Contemporary Maltese Literature
Published by Inizjamed and Midsea Books, December 2005
Printed at Gutenberg Press, Ħal Tarxien
Artistic concept and covers by Pierre Portelli
Series Editor Adrian Grima
Available from all leading bookshops
First presented at the Commonwealth People's Forum
Six of the New Wave Writers working together within Inizjamed and writing mainly in Maltese are now available in English in a series of Contemporary Maltese Literature in Translation published by Inizjamed and Midsea Books. Clare Azzopardi, Stanley Borg, Norbert Bugeja, Maria Grech Ganado, Adrian Grima and Simone Inguanez are producing some of the most engaging poetry and prose to come out of Malta for many years.
This series has allowed them and Maltese literature in general to find a presence, through translation, in the consciousness of foreign readerships.
The design of the books is based on a concept by artist Pierre Portelli. The series editor is Adrian Grima. The books can be bought either individually or as a set (with a special price).
The six books are:
Clare Azzopardi, Others, Across
Stanley Borg, Waiting for Green. Traffic Light Thoughts
Norbert Bugeja, Stay, Fairy Tale, Stay! Memoirs of a City Cast Adrift
Maria Grech Ganado, Memory Rape
Adrian Grima, The Tragedy of the Elephant
Simone Inguanez, Water, Fire, Earth and I
For more information about this six books write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On reading the fiction of Clare Azzopardi
Overt engagement with the political is a risky strategy for an author. Perhaps an author’s main “responsibility” – possibly an objectionable term in this context – is towards the composition of her text. Otherwise, the writer of fiction risks taking on board the tired slogans that all too frequently characterise political debate, or adopting the convoluted jargon of academia. Such a self-conscious adoption of slogans or theories would narrow down the space of possible interpretations and “placements” of a text.
By a “placement”, I mean an interpretive action carried out by a reader who reads a fictional text in the light of a contemporary condition, rather as a small mirror is tilted this way and that in order to display, up close, this or that corner of a room.
Translating some of Clare Azzopardi’s recent work has given me the opportunity to carry out this interpretive activity to a greater extent than would otherwise have been possible. This is not only because of the inevitable interpretation that is required by translation, but primarily because while translation has always struck me as an act of border-crossing, Azzopardi’s work itself focuses on the upheavals that result when a person is uprooted for any number of personal or political reasons, and finds herself in a situation where she is, in effect, mis(-)placed. This concern is evident in two of her most recent stories, excerpts from which are reproduced here. It is perhaps most clear in /no adjective describe story/, but I find that it stubbornly resurfaces in Immersed.
Thus, when Clare asked me to write a short “review” of her fiction, I could think of no better way to do this than to undertake some of the activity of “placement” that I referred to earlier.
But what about us?
The current political climate in Europe presents a bewlidering array of conflicting tendencies, set against a background of economic uncertainty, whose symptoms are high unemployment and an attrition of that mainstay of our perceptions of wellbeing: “confidence”. Despite its recent expansion, Europe has been engulfed by a tide of right-wing and populist politics, widely held responsible for the resounding refusal by a number of its peoples to accept a European constitution. In a sense, members of such factions are perceiving a cosmopolitan threat, and their defiance could be paraphrased as a cry of “What about us?”.
This situation is reflected at the national level. Malta, in particular, has also seen the rise of a sizeable right-wing minority, whose objectives, though always unclear, seem to be directed towards the elusive goal of asserting a Maltese “identity” unsullied by foreign presences. Apart from thriving in climates of uncertainty, such assertions also need to posit an entity from which “we” can be differentiated. In the Maltese case, that entity has often been the klandestin, meaning “illegal immigrant” or “refugee”.
Azzopardi’s /no adjective describe story/ is an interesting little mirror to hold up against this state of affairs. To begin with, its main character is elusive. Ostensibly, this is the story of a refugee, Adiam, a klandestina from Eritrea. However, the story stubbornly refuses to be Adiam’s. Set off in cumbersome slashes -- /nobody say my story/, she says -- Adiam’s voice surfaces only occasionally, and is a barely audible whisper that, like a faultline, ruptures the Maltese voices that populate the narrative. In fact, the story belongs to somebody else. It could belong to Ruth, who is recounting it as someone who has witnessed the events or heard about them; it could also be the story of the man, her ex-lover, who is engaged in the illegal (and highly profitable) transportation of klandestini outside Malta, while nurturing a disdain bordering on hatred for these “down and outs”; or it could be Rachel’s, the eighteen-year old daughter of this man and Adiam’s friend, whose young, angry voice is perhaps the loudest and most direct of all, but who nevertheless is not the storyteller.
I think this refusal to “tell it straight” is a crucial aspect of Azzopardi’s fiction. For these stories are seldom tellable as narratives from a single point of view (that would ultimately pander to the strategy of sloganeering). In spite of Ruth’s wry commentary on the conditions in which these people are held in detention centres, and the ironic titles -- all quotations from the New Testament story of St. Paul’s shipwreck on Maltese shores -- the story does not present a single, dominant stance on the political issue of the displaced person. For example, while Rachel condemns her father for the profit that he makes from a group of displaced individuals, she herself has been privy to his doings for a long time, and has also been lured into the business by the prospect of making some money:
-- I almost wet myself with fear each time it happens.
-- How many times has it happened, Rach?
-- Three times so far. My dad needs a signal before he can leave his hideout.
-- And it’s strictly a family business.
-- Absolutely. Outsiders are too much of a risk.
-- So why did you never try to stop him?
-- Fuck that! That’s, like, pretty useless isn’t it? Then again... ħeqq it’s not that easy to refuse the cash, know what I mean? I need the money too, Ruth. And let’s face it, there’s also the rush, you know, the excitement.
Perhaps the most ironic comment of all comes from Adiam, who has the last, whispered word. By the end of the story, we learn that she has been the “victim” of Rachel’s father’s clandestine operation. Having been allowed to leave the detention centre for illegal immigrants in which she has been kept for months, she leaves the island illegally. Her letter to Rachel concludes with the following words, which have finally been liberated from their confining slashes:
You my only friend. Maybe see you in future. You and Mum. Who know? I thank you. You and father.
Father and daughter are thanked by the victim; the accomplice (Rachel) is denoted “friend”. If this is a mirror to be held up against a contemporary political situation, then its images, clamouring for precedence and shouting “What about me?”, are significantly distorted. It is certainly a story about “us”, about the ethically problematic platforms on which we have to stand, depending on which side of a geopolitical divide we happen to occupy.
Personal worlds, geopolitical realities
So far, I have focused on Azzopardi’s work as a “mirror on the political”, while emphasising the oblique nature in which this “mirroring” functions; yet her narratives would be more accurately characterised as small sketches from the lives of individuals. The political is, after all, a web in which small lives are ensnared.
These three stories are all intensely personal, but the personal element is perhaps clearest in the first-person narrative of Immersed. Immersed is the story of Gordon Grech, a young ex-soldier to whom the burning down of a detainee camp over which he was supposed to keep watch becomes, albeit obliquely, an act of defiance against the father who has inflicted countless torments on his mother and sister. The centre of the narrative is a strange episode in which Gordon, engaged in a violent operation in which the army quells a peaceful demonstration by the detainees in the camp, is suddenly reminded of the way his own father used to torture him by forcing his head into a bathtub filled with water:
I grabbed a fistful of hair and squashed his face into the mud until it oozed into his mouth, between his teeth, under his tongue. I pressed down even harder, imagined myself telling him: That’s the only way to strengthen your lungs my boy. And God help you if you so much as budge, you filthy animal. But I said not a word. Instead, I looked him straight in the eye and, with mud and gravel between his teeth he said Please me innocent. Please me help.
It is difficult to read this passage without being reminded of a similar demonstration recently held in a Maltese detainee camp, or of the surge of violence that has swept across France in recent months. Yet, these events do not form the main fabric of the narrative; rather, it is Gordon’s relationship with his father, his uncertain regard of his mute sister, and his love for his mother that are the main events.
It is anger, most of all, that strikes me as the central feature of these characters, rooted, in the case of Gordon in the memories of an abusive father. These are characters whose various minor epiphanies are sources of a muted joy, because theirs has been an experience of exchanges with others which, when not downright abusive, are simply elided fragments and cirumlocutions, while the things that should be said remain unsaid. Like /no adjective describe story/, Immersed deals with a hard and gritty personal reality; yet both stories are oddly life-affirming. After all, Gordon does manage to break out of his father’s stronghold, and the end of the story hints at the beginnings of something new:
Today, Kristi and I are sitting beneath a sky alive with seagulls. She’s playing with her dolls, dipping them into the icy blue sea. Me, I listen to the gulls without shedding a tear.
On a personal note, I’ve found Clare Azzopardi’s work both challenging and immensely satisfying. At least some of that comes from the recognition of threads in her yarn which recall political and social events that have formed the backdrop of my life in recent years. But the most important element, in my view, is the way in which such events, however momentous, never obliterate the excruciatingly real personal situations that her narrative portrays.
November 21, 2005
A notebook taped to the steering wheel and a pencil handy, Stanley Borg relieves the boredom of driving by scribbling down his thoughts whenever the traffic lights turn red.
His evocative ruminations and snatches of bilingual conversations he overhears have been compiled in a book aptly named Waiting for Green: Traffic Light Thoughts.
The book is one of a collection of six penned by new wave writers as part of a series of contemporary Maltese literature in translation published by Inizjamed and Midsea Books.
Mr Borg, 28, who works with the government and freelances with numerous The Times publications, among others, has since attracted the attention of wardens with his unusual practice, so instead he keeps his coveted notebook and pencil on the passenger seat.
“I spend about two hours a day driving around and being alone gives me the chance to observe people without having to interact with them,” he said, sipping his espresso and savouring the moment.
Mr Borg admits that talking is not his forte, and he especially detests small talk; it’s as if he has a quota of 50 minutes talk time every day and once that runs out, he’ll retreat into his world of silent observations.
He prefers to observe and his favourite haunt is it-Toqba in Vittoriosa. Walking through the narrow streets that bustle with a sense of community he pricks his ears and listens in on conversations.
“I just stand around and listen. I’m very curious. I’m your typical nemmies (a voyeur). Though I’m an observer, I hate being observed,” he said with a penetrating gaze.
Though Mr Borg shies away from attention, it is hard for passers-by not to let their gaze linger on his unusual three-piece suits, as he goes about his work.
He expresses surprise when this fact is pointed out and he lets in that he has a penchant for hand-tailored suits, which he picks up whenever he’s on one of his exotic trips – there is a story behind each outfit.
Wherever he is, Mr Borg is always sniffing out a story and his book is a collection of thoughts, conversations he may have overheard on the radio or on the streets, and paragraphs that have been edited out of his freelance articles.
He switches freely between Maltese and English, though the pieces penned in his native language tend to come across as more potent; vivid prose that conjure a picture in the readers’ mind.
One of the pieces goes like this:
“Ta˙t passa s˙ab u qamar fjakk, l-erjals donnhom naffara. Il-prajvits, xag˙ar itir u dbielet qosra, naqra gidma roΩa fuq g˙onq abjad, Mario loves Mary Jane migruf fil-franka u Carmen tal-˙anut tg˙ajjar ma’tifel…”
“I’m Maltese and it’s my language. Though I enjoy writing in English I feel Maltese gives me greater space to play with words. There are also pieces that are direct speech – my attempt to capture one moment in time, ” he said.
Though he was only nudged into freelancing by a journalist a few years ago, writing down his thoughts is a habit that Mr Borg picked up when he was quite a young boy.
“I had these ugly brown spectacles as a boy, which led to bullying, something I feels scars you for life. This somehow pushed me into writing, I felt it was my way of getting my own back on the bullies – doing something they were incapable of doing,” he said, allowing himself to smile.
Mr Borg would love to be able to write full-time “yet, on the other hand I’ll be so happy to be following my dream that I probably won’t be able to write”.
Bittersweet emotions and anger are what drives him to write so if he is content to be writing full-time he will probably get writer’s block.
When not writing, Mr Borg can usually be found with his head buried in some dark novel. At the moment he has just finished reading Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, a difficult novel about the degeneration of humanity in the late 20th century.
“When reading I like to be shaken and stirred. I hate books that follow a certain formula. Locally I admire the work of Immanuel Mifsud who investigates the underbelly of the Maltese through his prose – I find this fascinating,” he said.
So now that his thoughts have been printed and published, what is his next project?
“I’m highly critical of my work and I never seem satisfied. I’ll probably have a mere dozen pages in one year, so who knows when there will be another book along the way.”
As the interview draws to an end, he slips on a black coat and panics when he finds the packet of cigarettes missing. He heaves a sigh of relief when he realises it’s someone else’s coat. Then he’s off, out on the streets again, his dark eyes keenly observing the passage of life unfolding.
The series of six books, which can be sold individually or as a set, include works by Clare Azzopardi, Norbert Bugeja, Maria Grech Ganado, Adrian Grima and Simone Inguanez.
This collection has allowed them and Maltese literature in general to find a presence, through translation, in the consciousness of foreign readerships.
The design of the books was based on a concept by artist Pierre Portelli. The series editor is Adrian Grima. The books are for sale from all leading bookshops.
Published in The Times, 28 Dec. 2005
“Norbert Bugeja’s poetry is an exciting blend of lyrical impulses and threads of rationalizations – an androgynous poetic identity of Dionysian reverie and Apollonian contemplation. The building blocks of this ‘persona’ torn apart by the forces of the polarities that problematise the human condition are the poet’s complex metaphors of intense beauty, rich in cultural connotation, seductive by their power of sensual, earthy and sometimes intellectual articulation: the metaphor is the brick and mortar of Bugeja’s poetry and his technique in weaving evocative images through his metaphorical repertoire is smooth as velvet.
The linguistic structure is terse and poignant, blade sharp and bravely
embraces a free approach towards semantics and coinage thus making full use
of the versatility and richness of modern Maltese. Bugeja is definitely an
important leading voice in the new wave of Maltese poets who are bridging
Maltese poetry into the 21st century with particular reference to the
literary movement of the sixties.”
A Fragmented Mediterranean
Adrian Grima speaks with a contemplative voice crossing a fragmented
Mediterranean - north south, half here half there - he hears and feels the
cadences and contours of its ambiguous faces, touches the scars of failed
promises and the violence of its cultures inner borders, seeks poetic
salvage in the pungency of its life, the largesse of its heart, in the swell
of the sea or the dream of a child in its tremulous waters usurping the
slyness of the moon.
Imprisoned by Our Dreams
University of London, Birkbeck College
It is rare to come across a collection that lightly, bravely and with humour, touches the parts that hurt us most: that remind us of our inability to understand the other person, be they our closest friend or lover. That suggest, always gently, that we can never catch up with the past - always fifteen (more) minutes away. That evoke, in words, the poverty of words. Adrian Grima's poems, some provoked and inspired by political conflicts and impasses, reach out to the pain of the individual, to the Abder or Samir that we all have encountered at some point in our lives. This collection is a reminder, in short, to all of us would-be elephants, that we are never more imprisoned than by our own dreams.
25 January 2006
Life Under Occupation
Adrian Grima is an audacious poet with a sensitivity and talent for writing that can only come from those who are enlightened about the importance of the actions of individuals, groups and nations. Such characteristics are known to us to be of prophets, philosophers and some poets. Adrian, in my opinion, is one of them.
His expression through poetry challenges our intellect and awakens feelings within us that bring knowledge and pleasure while we read, and beyond. In his writings about El-Funoun, the reader experiences life under occupation, with all its difficulties, while at the same time taking pleasure in knowing about the rich Palestinian culture and the people who are insuring its survival. The Israeli checkpoints become vivid as they obstruct freedom of movement and travel for Palestinians. People’s resistance to this and other measures through art is also illustrated on many levels (Palestinian embroidery, dance etc.).
It is equally important to say that Adrian’s poems convey a message of hope for all readers that humanity is alive and well. Therefore, a special thanks goes to Adrian who has managed to point out the truth in a most beautiful way.
Capture the emotion
What is it about his poetry that pulls me in without permission? The words are simple. The lines are short. The poems steer away from dramatic story-telling. Is it the spirit that his words carry about effortlessly, as a Mediterranean breeze lifts a dry olive leaf? Is it his sensitivity to details that captures the emotion, the humanness of the moment? It is probably that and more. For how else would anyone see Arlington as full of students who fell silent "so we can learn"? We who see ourselves and others as human will certainly learn. I wonder if others who see us as relative humans will learn, too! In Jenin; in Baghdad; in Hanoi; in Hiroshima; in Darfur; in Auschwitz … in all the other "open air schools." Adrian Grima has mastered the power of intense brevity, of reducing a complex space to a cage, a crutch, a dance, a boat, only to blow it up in the reader's imagination in its full colors, nuances and textures. Adrian extracts hope from the dark abyss of despair, to inspire, to protest ... to rekindle our dreams.
A Contemporary Troubadour
Firmly rooted in the soil and soul of Malta, Adrian Grima is a lighthouse casting a beacon of compassionate despair over the troubled water of the Mediterranean, this mare nostrum turned into mare monstrum.
Adrian Grima will not attempt to emulate the folly of Odysseus and glance beyond the Pillars of Hercules at Gebel El Tarik. A contemporary troubadour singing words of an ancient and magic vernacular, he painfully tries to unroll the mystery of the brotherly hate of us Cains and Abels, here and now.