drawings tell a story of their own.
“Have you ever tried to combine them? Like coming up with a story book that features your own illustrations?” I ask her. She ponders a bit about it. She had never given the thought any attention. “It’s an interesting idea, no doubt about it. But I’ve kept the two expressions apart.” Should we hope for a publication that brings the two artistic expressions together? “You can. But for now I intend on keeping them apart. Whenever one stresses me out, the other will keep my anxiety levels in check!” she jokes.
Speaking of publications, I couldn’t not point out the fact that she got into the local literary scene quite recently. How challenging was it? “Tremendously. But not an impossible task, mind you!” She explains how she had to act coy about it, and chose to submit her writings under a pseudonym. This wasn’t because she was a woman. “I don’t think being a woman is somewhat of an impediment to success. I was new. The skill had been with me for years by that time, true, but I was new nonetheless, and that instils fear in publishers.” When Kevin u Qatraxita got published, a whole new adventure began. Rita realised that from there on, writing wasn’t to remain a solitary experience. “My name was out there, and anyone could read my work.” But her children, as old as they may get, remain her harshest critics. Just like her, they were raised in a home that champions reading, but given her love affair with writing and drawing, she made it a point to provide them with their very own copybook, so as to stimulate their creative skills. “I’ve never pushed any one of them though. It had to come from within them, and all in all I believe that they were both very creative when young.”
How did Rita develop such a skill if her parents weren’t in the trade themselves? “To be honest they were both into literature. Maybe not into the formal sphere, but I’ve come across poems written by the two of them. They did love literature, but publishing wasn’t in their interest.” It’s evident that they have given their family full priority. And what tops Rita’s priorities? “This is a pretty straight forward question. Everything deserves its share of attention. You cannot concentrate on one thing in life. It’s so diverse. What if something goes wrong? Wouldn’t you be losing it all, kind of? Writing and painting are both very important to me, and without them I’d definitely feel lost, but my family, my home, my participation in the voluntary sector and the time I spend exercising are all essential. I cannot extol something while risking others. And no one should.” Her experiences in life are what drives her forward that’s why she can’t just concentrate on writing and drawing, and let it be. “Everyday emotions and experiences are the basis of my artistic expressions. They are what I resort to all the time. That’s why I don’t mind my late introduction to the literary field, because my experiences have certainly enriched the results.” Reading about emotions, experiences and disturbences has got nothing to do with experiencing them first-hand, she confides.
Rita reminisces about the good old days of writing, when families used to compose lengthy letters to their loved ones relocated abroad. “How fascinating that is! They used to tell whole stories on pieces of paper, literally. Maybe they weren’t even aware of it, but those writings contain a legacy, and I’m sure that they have played a crucial role in developing my love for writing.” She can still recall the white and blue writing pads and envelopes with the airmail stamp on them. When her grandma passed away, the letters quenched Rita’s thirst to learn more about her upbringing. “You could find anything you wanted to know. They used to recount all our milestones, like when we took our first steps, or when we uttered our first words.” For Rita stories are everywhere, and although relatively few consider themselves to be writers, the skill of narrating stories is held by many. She tries to write every day, but it’s quite a difficult appointment to maintain, so she makes it a point to research themes and ideas on a daily basis, for her to return to them later.
So far, all of Rita’s publications have been in Maltese and it’s safe to say she’ll carry on this tradition. So I move on to ask her about any translations she may have been involved in, both of her own works and of foreign literary texts. Her reply comes as a surprise to me. “I used to write in English and Italian too.” What? We know that classical writers such as Ġan Anton Vassallo and Dun Karm resorted to Italian at some points in ther lives, but getting to know that our contemporary writers can be multilingual, rather than just bilingual, is surprising. “To be fair, now I feel much more confident writing in Maltese, and I rarely write in English or in Italian anymore, but I do have whole works written primarily in a foreign language.” One of them was read in a festival in Talinn, Estonia, while another came in handy during the last edition of The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, whereby excerpts of it were translated into Moroccan and Khurd. Rita is well aware that translation opens up opportunities for a wider audience, and that’s why she agreed to translate Il-Misteru tal-Labirint and Il-Misteru tad-Dniefel tal-Ġebel, both originally in Italian with versions in Maltese published by Merlin Publishers.
“Targeting just the few thousands who can read in Maltese definitely hinders the opportunity to have a wider readership, granted. But I’d rather target our own people, especially our youths. We’re the ones responsible for them, and it’s our duty to provide them with contextualised literature. Besides, I’d rather focus on developing my skill in different genres, then the opportunities of translation will follow suit. It’s not high on my priority list at the moment.”
Is she into the classics? “Absolutely. I do not adopt a classic style for my own writing, because nobody will make any effort to try and understand me, but the classics, and I cannot stress this enough, should remain the reference point throughout an artist’s career. Their style, themes, character development and media used must be known to every professional artist. The same holds true for painting. How can one ever call himself an abstract painter without being knowledgeable of the likes of Picasso for instance, or Michelangelo? Fine, Michelangelo was anything but an abstract painter, but you cannot get anywhere without recognising what must be leading you there in the first place.” This is when she takes some time to explain to me the various interpretations that may be given to one of her paintings, featuring three Luzzus and a multitude of hulls, which I thought were leaves. “You could interpret them like that, yes. But despite its degree of abstraction, a lot of thought and effort went into Dgħajjes, namely due to its composition and configuration. It still follows the very classical three point perspective. You see? One cannot do away with the classics!”
I’ve got one last question for her, which I’ve been meaning to ask her for a long time. How does she manage to keep tabs on the world of youths? She has managed to win the Premju Kitba Letteratura għaż-Żgħażagħ three times, meaning that this is not merely an observation, but an awarded artistry. She looks pleased with her achievement. “Interesting times. It’s a thought-provoking generation. Its challenges, hurdles and strong will to experiment are so interesting. My involvement in teaching keepfit and thai chi granted me frequent, natural encounters with our younger generation.It’s in these communities that you encounter the cheerful ones, and the others who at the time may be in low spirits.” Just like Bella and Amber I step in. They are the protagonists in Bella Berger and Il-Kulur tal-Lellux, her latest 2 novels targeting youths. She nods. “Precisely. But there are many Bella Berger around, and there’s a lot of me in Bella too.” This comes as a revelation to me, but she makes it clear that it’s not autobiographical at all. “Writing about some of my experiences in younger years makes me revisit the past, and by keeping in mind what’s happening today, I recognise that when it comes to the trials and tribulations of youthhood, not a lot has really changed.”
Among others, Rita Saliba was awarded first prize of the Konkors Kitba Letteratura għaż-Żgħażagħ three times with Inżul ix-Xemx (2009/10), Bella Berger (2011) and Il-kulur tal-lellux (2015). She’s married to Wilfred, she’s a mother of two, a grandma of one, and a member of the executive board of L-Akkademja tal-Malti. She will be the author putting into writing the oral stories as narrated by the protagonists of Rakkont Ħaj, a project that seeks to document the story of Imqabba, Rita’s hometown, coordinated by Soċjetà Santa Marija u Banda Re Ġorġ V, Mqabba (Malta) and Kummissjoni Web with the support of Arts Council Malta. Rita has also got a selection of books targeting younger readers and adults.
2017 – VIDA Magazine – Clifford Jo Zahra