Introduction to a Maltese Personal Anthology

Jonathan has allowed us to do something a bit different for this Personal Anthology. We’re going to make recommendations, but it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to read them for the most part, and that’s the point of our selections.

Both of us first met at an English PEN event on multilingualism. It’s quite rare to come across another Maltese or part-Maltese person, even in London, that it always feels exciting when you do. We met for coffee and talked about a whole range of things, including UK publishing, translation, Maltese culture and politics, and what it’s like to be a Maltese person living and working in London (Kat) and a half-Maltese person born and raised in the UK and only speaking English (Jen). 

We met up a couple of more times, and then the London Book Fair came around. This year, there was an event on Maltese literature in translation as part of the programming in the Literary Translation Centre at the Fair, which was a follow-up to one the previous year with Maltese poets Immanuel Mifsud and Walid Nabhan. This year’s event was a discussion between Maltese writers Loranne Vella, Lou Drofenik and Antoine Cassar moderated by Jen, and the discussion centred on the uniqueness of the Maltese language and literature, how little is known about Malta and particularly contemporary Malta in the English-speaking world, and how Maltese writers at times resist translation through multilingualism or by keeping their stories focused on the local and national.

The event galvanised our desire to work on a solution to the lack of Maltese literature available in the English-speaking world, and over the last few months we’ve putting the plans in place to start a small press to publish Maltese poetry, fiction and essays in English. Though our plans aren’t quite finalised, we’re working on an anthology of Maltese writing and have plans to do events and partner up with other organisations keen to support Maltese literature in transltion. We also want to meet and work with young writers in Malta directly through writing and literary translation workshops and talks on the UK publishing scene to help make connections and start a real collaborative dialogue between our different literary scenes.

It’s good to remind ourselves that authors we now cherish and celebrate, like Han Kang and Olga Tokarczuk, were completely unknown in the English-speaking world a few years ago, and have gained prominence through translation. Our next favourite author could be waiting for us in another language – including Maltese. 

Here below are Kat’s recommendations of a selection of poems, short stories and novels by Maltese writers we think should be better known outside of Malta – some of whom write solely in Maltese, some who also write in English, and a few who have been translated into English and a number of other languages. Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to recommend a whole new anthology of Maltese stories.

‘Il-bandli’ by Marie Gion

Għax id-drogi sbieħ (‘because drugs are beautiful’) is one of my favourite collections of poems ever written in Maltese. Perhaps because it is one of the few works of literature that really captures what it was like to grow up in Malta for my generation. And because the poems possess a frankness and lack of self-consciousness that is so often present in Maltese writing. The collection tells of the ennui, desire, love, heartache and loss experienced by a group of youths, framed through the first-person narrative voice. Their lives are coloured by the highs and lows of drug-taking – a subject that is handled with ambivalence throughout. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read and reread these poems. I keep going back to one in particular, ‘il-bandli’ (‘the playground’). This is because it feels like a personal memory; the boredom, the references to specific places and things, transport me to a past not necessarily my own, but one I recognise intimately. Something shared and yet, unmistakably, Maltese. 

from għax id-drogi sbieħ, self-published, 2013

‘Larinġa/Orange’ by Maria Grech Ganado

This poem is from a collection I picked up at a poetry showcase as a teenager, at a time when I was desperately filtering the local literary landscape for writers I could feel an affinity with. Being bilingual, this meant writers who also wrote and were published in English. Maria Grech Ganado is one of those writers I discovered then, and whose writing has stayed with me always. ‘Orange’ is published alongside its Maltese equivalent, ‘Larinġa’ in this collection. It’s a short, anecdotal poem that recalls a moment of intimacy between two lovers who are ‘sitting together on the kitchen step / peeling oranges’. The literal orange is transformed by language into a vehicle for exploring the erotic tension between the couple. I particularly love the repetition of the word ‘felli’ in the Maltese version, which, when read aloud, has a rhythmic pattern that is missing in its English equivalent, ‘segments’.

From Memory Rape, Inizjamed and Midsea Books, 2005

Passaport by Antoine Cassar

Antoine Cassar is a polymath with a fascinating relationship towards language and identity, having grown up in England, Malta, and lived and worked between Spain, Italy, France and Luxembourg. Passaport – a poem self-published in the format of an actual passport – is in fact an anti-passport. It reads as a manifesto in defence of universal citizenship, advocating for a frontier-free world. It was written originally in Maltese and has since been translated into over ten languages. The poem is even more relevant now than when it was first published – both here in the UK, but also in Malta, where citizenship has been commodified thanks to the ‘cash for passport scheme’ introduced by the government. In light of this, the poem is a refreshing read, if somewhat utopian in vision, celebrating humanity above nationhood, freedom above borders, love above hate.

Self-published, 2009

‘Sleeping Woman, Jilted’ by Abigail Ardelle Zammit

This poem reminds me of my conversations with Abigail on the possibilities of writing beyond the boundaries of received stereotypes of national identity, when she was my creative writing tutor at the University of Malta. The prehistoric clay statuette known as the ‘Sleeping Woman’ has become such a ubiquitous icon of the Maltese Islands. Drop into any souvenir shop and you’re bound to run into her in one form or another, as a fridge magnet, postcard, bottle opener – you name it. ‘Sleeping Woman, Jilted’ begins with the blessing ‘I wish you many lovers’ and goes on to carve out the living form of the goddess of fertility in a series of images that reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy’s reclaiming of the female perspective in Standing Female Nude. I consider it a quiet act of iconoclasm against the more lazy, disingenuous explorations of Malteseness.

Longlisted for the 2015 Montreal Poetry Prize. Available online here

‘Sandra’ by Clare Azzopardi

Clare Azzopardi’s short stories are full of humour and irony, with a surprise touch of horror introduced at the coda that reminds me of the stories of Poe or Sheridan Le Fanu. ‘Sandra’ is the first in a collection of eight stories, each named after a different woman. On the outside, these are ordinary women living very ordinary lives. Azzopardi, however, lets us in on their interior consciousnesses, which turn out to be anything but ordinary. Sandra is a young woman with a penchant for keys and lies. From a young age, she understands the power she can gain over people by leaving keys lying around to pique their curiosity. This leads her to ensnare friends, parents, lovers. She gets a huge thrill from these acts of subversion, which always end in misadventure. Like, for instance, losing her job as a car salesperson after luring her male colleague into stealing off the with the keys to the showroom Mercedes that ends in them crashing the car. I’m drawn to this story for its quirkiness and irreverence – the way it tiptoes nimbly between light and dark, like an X-rated fairy tale for adults. 

from Kullħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh, Merlin, 2014

Two by Teodor Reljić

This is a quietly told, genre-bending novella, unravelled through the voice and imagination of a nine-year-old boy called William. On a family holiday to Malta to visit her parents, his mother suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. In the soupy claustrophobia of a Mediterranean summer, William is left without the comfort of his mother to navigate the grief of his grandparents and his difficult relationship with his father. Running parallel to the main narrative is the consoling fantasy story of Vermillion, a young boy from a distant land, made up by his mother. This imaginative universe mirrors the real world, giving texture and depth to William’s darker thoughts and emotions. Although it’s an imperfect piece of writing in many ways, this book is ultimately a sensitively told tale about the redemptive power of storytelling. 

Merlin, 2017