Now that we’re just a couple of days away from the three evenings of the 12th edition of The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, we thought of bringing you some useful insights right from the source. Clifford Jo Zahra has managed to get hold of Jean Portante before flying to Malta for this year’s edition of the festival. Portante is a writer based in Luxembourg who happens to be one of the twelve writers invited at this year’s Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival.
You started your writing career at the age of 33; relatively late when compared to other contemporary writers. What circumstances led to such development? Why writing?
Well it’s not so late, if you don’t take Rimbaud as a reference. Conrad published his first novel at 38, Garcia Marquez at nearly 30, Zola began the Rougon Macquart at 31 and Montaigne was almost 40 when he began writing his Essays. But yes, I must say, that when I was young I hated the poetry I was taught in school. But the real reason of the delay is, that I wasn’t ready for writing. Before that I had lots of other things to do. Take revolution for instance. In 1968 I was only 18, and just like many young people at the time, I wanted to change the world. I still do to be honest, because it’s an awful and unjust world. I try to do it with writing now. But if you ask me why I started, I can’t seem to find an answer. It’s a bit like what Saint Augustine had to say about time: If you don’t ask me what it is, I know, but if you do, I don’t.
You’re an eclectic writer, shifting between the fantastic and the realistic genres, namely fiction and journalism. How are they related to each other? Which came first?
Poetry came first. But what I’m interested in is writing as a whole: poetry, novels, essays, theatre and journalism. You must adapt the way you write for all, but all genres are fiction. Take newspapers for instance. If you get to read what they write about the same issue, say refugees, almost all of them come up with their own story, just like writers do! When writing I provide myself with documentation, both when writing articles and when writing fiction that features historical moments.
You were born to Italian parents, raised in Luxembourg, and lived in France. To what extent does your eclecticism in writing derive from this multicultural background?
I began writing in Luxembourg and then I moved quickly to Paris. The language I had to adopt is crucial for my writing. Indeed, my mother tongue is Italian and in Luxembourg, at school, first I was taught German, then French, and later English. With my friends I used to communicate in Luxembourgish, with such combination being too much for writing. In my first poems I simply wanted to reflect French poetry (I guess, because I’d studied in France, or perhaps because my mother tongue was closer to French than to any other language), and wanted to be more French than the French themselves, that’s why I moved to Paris in 1983, at the age of 33. Then I realised that this had nothing to do with me, and tried to use a collage of languages, like in the streets of Luxembourg, but that again wasn’t what I was made for. My multicultural background gave me Rilke and Pavese, Goethe and Dante, Mallarmé and Whitman. The search for some multicultural identity was a break to my writing; I had to find the way out. That’s why I left Paris in 1987, and went to Havana, where a new language was added. But instead of complicating matters, this three-year stay in Cuba eventually gave rise to my writing language.
You’re a writer of Italian descent whose collection of literary writings is predominantly in French. Why has French managed to catch all your attention? Is there something magical about it?
Yes, you’re right. French is a predominant language. That doesn’t mean that I write in other languages; it means that what I write looks as if it were French. And that’s what I wanted to say when I mentioned the whale. Now, if you really ask me in what language I write, I’ll answer in whale language. What do I mean by that? Well, did you know that the whale isn’t actually a fish, and that for a long time, before living in water, it was a terrestrial animal? Scientists say it was like an enormous dog which migrated to the sea. That’s very much like my story. My parents, at a certain point in their lives, decided that it would be best to emigrate; it was a matter of survival. The whale probably emigrated because it wanted to survive. In fact, other huge animals died out because they didn’t do it. The whale, as any immigrant would do, adapted itself to its new surroundings. It eventually lost its legs and paws to replace them with fins, but it forgot to do away with its lungs: the organ of its terrestrial life which doesn’t allow it to live inside water. So my question is, why didn’t it get rid of its lungs? I think it’s because they are the memory of its stay on terra firma. That means that the whale is not a terrestrial being anymore, but at the same time, it is not an aquatic animal either. It roams a territory that moves between the “not anymore” and the “not yet”. That’s a fantastic territory for literature, and it’s where almost all immigrants live too. That’s how my language works. What you see looks like French, very much the same as a whale looks like a fish. But on the inside my French breathes the lung of my origin; Italian.
Which language do you consider to be your mother tongue then?
If we take into consideration what I’ve just said, the only answer must be Italian. The mother tongue is an oral language after all, and writing doesn’t come from the mother (or from the father for that matter). It comes from elsewhere, it’s not a mother tongue, but as my friend Pierre Joris maintains, it is another tongue.
How does your extensive knowledge of languages contribute to the translation of your own works? Do you translate your own works? How much do you get involved in the process? Do you end up intervening in the translation process (of your own writings) carried out by other writers?
I don’t translate my own books. But, when I’m translated into the languages I can speak or read or write, I like to be involved. I give my point of view. But as I’m not the author of my books in other languages, or only part of the author (the whale metaphor can also be used regarding translation), the translator is the master and commander.
You’ve been awarded the Prix Servais twice. Last year for L’Architecture des temps instables, and in 1994 for Mrs. Haroy ou la mémoire de la baleine, meaning that two of your works have been dubbed as the most significant literary works in their publishing year. What’s so exceptional about these works? How much do they represent your other literary works in terms of style, themes, and say, figurative language?
Both books are novels, and that’s what they have largely in common. But my writing is predominantly poetry, which has also been rewarded, with the Mallarmé Prize in France being a case in point. The themes in all my books are more or less the same, as they have to do with the gap between the “not yet” and the “no more” I have already mentioned, so it’s rather a form of nomadic writing, where the way from one point to another is much more important than the origin or the destination. This gap allows me to put myself into fiction, even though I’m not an autobiographical writer. When autobiography meets fiction, everything gets transformed into fiction; an ounce of fiction can transform everything.
Articles across the web agree that your literary style emphasises the readers’ power of interpretation. Do you write with an audience in mind? Who’s your audience?
I don’t think that a writer ever writes for a precise audience located in one country or another, and what you write, as a novelist, or a poet, isn’t what the reader reads. In fact between the two there is a misunderstanding going on. If I write about a “tree”, each and every reader will come up with his own interpretation of a tree. It could be that I’ve had an almond three in mind, but how would the reader know that? I like to leave room for any possible interpretations because this is what classifies a certain text as literature. Translation in fact is a verification of all this, because different translators will come up with different translations.
This interview has been coordinated by Inizjamed’s administrator and emerging Maltese writer Leanne Ellul. The 12th edition of The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival is being organised by Inizjamed with the support of Literature Across Frontiers, Arts Council Malta, Heritage Malta, Valletta 2018 Foundation, Għaqda tal-Malti – Università, and the Fortress Builders – Fortifications Interpretation. It kicks off this Thursday, 24th August, and runs until Saturday, 26th August, at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Jean Portante will be reading on Friday, 25th August. This year’s festival is part of a three-year Cultural Partnership Agreement between Inizjamed and Arts Council Malta, and part of the Literary Europe Live platform funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union and managed by Literature Across Frontiers.
Photos: Virginia Monteforte
© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Clifford Jo Żahra