Antònia Vicens

Like birds that have been out in the rain
Vicens antonia bookcover
An interview with Antònia Vicens by Xavier Febrés. Translation by Graham Thomson.

It's thirty years now since you won the Sant Jordi prize with your first novel, 39° a l'ombra. Since then you have published ten books in different narrative genres. Yours is not a prolific body of work. What is your rhythm for constructing a story, a novel?

I don't have any particular rhythm; I have never set out to write a novel in a certain period of time. I write when I feel like writing. It has always been very clear to me that writing is, for me, a personal act of freedom, almost the only one to present itself in its entirety. I have never wanted to be a slave to finishing a book so as to keep my name in circulation, although in this country it seems that you're all but forgotten if you haven't published in three years. It hasn't bothered me; I've refused to let it bother me. I write when I feel like it, but not always for pleasure. Sometimes I write about things I wish didn't exist. At other times I simply don't feel like writing. I have never had a timetable for writing, I have never had a table laid out for me to write at, I have never had anything that would condition my writing. If I feel like writing under the orange tree, I do; and similarly if I feel like writing in bed.

What is it dependent on, this feeling?

Usually it's a mental thing. I'm a person who writes as an act of egoism, more than anything else. When I set out to tell a story I try to tell it through myself. I'm not curious, I'm not à la page, I'm not constantly on the lookout. I slowly absorb things, and then a time comes when, like birds that have been out in the rain, I need to beat my wings, to shake off everything I've been soaking up, almost to purify myself. That is when I sit down to write.

Do you make notes, between books?

I never make notes. I work by intuition. My novels are not reasoned out, but written intuitively. That's not to say that they just flow onto the page; I rewrite a lot; I stop and write it over again. I've never asked myself if I'm satisfied with this rhythm. It's just mine; I'm simply content that it gives me a certain freedom; I'm not a slave to writing or to popularity. I don't want to be a slave to the prevailing concept that you'll be forgotten if you don't publish a book in three years. I've just had three of my books come out at once: L'àngel de la lluna, Massa tímid per lligar and Homes i un jardí. The first is a story I published in a collection for children, although what constitutes writing for children and what doesn't has never been clear to me. It's about the loneliness of a little boy who has no one to play with after school, and the loneliness of a dog that the boy finds in the street. They say it's a story for children, and I still don't understand why. If the protagonist of the same story were an old man of eighty, would it be senior citizens' fiction? Massa tímid per lligar has come out in a series for teenagers because the kids are in secondary school. The novel Homes i un jardí is published by Edicions 62. I've been working, slowly but steadily.

Do you believe there is a grandeur in the everyday, a poetics of the humble, an art of the limited?.

Well of course there can be a grandeur in humility, even a holiness. My characters may participate in the humility of everyday reality, but they also have a world that is not touched, a more mysterious part that they never grasp.

How would you describe your style?

I don't know; I've never thought of describing it. Some people talk about magic realism, others talk of neorealism, others lay the emphasis on the poetry of the stories. I like to bring out the magical part, the spiritual part in everyday life. But I couldn't say what my style was if my life depended on it. I've never thought about it. I simply consider that a novel has to say things, but it also has to be art in terms of its forms, in terms of its words. My greatest love is of words. I take great care over the cadence of each sentence. I not only have to like the words, I have to like how they weigh in my hands, the weight of the sentence, its cadence I like to mix humble words with highbrow words.

The self-taught background you are said to have had

Not said to have had; had. I must be one of the least well-informed, least cultivated people. I started to write without having read a single work of literature. In the little towns such as my native Santanyí, although this might seem like science fiction to people who live in a city or have sufficient financial resources, there was no library or bookshop. There was only a school run by nuns, and the few books they had were about saints. I suppose that must be apparent in my books, perhaps in those humble words I mentioned a moment ago. I suppose they must have some kind of strength, I'm not saying that this is a virtue, as if they had been suddenly vomited up. Now I control myself more; I don't know what repercussions this has had in the course of my life. The self-taught background hasn't made me feel limited in my writing. Writing is not the product of accumulated cultural knowledge; for me, it's something more internal. It can be a product of that knowledge, but then it's immediately obvious that it's a highly elaborated thing. I didn't have access to that kind of knowledge. When I was very young I left the village to go and work in Cala d'Or, in the tourist industry, as a hotel receptionist. I had no time to cultivate my mind. The fact that I didn't have the school-leaving certificate meant that higher education was closed to me. In the village we didn't even have schooling up to the age of fourteen; the nuns weren't even teachers: they only taught us that two and two made four, and sometimes they would even get that wrong. That's how things were in a lot of villages on Mallorca, as a result of the Civil War and its aftermath, which had serious repercussions for village people of my generation.
At the same time, I have never felt like an outsider in the literary world. I'm a realist. I've never felt rejected by my fellow writers on that score. On the contrary, Benet Vidal i Tomàs, the Santanyí apothecary and cultural activist, helped me a great deal, as did the poet Josep M. Llompart and the philologist and editor Francesc de Borja Moll, who gave me a lot of support.

You were the first Mallorcan writer to reflect the phenomenon of tourism.

Yes, I believe I was. At least in 39° a l'ombra, which was the first novel published in Barcelona by the 70s generation, my generation. The so-called 70s generation started with my novel. There's no special merit in that, it's simply a coincidence of fate. And it was the first novel to deal with the subject of tourism. In actual fact we didn't really have any fiction, apart from one or two isolated cases, before the 'boom' of the 70s writers.
I have never bothered to label what I write. The term realism is very elastic. You give it a spiritual turn and it becomes something else entirely. Perhaps my first novels are too realist, because there was not as yet any urge inside me to discover this world that we don't touch and that conditions us. In due course I introduced it a lot, but the first novels were those vomited-up things I mentioned earlier. I left Santanyí for Cala d'Or thinking that in tourism I would find a more open world, and in the event it was even more closed and unjust, the gulf between the modernity of the tourists and the living conditions of the hotel workers. It was escaping from one asphyxia only to end up in another. And I was treated with more respect than the migrant workers from other parts of Spain, because I was Mallorcan, and I could eat in the guests' dining room and I had a room to myself. It was terrible. But that doesn't mean that I feel boxed inside literary realism; I've never considered it. I was once told, in the university, that my style was magic realism, although I had never read any. Probably there was a whole series of things in the air that we didn't quite grasp. Maybe we picked up this magic from the religious books, because those stories of saints and angels were pure magic. If my generation has been associated with magic realism, it can only come our religious education. If I'd been asked when I was a little girl what I wanted to be, I would have said a saint, because it was the way to travel all over the sky, all over the earth, everywhere. Even today I can tell you that I want to catch what I can't see, to grasp what may be floating in the air. To grasp means to catch something in some intangible way in the air. I might want to grasp the smoke of your cigarette, or a butterfly, without being capable of doing it materially.

You are currently vice-president of the Associació d'Escriptors en Llengua Catalana. What image do you think the writer has in the world today?

Here on Mallorca nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to us, we are of no account whatsoever. Society is very materialistic, as the poor sales of books demonstrate. This is a rich society, but a very uncultured one. They probably regard us writers as a little strange, remote from them, but I doubt if they give it much thought. There even seems to be a disdain for writers from here. People will buy a translation of a book by some unknown writer rather than one from here. If you sell 500 copies in the Balearic Islands, you're doing well. Perhaps it is a problem of the low cultural self-esteem of Mallorcan society, and I think the governing institutions here have a lot to do with that. In the Department of Culture of the autonomous Balearic government, the PP people are constantly putting obstacles in the way of local culture. I don't think the language matters to them, and so they couldn't care less about us writers. I have wasted a lot of positive energy there, and felt very let down. In contrast, if I go to speak to Damià Pons, the Councillor for Culture of the Consell Insular de Mallorca, with a hope in my heart, I come away with two.
Now we have a university and a lot of young people are studying there, and perhaps things will progress. Up until now Mallorcan writers have made very little headway in Mallorcan society as a whole. I have hopes for the young, for the children of the people who have got rich from tourism.

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