The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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Aqla' kjass! - A graphic novel for teens

Sunday, 14 May 2023, 09:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

I met with translator-publisher team CLARE AZZOPARDI and CHRIS GRUPPETTA over a coffee close to Clare's workplace. They're poring over some scribbled sheets as I approach, and when they see me, Chris discreetly flips over the top sheet. Some top-secret new project in the works, the guilty half-smile seems to indicate. But today we're meeting to talk about their latest book, Aqla' kjass!, a graphic novel for teens translated by Clare from the original Italian. Written by Mark Delia .

This book is, to put it very mildly, not your usual comic book for teens. The superheroes in this comic don't wear capes or fight aliens, but battle sexual, physical or psychological violence. Why use a comic book format for such topics?

Clare: Why not, I would ask? Comics are hard to beat in terms of ease of access, speed of reading and immediacy. The text to illustrations ratio, so different to a regular novel where there's lots to read that may put less confident readers off, helps teens move the story along even by looking at the illustrations. A page can sometimes be read through in seconds, almost, and that's a huge boost to reluctant readers.

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And when talking of something as powerful as violence against women, it is one thing to read words about it; quite another to actually see, in pictures, a girl or woman being harassed, placed in an impossible situation or battling the consequences of unwanted attention.

Chris: In fact, for me the most powerful story in this book is Ibgħatli la tasal, a short story where nothing much happens, and where there is next to no text. It is "just" the story of a young woman walking home alone after an evening out with a friend. Nothing happens, but we get to walk home with her and share her rising anxiety every time she hears footsteps behind her, when she walks past a pub and a drunk catcalls her. We feel her beating heart as she thinks she spots someone in the park, in a dark spot. Just a regular walk home alone, at night, through a deserted path - something we as guys do without a second thought or worry.

 

Date rape, gaslighting, slut shaming, fatphobia, catcalling ... the language in the comic - and at times even the visuals - are pretty strong and rough, even. Was it a deliberate choice when translating to Maltese, to retain this rawness in language?

The easy, safe choice would have been to euphemise the strong language in the Italian original, when translating to Maltese. Especially since, for a host of social reasons, we tend to find strong language in Maltese more objectionable than the same words in other languages. But the publisher and I wanted to keep intact, as much as possible, the raw language used by the characters in these stories.

The politically incorrect, sexist and vulgar language used by the guys in Xi stress is part of the reason that the peer pressure builds up so much to the consequence that it does. A gentler, more considerate vocabulary would not have rendered realistically this rising pressure on a teen to perform and "be a man" in front of his friends.

 

Audrey Friggieri, Commissioner on Gender-based Violence and Domestic Violence, in the preface she wrote the book emphasises that the message to girls and women reading it should be that 'we write our own life story and we should never allow anyone else to write it for us'. How do you feel the stories put forward this message?

In most of the nine stories in Aqla' kjass, the woman or girl having been exposed to a form of gender-based violence - whether physical or psychological - comes to realise that her life is hers to live and that it is up to her whether to let what happened define her life or not. Some move on by confronting the person or situation, others by creating a brand new life for themselves, others still by becoming even stronger. But in all cases, as Commissioner Friggieri pointed out in the preface, the characters come to understand that it is they, and they alone, who have the power to write their own life story, to make their voice heard above that of their abusers. Hence, incidentally, the title of the book: Fai rumore, in Maltese Aqla' kjass!

 

The format and subject matter are very unusual for a book in Maltese. Clare, does translating something like this, or are translating and writing two completely separate worlds?

Clare: When translating, you get very intimate with the source text, and to a certain extent it begins to feel your own. So the temptation to jump in there and change something in the text, because my author antlers would be tingling to me that it can be improved, is often very present. But in the end I hold back. Because of course, unlike when I'm creating my own fiction, here I'm aware that I'm working on someone else's text and have to respect that. Anything I introduce or change is always justified by context and is always for the reader's benefit.

 

Clare, Chris, which of the nine is your favourite story?

Clare: Xi stress

Chris: Ibgħatli la tasal

 

What reactions are you hoping to have, from teenagers reading Aqla' kjass?

Clare: Beyond the obvious - raising awareness - I would love for this book to be read by a teenage girl who has endured or been exposed to such a situation, for her to realise she is not alone and that it is possible to react and take control of one's life.

Chris: At the same time, I would really love for guys to read it, for us to realise how easily masculinity can get toxic and threatening towards the women and girls around us. I also think this book is a terrific tool to kickstart a conversation with teens about the realities of gender-based violence. Literature is such a fantastic tool to safely explore the terrors of daily lives and Aqla' kjass is a perfect example of how a book can help.


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