Best-selling novelist Trezza Azzopardi back to her roots

Author: Ariadne Massa

20 October 2001

As a little girl growing up in Cardiff, novelist Trezza Azzopardi would listen to her Gozitan father recount tales and describe the heat haze in Malta.

These are Trezza's earliest impressions of the island - memories that are vividly recounted in her first novel 'The Hiding Place' which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2000.

"A child's memories and perceptions of events are very different to reality. I do not remember much of my first visit to Malta, but I do recall experiencing the heat my father used to talk about," she said yesterday.

Trezza, 40, was invited to return to Malta, this time as an adult with a different view on the world, by the British Council in collaboration with the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity.

Those who have read her best-selling book will surely welcome the opportunity to meet Trezza in person and get their books signed at various places throughout next week.

Her visit follows hot on the heels of other successful ventures between the two entities, including the visit of Kneehigh Theatre Company from Cornwall and the series of plays by Polly March and Justin Butcher.

Trezza was thrilled to be returning to Malta, above all because it gave her the opportunity to get in touch with her roots in Gozo and meet her relatives.

"In the book I delved into the characteristics of the Welsh and Maltese communities and coming here has given me the chance to see whether the issues I tackled are still alive here," she mused.

'The Hiding Place' portrays the Maltese diaspora to the UK after the Second World War and breathes life into the trials and tribulations of a Maltese family who emigrated to Tiger Bay in Cardiff.

It starts off with Frankie Gauci, who ends up falling into the wrong company and getting dragged into the crime scene of Tiger Bay, ruining his family and destroying friendships in the process.

The story is told through the eyes of Dolores, the youngest of Frankie's six daughters, who lost her left hand in a fire when she was a baby.

The emotions in the book are incredibly intense and detailed, raising the question of whether the book is autobiographical or if it portrays her own childhood experiences in Cardiff.

"I had a good childhood. Obviously there are degrees of awareness on what a good childhood really is - we were treated very well, but some other families were not," she said.

"The father (Frankie) in the book is very intense and a much angrier figure than I have ever known personally," she said.

When asked about the intricate detail of Dolores' memories, Trezza said that certain smells and sounds from her own childhood fired her vivid imagination.

Before writing this novel, Trezza used to concentrate her efforts on writing short stories. In fact, 'The Hiding Place' started off as a short story, but the character of Dolores inspired her to expand the idea and write a book.

Trezza's memories of the Maltese community in Cardiff are all those experienced by her father, who had left Gozo for Cardiff when he was in his 20s and married a Briton.

"We lived in a working class area which was very multicultural. My father used to take me with him to the market and I remember walking long distances to find garlic," she said with a smile.

"I remember my father to be the best dressed man in the street - these are just tiny anecdotal memories of living in the community," Trezza recalled.

Several of her father's friends were either Italian or of Arabic descent, which explains why Trezza used Italian vocabulary sparsely in the text, instead of Maltese.

"We spent quite some time dwelling on this issue of whether to use Italian or Maltese because we did not want the reader to encounter difficulties."

Trezza is very proud to have Maltese roots. However, she does not consider herself to be an ambassador of the island.

"There are better representatives of Malta. I think it is right that Malta is recognised in the book, even though it portrays a separate community and a somewhat different culture," she said modestly.

Though it must be every writer's dream to shoot to fame with the first book, Trezza said she never dreamt of having her novel shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize.

"I used to think it would be nice just to have my book published or see someone reading it on the train. It was a huge shock to be shortlisted and at first it was highly stressful."

Trezza would like to think that fame has not changed her and her partner Steven Foster vouches for that.

"I think she hasn't changed one bit. I guess she's just a bit richer, but apart from that she is still the same Trezza before being shortlisted," he said.

Her first novel having put her in the spotlight, the pressure is on to produce another novel - so once the celebration parties were over it was back to the lonely job of writing.

"The book I am writing at the moment is completely different from The Hiding Place, yet similar in the sense that the story is told through the first person," she said.

Trezza has already penned the first six chapters of her second novel and without revealing too much about the story, she did say that it was about an old woman who lived on the streets.

This woman is robbed by a younger woman and the tale evolves into deep issues of being reshaped and moulded by the past and present, by the young and old.

Trezza said it would be at least another 18 months before this novel was released.

Trezza will be giving a lecture on Monday at the St James Cavalier at 7 p.m. She will also be meeting President Guido de Marco to discuss Maltese roots and is holding a number of workshops on drama, writing and local issues.

Trezza will be signing books on Monday at the Agenda book shop in the Embassy Shopping Complex, Valletta, between 4.30 and 6.30 p.m.; on Tuesday at the University of Malta between 3.30 and 4.30 p.m.; on Wednesday at Sapienza's in Valletta between noon and 2 p.m.; and at the Plaza Centre, Sliema, between 10.30 a.m. and noon on Thursday.

The British Council is also taking the opportunity to promote the talents of the Maltese film makers who produced the short film Genesis, which raises some of the issues dealt with in Trezza's book.

Source: Times of Malta, www.timesofmalta.com


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