Vella studied at the University of Malta and at the University of Exeter. He lectured on Pedagogy at the University of Malta, and for some years delivered lectures on English-language fiction by Maltese writers for the Department of English. He was also Director of Studies of the Foundation Studies programme and remains involved with the University on a number of other programmes.
Vella deals with social and emotional issues – the settings and scenarios may vary, yet values and principles remain constant. There is this push towards and for Truth, the importance of questioning the status quo, seeking out what is right and fighting for it. His works often feature some of the elements of parables, pitching tyrannical power, with all its horrors and absurdities, against the indomitable few who stand up to it. The voice of the author is discernible; it is personal yet detached, sure of its role of observer and narrator.
In his first publication, Inside the Horse (1994), we see many of these themes converge. The novel tackles how reality and fiction merge as it maps out the journey of the protagonist, who throws in his lot with Italian Fascism. Our humanity and vulnerability come to the fore in Foot Soldier (2012), translated as Wara l-Ħajt (Behind the Wall), which looks at the story of women manipulated by the Stasi and persecuted for spying after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Similarly, in Moving Mountains (2018), we are faced with the often dubious practices of faith healing, creating a quandary around conflict, faith and choice.
There are many facets to Vella’s work besides the political. Another early work, Young Harry (2008), inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Vella’s stay in Plymouth, digs deep into the story of interconnecting lives. From the start, there is this uncomfortable possibility of switched identities, as well as the consequences and the price we pay for our choices.
Though Vella writes both in English and in Maltese, his work remains true to his roots and is imbued with Maltese elements. An interesting case is the play Valeriana (soon to be adapted into an opera)which was first published in English and later translated into Maltese. It is set on a tiny island in the Mediterranean and depicts the tragi-comic conflict between a Maltese internee and the local Fascist Podestà.
Vella’s latest work, In with the Pin (2022), does not shy away from making bold social statements. It grapples with some of the more rancoroussocial and moral tussles between the individual’s autonomy to choose “a good death” and societal prescriptions to let life take its full course. This novel thus becomes a powerful invitation to revisit strongly upheld beliefs as it addresses the blurring of dividing lines between right and wrong.
There is a vastness to Vella’s writing, ranging from time and place, the political and historical, to the personal and social milieu of his characters. There is also the depth of research to be appreciated, along with a wealth of literary references. Perhaps the most intriguing constant, however, is the need to evaluate and challenge the status quo, so as to be able to realign perceptions and dogmas otherwise taken for granted.
Biography written by Ruth Bezzina
Project co-ordinator: Clare Azzopardi
With the help of: Kirsty Azzopardi, Leanne Ellul and Albert Gatt
Proofreader: Dwayne Ellul