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I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For: An Interview with Jen Calleja

3rd July 2020

Jen Calleja is the author of I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype, 2020) and the Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted translator of Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (Serpent’s Tail, 2019). She was recently shortlisted for the Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize 2020 and longlisted for the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Experiment in Text 2020. Her translations have appeared in The New Yorker, The White Review and Granta, and she writes a column on translation for the Brixton Review of Books. She is researching and writing for a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia.

First of all, just tell us a little bit about yourself!

I’ll try and keep it short and sweet… I was born and grew up in Shoreham-By-Sea, a small town on the south coast of England near Brighton. My dad is Maltese and my mum is Anglo-Irish. I moved to Munich solo when I was 18 and lived there for about eighteen months over a period of two years. I’ve lived in London for about twelve years all in all, and currently live in Brixton Hill. I started writing creatively when I was very young, but then stopped, and didn’t take it up again until I was living in Munich. I taught myself advanced German from reading German-language novels, and translated my first book when I was 25. I’ve played in DIY punk bands for about ten years as a drummer and vocalist. I’ve also done activist work as a senior trainer in how to respond to and tackle sexual harassment in night life spaces, and would describe myself as a translation activist. I’m currently researching hybrid writing by women and non-binary translators on the art of literary translation, and writing my own ‘translator memoir’.

As a writer, translator and band member you’re definitely a multidisciplinary artist – how do all your different practices inform one another?

They’re all linked by a need to communicate and to transform one form of expression into another form in order for it to be accessed and experienced in a different way. When I write, I’m (re)expressing abstract ideas in my mind in the new form of a written text. When I translate I’m (re)expressing my reading experience of a German-language text in my own words and language. When I write a song or lyrics, I might be turning an abstract intellectual or political concept into a song, or (re)expressing my reading experience of a novel or article or lived experience into song. Being in bands has taught me a lot about artistic collaboration actually, which is vital for collaborative writing, editing or translating. 

There’s also a translatory process when I work across written genres – I sometimes turn a story I’ve written into a poem and/or an essay. Someone contacted me on Instagram to ask whether there was a kind of literary translation happening in my story collection, and I replied that I approach redrafting stories as if I’m translating the draft I have before me. That’s how I can create a bit of distance from the original draft. I in any case edit my own writing and my translations in a similar way, trying out different words, breaking up a line and then putting it back to how it was again. Whatever I’m doing, I’m compelled to communicate and share something with the reader or listener.

How did the collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For come about?

I’ve been writing and publishing short stories since my first year of university. In fact, my first published stories, poems and essays were published in the Goldsmiths College university magazine Smiths. It had always been my dream to have a short story collection, it’s a magical book format. The first collection I read was Roald Dahl’s Someone Like You. I was probably about twelve and it left a huge impression on me, both in terms of the disturbing content and cleverness of the stories (I think my parents or a family friend had picked it up in a charity shop for me thinking they were stories meant for children), but in the way it cemented the short story collection as the ultimate, correct form of a book in my consciousness.

I submitted the collection to a newish publisher and though they liked the stories they said that they didn’t think they were ready and that I would need to write another dozen or so stories for them to consider it again. Firstly, I didn’t really agree with their appraisal, and secondly, it had taken me eleven years to write enough stories to be able to choose the best ones to make up a collection; I didn’t have time to write more stories. I think we were on different wavelengths, or maybe they were just being cautious – publishers don’t tend to want short story collections.

Test Centre had published my first poetry collection Serious Justice in 2016 and I had loved working with them. (Incidentally, I had had a poetry collection manuscript ready first simply because I had had a run of a few years where I was getting commissions for writing and I didn’t have a lot of time to write, so I kept writing poems, all the while chipping away at these stories.)

When Test Centre evolved into Prototype last year and wanted to include fiction in their list I submitted the manuscript of about fifteen stories to them. I was really pleased (and relieved) when Jess Chandler at Prototype said she wanted the book and was enthusiastic about the stories themselves. Another publisher also wanted the collection in the end, but it felt good choosing Jess, you have to go with your gut and she gives me butterflies. A couple of stories were taken out because they didn’t quite fit with the others, and a couple of new ones I’d finished post-submission replaced them, but all in all it was a smooth process. 

Isabel Waidner suggested that ‘deferral and near misses are at the core’ of the collection, could you expand a little on the way you use ‘belatedness’ as a narrative technique?

I suppose it’s a manifestation of different forms of anxiety, both as something stifling but also as something energising. The opening story ‘Town Called Distraction’ follows a protagonist who knows all along that she’s going to be late for an important rendezvous, but by showing her being ‘actively’ late this near miss becomes a form of empowerment. The writer character in the closing story ‘Apart From When’ mirrors this, she chooses to be late for her reading because she’s in search of a worthy story and a deeper understanding of her past and present self. I recently realised that they’re both also partly inspired by my anxiety dreams of being late for important events!

The two central characters in ‘Befriended’ have both repressed why they left the countries they were born and grew up in, and are forced to come to terms with who they were/are and why they left. We join them during or on the cusp of these long awaited ‘returns’, which are moments of personal reflection after years of being happy and settled. It’s those moments created from holding back something for so long they turn into a crisis or cleft that interest me, they make the story burn. Even the aggressiveness and evasiveness of the abusive character in ‘The Amnesty’ is proof of a self evaluation that’s been put off for too long, that’s been on the slow burn, and we hope that it’s not too late after all? ‘The Turn’ is the same in a way, it’s all about realising too late what you’ve done even if it’s been staring you in the face – ‘I see that now’ is the refrain at the end – though it’s too late, and ultimately for the best.

In ‘The Debt Collector’ you namecheck Leonora Carrington’s collection The Debutante and Other Stories. Like Carrington, many of the tales in your collection have a sense of women emancipating themselves in eerie ways. I wondered if you could tell us a little more about how the surreal influences your work and if it intersects with the female protagonists in particular?

For me, surrealism is one of the best ways of exploring reality, and also a great way to refer to the fact that writing about reality is and cannot be reality – surrealism and other forms of experimental writing constantly point to the craft of writing in their being, and create a distancing effect. 

I actually came up with the idea for ‘The Debt Collector’ while reading The Debutante… sitting on a bench in a park, as Emmy is doing at the opening of the story. I was thinking about how brave and riotous the women are in her stories, how they up and leave or don’t show up (which many of my women characters do), and I was fantasising about whether simply reading Carrington’s book, or my book, could mobilise and encourage a woman to leave her life behind; literature as being literally life-altering, as causing personal and therefore political revolution. It’s a bit more complicated in the case of Emmy – her impulse to leave is arguably just waiting to be triggered, and not necessarily for the right reasons. It’s similar for the protagonist in ‘Gross Cravings’.

With ‘Divination’, surrealism is a chance to heighten the impact of the story, with the huge flood for instance, and to act as a pretty straightforward projection of the teenage girl’s subconscious in the form of the talking animals. In ‘Gross Cravings’ I held off having anything too overtly surreal so that I could place one very disturbing surreal image – which appears on the watchface of the wealthy man the food writer seduces – so that the reader would question the whole reality of what is, for all intents and purposes, a realist story.

What do you feel are the thematic threads running through the collection? 

I suppose personal agency; leading ‘authentic’ lives in the knowledge that we’re influenced by the outside world and other people; deconditioning; how the past figures in our present. Readers are better at finding the links I think.

The need for security in the face of creative precarity leads the narrator of ‘Gross Cravings’ to be both repulsed and seduced by a monied benefactor – how do you tread the line between social comment and conveying feelings in that story? 

Well, living under capitalism as an artist or writer etc. is mentally and physically tortuous, both in terms of the stress of making a living and through constantly questioning where the little money you do make is really from. The small publisher the narrator is writing a cookbook for an imprint of what might actually be a big corporation, her other bits of work are in advertising and for celebrity influencers. The monied benefactor represents the tainted fantasy of reverting to traditional gender roles and marrying for money in order to leave behind the specific pressures of being a woman creative, as well as the lure of being a rich cog in an unethical corporate machine.

I’m grappling with this question of being an artist, an ethical and critical one at that, and the physical toll it takes by using pregnancy as a metaphor. The kinds of symptoms normally associated with pregnancy and the signs of stress from freelancing become one – nausea, food cravings, stress, depression, loss of control, loss of self confidence, a survival instinct. I would say all my stories are locating forms of socio-political commentary within real, feeling bodies. I want to put forward a firm moral standpoint without being didactic, that’s why I choose the fiction form.

I love in ‘Literary Quartet’ how Hester’s ambition is to be a ‘Rediscovered Author’, could you speak a little to what this ambition represents in terms of how literary establishments and academics might value a writer’s output?

This was a reaction – or jibe – at how there are many women authors who aren’t properly recognised in their lifetime and being ‘rediscovered’ is a kind of posthumous booby prize. I kept noticing them popping up in newspapers and my social media feeds. It happens because women have historically been overlooked in the canon and it’s not necessarily a bad thing when this twisted history gets revisited and revised. But sometimes these authors reemerge in a form where someone else (an estate, a publisher, a curator, an academic, a gallery, an industry) can profit off of them financially and/or in terms of cultural capital, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I hate to think about the battles being fought over the archives and rights of deceased authors, particularly women. This ‘rediscovery’ is always announced alongside a photo of the author when they were young and typically glamorous too. Examples that come to mind are Clarice Lispector and Leonora Carrington. They become flattened, simplified, manipulated, spoken for, commodities.

Hester, a young writer, longs to disappear and then reappear when there would be the most interest in her work – instead of having to battle it out for meagre attention and reward, why not store it up and grab everyone’s attention at the end of your life by being an exciting discovery? It’s connected with the cult of the debut in publishing – on those days of self-reflection as an author you wonder if you’re only interesting if you’re young and releasing your first book, or already dead and gone. You sometimes hear translators say they prefer translating dead authors too – a dead author can’t argue with you. I don’t feel that way. I don’t think it’s healthy to only want tame, sanitised versions of writers that can’t make claims about their work. It seems overly controlling. Let’s celebrate writers while they’re alive, especially those long underrepresented in publishing, including women authors, Black authors and other writers of colour, working class authors, queer authors, disabled authors, non-Anglophone and non-Western authors.

I read that you were inspired to reflect on fables and fairytales for the forthcoming essay Goblins for Rough Trade Books. Could you tell us a bit more about this work and what’s next on the horizon?

Goblins is about all the ways I’ve been, have been made, or wanted to be a ‘goblin’ and is split into 3 interweaving parts. In the first part, Goblinhood, I’m reflecting on what lessons I was taught by the fantasy/fairytale TV programmes, films and books I consumed as a child – the series The Storyteller, the films Labyrinth and Return to Oz, and then later Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I look at how I related to certain characters or internalised the morals of the stories, and how they affected the way I saw myself and conducted my relationships with my family and with men especially. Part 2, Art Goblins, focuses on the artists Paula Rego, Ron Mueck and Jordan Wolfson, along with Rachel Louise Hodgson (whose visual art appears throughout the pamphlet) and their depictions of dolls, babies and women in their work. The third part, Goblincore, is looking at sexism I’ve experienced as a woman playing in punk bands, and the ways I’ve thought about performance as a femme-presenting person. Across the whole essay I’m thinking about childhood, adulthood, puppets and puppetry, babies, translation, storytelling, gendered experience and performance. It was comforting rewatching those films and programmes during lockdown, and massively cathartic to write the essay.

I’ve been working quite a lot on my PhD, I’ve been obsessed with the questions and motivations of my project for years, so it’s a pleasure and privilege to work on it. I’m currently translating two novels: The Liquid Land by Austrian author Raphaela Edelbauer for Scribe and Milk Teeth by German author Helene Bukowski for Unnamed Press. This summer I’m hoping to finish working on my first novel, The Islets, an experimental work exploring settler colonialism, hybrid identities, and the skewed writing of personal and national histories.


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