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Atlantic Unbound | February 1, 2001
 
interviews
 
Out of Hiding

A conversation with Trezza Azzopardi, whose dark debut novel casts new light on a province and a people

.....

The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place
by Trezza Azzopardi
Atlantic Monthly Press
288 pages, $24
rezza Azzopardi, a novelist of Welsh-Maltese descent, has written her first book about the place and people with which she is most familiar. Yet it's a heritage about which many of her readers may know next to nothing. The setting of The Hiding Place is Tiger Bay, Cardiff, located on the southern coast of Wales and referred to by Azzopardi's characters as the "Valletta of Britain," after Malta's capital city. This Maltese "niche," according to the Guardian writer D. J. Taylor, is largely uncharted literary territory—an immigrant group formerly depicted in British fiction as "low-life bit-partners in the Soho crime novels, gamely hurling paraffin heaters through the windows of dirty bookshops." Although Frankie Gauci, the father of The Hiding Place's downtrodden and ill-fated family, does get mixed up in Cardiff's underworld, there is no mistaking him for a stock figure out of pulp fiction. In portraying the harsh lives of the Gauci clan with emotional depth and psychological nuance, Azzopardi has brought modern immigrant Cardiff out of the shadows and stamped the Maltese diaspora on the map of literature.

The Hiding Place unfolds against the wave of Maltese immigration to the United Kingdom after World War II, when the British ended colonial rule over Malta. Frankie immigrates to Wales in 1948, but instead of finding honest work, he joins the ranks of the Tiger Bay mafia, which promises security and inclusion—for a price. Driven by gambling and superstition, he must swindle lifelong friends and family. In order to pay off his debts, he even pawns one of his daughters to his corrupt business partner, Joe Medora, who is also the alleged birth father.

It is through the eyes of Dolores, the youngest of Frankie's six daughters, that we learn of her father's menacing presence, her mother's loss of sanity, a sister's insatiable pyromania, endless sibling rivalry, and the family's subsequent disintegration. As an infant, Dolores loses her left hand in a fire. In lucid and sobering language, Dolores describes this accident and her need to understand her past.
I lost the fingers. At one month old, a baby's hand is the tiniest, most perfect thing. It makes a fist, it spreads wide, and when it burns, that soft skin is petrol, those bones are tinder, so small, so easily eaten in flame.

But I think of it as a work of art: a closed white tulip standing in the rain; a cut of creamy marble in the shape of a Saint; a church candle with its tears flowing down the bulb of wrist.

I go back, and try to piece together how it was. I think there must be a design.
In large part The Hiding Place is about the subjectivity of experience, and the gaps of knowledge and understanding that hinder Dolores's efforts to fully grasp that design. Her memories are disjointed emotionally and sequentially, resulting in scenes that she reconstructs partly from her fragmentary recollections and partly out of family lore. Dolores relates these events in vivid present-tense scenes that give immediacy to her struggle for self-awareness as both a child and an adult. Her haunting story leaves little room for happiness or for a childhood with any shred of innocence, but it does leave room for resilient characters who look straight-faced at a harrowing past.

Trezza Azzopardi began The Hiding Place while attending the University of East Anglia Writers Course, where she also taught film and media studies for two years. The Hiding Place was both long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and short-listed for the Booker Prize after its publication in Great Britain. She now lives in Norwich, England. The following interview took place by phone in January.

—Jessica Murphy



Trezza Azzopardi
Trezza Azzopardi   

You write very specifically about the Maltese immigrant community and its underworld—a community that is little known as far as the literary world is concerned. Coming from a Welsh-Maltese background and from Cardiff, did you feel that there was a voice missing from literature that you wanted to make heard?

Actually, I didn't even think about it. I'm thinking about it a lot more now. At the time, coming from that community as a child, I didn't consider that it hadn't been represented in literature or in fiction until people started saying, "Oh, this is interesting. We've never heard of this community." Some people were actually saying, "We didn't even know there was a Maltese language." There were a few Maltese phrases in the book that I had to adapt to a kind of Italian because I recognized that the Maltese words were unreadable to most of the population, whereas the few Italian words that were used are fairly common.

It didn't occur to me that this was a voice that hadn't been heard. In fact, if it had occurred to me, then I would have written a different novel, because the Maltese characters in my book aren't particularly positive role models for the Maltese community.

Is there anything autobiographical in The Hiding Place, or is it purely fictional?

It's a bit of both. The geography of Wales was drawn very directly from my experience of Wales, although it's experience filtered through memory. In The Hiding Place there is a concern about what memory does and how real memory is; so as I was writing, I was aware that my memory of a particular place and a particular time were actually coated by my own experience and were not historical reality. But all of the skeletal geographical stuff is fairly true to life as far as my memory of it. The bits that are made up—the plot, if you like—were the bits where I could allow myself to imagine various things. In terms of its being partly autobiographical, I do have a lot of sisters, so I did have quite a crowded upbringing, and I think unconsciously that was brought to bear in the book.

I think in many ways The Hiding Place is about memory and understanding one's history and one's identity. We get this through Dolores's eyes as she is slowly piecing together her past. Joyce Carol Oates once said that for her, writing is "a force of memory which is not understood," and I wonder if you would agree with that.

I would agree with that. In my experience of writing through Dolores, one of my aims was to try to make the reader feel that Dolores couldn't fathom her own memory. It is a point of interest to me that memory is so filtered through your separate life or your particular reality. My memories of family are very different from my sisters' even though we might have all been in the same room at the same time. Dolores's memories are much more fictionalized, of course, because the story is not real. The idea that she couldn't trust her memory or that she was searching for something that was buried was something that interested me a lot.

This ties in with what Dolores calls her "ghost pain." In particular I'm referring to something that Dolores says after she goes to see the doctor: "It would be something normal if I'd ever had my fingers, but he thinks it's strange I should miss something I never knew." That seems to illustrate this idea of memory and searching and longing to uncover one's past.

Normally it's called "phantom pain." I suppose colloquially it's called "ghost pain," and it is exactly that. Nostalgia is ghost pain, really, because nostalgia is a yearning for places that never actually existed. It's always something that's a product of a life that's been lived. I don't ever remember feeling nostalgic as a child. It's something that attaches itself to you later on, and I think that is the phantom.

You chose a complex structure for The Hiding Place. How did you come to this form which moves quickly from scene to scene, from past to present, and tells the story from Dolores's point of view?

I wasn't consciously aware of it. I was aware of it when I was writing only because I saw it visually. The fact that I'm writing in the first person and in the present tense a lot of the time was quite a natural thing, because I wanted to think myself into a visual idea of what I was trying to say. I suppose that makes it more immediate. Dolores does things with her story that she couldn't possibly do in reality. She's telling a story from within a frame of being an adult, but it wasn't something I'd learned to do. It's something that just happened, and I just let it happen. It was only later on when my editor and I came to looking at the continuity in the proof that we had to fit things together a bit more.

Your young characters are so convincing, and I don't think this is an easy thing to do. We read much of this through Dolores's eyes as an adult, but some of the story is told through her memory as a child. What were the challenges of having a narrator like Dolores, who both describes events through the eyes of a child and reconstructs them through adult hindsight?

The main challenge was that I had to ignore some advice, because the children aren't very pleasant to each other. I had some friends who were reading my work as I was reading theirs. We would talk about it, and we spent a lot of time recollecting about childhood. Dolores's recollections are very bleak at times, and I just had to trust myself because there was some pressure to relieve the anxieties that she had. But in the end I decided that these were her visions. We always get this idea of childhood that although it's sometimes bleak or cruel, it can be sweet too. But that's someone else's story. There isn't much sweetness in The Hiding Place, because that's not Dolores's idea of it. Although this is not necessarily from my own experience because I was very spoiled by my older sisters, you do remember moments when you feel frustrated and when you've been treated unfairly. They are very vivid, and I wanted to collect those moments more than the sweeter moments, which are put in the bottom drawer.

It's not an act of ventriloquism that Dolores is an adult telling a child's story. Even though the external frame of the novel is that Dolores is an adult waiting for her sisters to return to their old home, I wanted to use the present tense because I really wanted it to feel as though you were going with Dolores and journeying with her as she moves through her memories.

In an interview from The Malta Independent you said that you're "quite obsessed with the idea of luck and how belief in it can have long-ranging and unexpected results." This made me think particularly of Frankie and how he gambles and believes that Dolores is bad luck. I wonder if you could elaborate on this "obsession."

I've learned from the reviews and from talking to people who have read the book that they think Frankie is the devil—an evil character. I didn't ever feel that. I felt so much that his belief in luck was driving everything, and that it wasn't a complete act of will that he would behave in such an appalling way. That partly comes out of the culture I was born into. My father did gamble. He didn't gamble in the way that Frankie gambled; but he did love the idea of luck and if things went well, he'd say "That's good luck," and if things went badly, he'd say, "That's bad luck."

It was a very interesting thing to me as a child to observe that you weren't actually the creator of your own universe—that there was somebody else up there who wasn't necessarily a god but who was dealing a hand. I don't actually believe that, although I do say things like "it's great good luck that this happened." I do think that you can be an architect of your own fate in very many ways, and that maybe if Frankie were writing the book he would've written it differently. There are so many inexplicable things that happen, and I don't know how to explain them. People can say it's an act of God or it's luck, but very often the sort of chaos that surrounds you isn't anything that's under your control, and that does interest me.

Do you admire any particular writers, or are there writers that you think may have influenced your writing?

Yeah, lots. I don't know how much they've influenced my writing because it's really difficult for me to gauge. I don't actually read any prose fiction when I'm writing. I try not to. But I do read lots of poetry as a kind of release. But when I'm not writing, there's an author named Hilary Mantel who I think is marvelous. Occasionally when I'm stuck, and I'm not writing anything, I'll go back to her because she has an exquisite sense of using the right words in the right places, and I don't know how she does it. She's one of my favorites. Also Pat Barker, for creating atmosphere, is brilliant. There are a lot. Ian McEwan. Thomas Hardy. Great storytellers, really.

Given the recognition you've received for The Hiding Place, what has your reaction been to such immediate first-book success?

It has been a surprise. The Guardian long-list was the first time I'd been listed for anything, so that was marvelous. I had quite a lot of reviews in the national press, and they were quite positive, but I never expected there to be any prizes. I think that's normal with your first novel—you're so relieved and excited that you've written one. The Guardian was great, but then very shortly after that was the short-list for the Booker. That was a real shock. Because I hadn't been formally submitted by my publishers, it was completely out of the blue and wonderful.

Does this success present certain challenges?

I'm starting to write my second book, and there's a sort of internal pressure there. But that's all right. It'll be a long while yet before it's finished. By that stage I should be quite relaxed again.

Do you think your future novels will focus on the same area and the same community?

No. My next book may feature some of the same places, although they might be called by different names. But the story doesn't necessarily have to be set in Wales. I feel I can just fly off in other directions when I'm writing the plot. This next novel does concern relationships, but not in a community in the way that The Hiding Place did, and I'm really trying to restrict myself to a few major characters instead of having a huge cast of people. I'm trying to simplify, even though I don't think that's going to be possible. I'm trying my best at the moment.

Have you learned anything by reading reviews of The Hiding Place?

I've been reading the reviews that have come in, and it does interest me—and this seems to be more prevalent in the States than in Britain—that The Hiding Place has been highlighted as a book about child abuse. I don't think it's a book about child abuse; I actually don't see it that way at all.

I've read some reviews that have likened The Hiding Place to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, although the only similarity seems to be that there's a family that is down and out.

That is a fantastic compliment to me to have that kind of connection made. Although I suppose there are skeletal similarities, Frank McCourt's book is very, very funny. But I want to be very clear about the difference between fiction and memoir, because I've obviously drawn on some autobiographical details. The Hiding Place is not a memoir; whereas Frank McCourt has gone out saying, "Yes, this is my life," even if the very fact of writing it fictionalizes it.

You can do whatever you wish in fiction, up to a point. I have to keep telling myself that, because even in fiction when you start killing off your characters you feel guilty and responsible. But they are just paper characters in the end. In the memoir you can't play around with the facts in that way. I haven't thought about how I would write a memoir if I were to write one, but I imagine you have a responsibility to try to tell things as you know they happened. I think fiction is much more liberating.


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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Jessica Murphy is a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.