Maria Antonia Oliver

Who I Am And Why I Write
Maria Antonia Oliver
by Maria Antonia Oliver

'...At the age of twenty, I discovered my country and I saw that the language I spoke could do anything. And I started to write in Catalan.'

Well, I'm a woman (I was about to say girl, but that isn't true), my name is Maria-Antònia Oliver, I was born in Manacor, and I write just because I do. As far as I'm concerned, the article ends here. But they told me I would have to write three or four pages about these things, and the truth is that I really don't know how to go about it. I have been asked these two questions any number of times, the journalists are very good at that, and I've never been sure what to say in reply. It seems to me that a life and a vocation are impossible to define because they are made up of multiple facets, many of which we can only intuit, many of which last only a few moments, while other last all our lives, and many of which we are not even aware of...

When I was a little girl - I must have been six or seven - I liked to look at myself in the mirror of my parents' wardrobe. It was a mirror with three panels, and I could see my whole body in it repeated a thousand times, to the point where I could no longer recognize myself. Then I would be overtaken by a strange anxiety and I'd close up the mirror as fast as I could - and all the things that were in the mirror - and go off to play at something else.

I also had a great-uncle, Uncle Joan, who used to tell me stories. There are people who know how to tell a story. There are people who have other gifts. Take me, for instance: I think I know how to write, but I can't tell a story. Uncle Joan knew how to tell a story. As he was shelling beans, or twisting a cord from rushes, or cutting his nails with a paring knife, or leading a young horse to Sa Cova - he was always doing something with his hands, my great-uncle - he would have me sitting at his side, for hours and hours, spellbound, listening to his tales. When I had scarlet fever, all through the forty days I had to stay in bed he made up a marvellous serial for me out of all the old stories, mixed in with some of his own: it was a wonderful illness.

When I was twelve I went through a period of profound melancholy. I suppose if they had taken me to a psychiatrist he would have diagnosed pre-menstrual depression, at the very least, in addition to religious problems - in fact it all started with some spiritual exercises, but that was only the trigger - and all kinds of other problems that piled up on one another and made life unbearable for me. I didn't talk about it at home. If my mother found me crying, I simply said to her, 'I'm sad'. And she would say, 'It'll pass,' or she would just smile. I spent the whole year asking my best friends, 'Are you happy, Francesca; are you happy, Catalina?', and they used to look at me, surprised, while I just wanted to die. Really to die: not to be on earth, or in heaven, or in hell: not to be. Then I started stealing. Nothing much: a few coins to spend on the dodgem cars. The dodgem cars was the only place I didn't feel sad, or helpless, or miserable. It was the only place where I didn't think about death.

After that I wanted to be a film actress. At the same time I was falling in love just about every week. I was fat, I was short, I had skinny legs, I had large breasts and no waist and, to cap it all, my hair was curly and my face was covered in spots. In other words, completely the opposite from what I would have needed to be an actress and for my crushes to be reciprocated. It was also the age when I drank coffee with milk. I loved it! I read 'a lot, and everything' and drank coffee with milk. I studied 'hard, and got good marks' and drank coffee with milk. I listened to records - Elvis Presley more than the Beatles - and drank coffee with milk.

And then we went to live in Palma. I wanted to be an air hostess. My mother still tells me that she used to be in tears, but they couldn't make me change my mind. 'You're so stubborn,' she used to say. You see, I thought of being an air hostess as a permanent adventure, but for my family it was a disgrace. 'All of those women are sluts, Marieta Antònia,' a friend of my father's said to me. But I didn't listen to them, I wanted to be like Doris Day in a film whose name I've forgotten, who saved a 'plane and all the passengers'. Meanwhile, I had written a story, I had a novel half finished, and then, at the age of twenty, I discovered my country and I saw that the language I spoke could do anything. And I started to write in Catalan.

But why was I writing? I have a few poems I wrote when I was eight years old, I have a story from when I was thirteen, my unfinished novel was from when I was eighteen - all in Spanish, and all very poor. What I'm trying to say is that the inclination - the vocation - goes back a long way. But, why? Was there, in those poems about a very bad and very beautiful lady, something of my fascination with mirrors? Was there, in the story about a pencil that I wrote at thirteen, any kind of reference to - for instance - the dodgem cars or Uncle Joan's serial story?

Since October 1970, when my first novel was published, I have never stopped writing. What is there in me, now, of that girl in boots with a doll in her arms whom I see in an old photograph? Everything? Nothing? What comes out, in my novels, in my articles, in my stories, in my scripts, of my unshakable resolve to be an air hostess...or of my running from the police in the time of Franco?

Writers say they write in order for people to love them more, or for posterity, or to exorcise their own personal demons, or to criticise a world they don't agree with, or to escape their own neuroses, etc., etc. I write for all of these reasons and because in writing I can be myself, because writing is my way of being, so as to die a little less the day I die. And, above all, because I like it. And also because it's the only thing I know how to do. I write& but who am I? What, for example, are my neuroses, my obsessions? What do I want to criticise and not criticise? What is there left in me of that young girl who was going to take the world by storm when she saw her first book published, or of that woman who had an embolism just over three years ago? The truth is that I'm really not sure. And that perhaps in a couple of months I'll think quite differently from the way I do now.

Everything influences you. Health or illness, the love of your whole life and the love of this very day, the outcome of the elections, a war in a far-away country. People change, we modify ourselves, we evolve. How can we define ourselves. The fact is that I'm not really interested in that. When all is said and done, there are certain things that remain, immobile, stable, incorruptible. For me, one of those things is literature. To a superlative degree, and irrespective of quality of quantity. Who am I and why do I write? I'm really not sure, and it doesn't really bother me. For me, writing is living, living is writing.

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