Working with Words: Joseph Chetcuti

Joseph Chetcuti is a barrister and author. He spoke with us about training as a priest, the agendas of historians and writing on impulse.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Joseph Chetcuti

Italy has Pinocchio. Malta has Ġaħan, the anti-hero of our island folk literature. Ġaħan was a naïve boy. (Malta’s ‘politically correct brigade’ would be hard-pressed to have Ġaħan expunged from our literature.) When ordered to close the door behind him (in Maltese, iġbed il-bieb warajk, ‘pull the door behind you’), Ġaħan took the words literally, taking the door off its hinges, and dragging it all along the street to the amusement of passers-by. Quite inadvertently, it was a lesson on the dangers of taking commands literally. A most valuable warning to anyone who was born in a country that took religion seriously. Often literally. Even dogmatically.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

Writing was an integral part of my boyhood. It could hardly have been otherwise. My late uncle (Ġuzè Chetcuti) was one of Malta’s leading writers. My late father (Ġorġ Chetcuti) was a poet and night-editor of Il-Berqa, a leading Maltese newspaper. There were times when I accompanied him to work. He would take me around the printing presses and introduce me to the staff. I would watch him edit articles. On our many strolls around Valletta, I was lucky to come face-to-face with many of Malta’s leading writers.

As a young boy I often retired to my father’s study to compose poems – mostly attempts at sonnet form – on his Olivetti typewriter. There were confrontations with typewriter ribbons. Pressing the wrong key spelt disaster. The poems were no works of art. Invariably, all were about my faith and country. It took me years to liberate myself from the rigidity of the sonnet form. Then, as a young boy, I wrote my history on Malta, a schoolboy’s attempt to look at the country. In Australia, aged 24, I managed to liberate myself from the rigidity of traditional poetry, thanks to the efforts of Patricia Laird of the Saturday Book of Poetry Club and the example set by poets like Rae Desmond Jones and Joanna Burns.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I have worked as a clerk, a bar tender, a waiter, a kitchen-hand, a lecturer, a ‘switch-bitch’ with Telecom Australia – as I think it was then styled – and, later, a lawyer. Being a ‘switch-bitch’ at Telephone Directory was most enjoyable. It was as if San FranDisco had come to work. Young gay men managed to turn mundane tasks into a routine of comedy, with many women – most of them straight – joining in the fun. I also joined the Franciscan Conventuals in 1969 in the hope of becoming a priest. I left a couple years later to join another religious society. 

Herodotus, Xenophanes and Livy were not university graduates. Yet, their histories have stood the test of time.

My studies in theology and philosophy, the basic training for would-be priests, and law, taught me to be very disciplined when it comes to the writing of history. Reading theology is no easy task especially when you do not have access to the Scriptures in their original format and language. What we have are translations of translations, copies of copies. Then, there are the rules of evidence that are part and parcel of a lawyer’s training. You must speak to the evidence however unpalatable that evidence may be. But formal training needs to be complemented with an understanding of the human condition which I could only gain through contact with people who are different from me. 

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

This was never a choice for me. My father kept on writing until he fell off the perch. My uncle published books well into his late 80s. My only wish is to continue where they left off. Without any shadow of doubt, had I not migrated to Australia in 1965, I would have realised my dream of becoming a Franciscan priest. Even then, I would have been a writer. Most probably, debunking myths of a different kind.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I studied political science at the UNSW. One of my lecturers, Donald Horne, also supervised my research MA. Horne was an ‘unconventional’ lecturer. As far as I recall, he never completed his tertiary studies. He had a brilliant mind which goes to show that you can still be an academic without going through the university factory. Horne encouraged us to check our sources. All our footnotes. He distrusted academics. As far as he was concerned, they all came with an agenda, only too willing and ready to twist what others said beyond recognition. One tutor in history – herself a historian – described historians as leeches.

I now approach history with something akin to Cartesian doubt. I do not trust narratives however authoritative their source. I draw a distinction between an argument and an opinion (as philosophers understand both terms). I am not interested in opinions. I prefer a multidisciplinary approach to history. Historians need to go beyond the ‘historical method’. Professional historians – presumably those with a PhD in history – do not have a monopoly on history. After all, Herodotus, Xenophanes and Livy were not university graduates. Yet, their histories have stood the test of time. 

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

No. It was never part of my childhood. I know of no other boys who kept diaries. We were too consumed with our religion; perhaps unknowingly, living the ‘dolce vita’ on the island of Malta. I have, however, kept many documents from my childhood. I hope to revisit them some day.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I seldom take the time to consider whether a book is overrated or unsung. Every writer has something to say. I enjoy reading books that contest the way I look at the world. Books that help me refine how I look at issues.

More recently, I started reading Zelda D’Aprano’s book, Zelda. Zelda lived a few streets away from me. I found her analysis of Women’s Liberation – from a heterosexual woman’s point of view – to be very interesting and, at times, profound. Finally, another narrative was revealed, one that was very different from that promoted by separatist and radical lesbians. I consider Zelda’s book highly underrated.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions? 

That is for others to judge. When it comes to writing I tend to write on impulse. At least at the initial stage. I write without censoring myself which, as my uncle once warned me, is the worst form of censorship. Then the real work begins. Cutting and pasting. Throwing out the bits that make no sense or appear self-indulgent.

Every writer has something to say. I enjoy reading books that contest the way I look at the world. Books that help me refine how I look at issues.

Writing is hard work because there are times when you must discard what you are emotionally drawn to. You require the courage to retain those parts that may appear heavy-going to the reader, but which are crucial to what you want to say. Titillation is not the name of the game. What matters is the finished product, because at the end of the day, when a piece of writing is published ‘the author is dead’.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Everything I wrote. With the benefit of hindsight, we can always improve on what we write. But that is not the point. Writing reflects the writer’s state of mind at a particular stage of life. It also reflects the society he or she is part of. Both should be celebrated. Any writer who is unable or unwilling to improve what has been written is to be pitied. Stagnation is not the name of the game. 

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

St Paul. I would cross-examine him on his sexuality. 

Portrait of Joseph Chetcuti

Joseph Chetcuti is a practising barrister and solicitor in Victoria and a registered migration agent. Il­Ktieb Roża: Dnub, diżordni u delitt? (The Pink Book: A sin, disorder and crime?) (1997), the first book on homosexuality in the Maltese language, and Queer Mediterranean Memories: Penetrating the secret history and silence of gay and lesbian disguise in the Maltese Archipelago (2009), the first book in English on homosexuality in Malta, attracted wide media coverage and drew the ire of Malta’s conservatives. He is a 78er and his most recent book is Sydney’s First Gay Mardi Gras: What brought it on and how it changed us (2017).

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