The editors of an issue such as this one, dedicated to a literature emerging from a single place in a specific period, are destined to become the quintessential pragmatists, drawing borders at the same time as they acknowledge that these are mere fictions whose utility is provisional. For what, in any case, are the conditions whereby “a literature” can be delimited, beyond the problematic – and ultimately not very informative – heuristics provided by language and/or geography?
The risk that inheres in any such exercise is that, rather than tapping into a pre-existing source, one ends up constituting it in the very act of defining it and setting its limits. There is a real risk of this happening in the case of Malta, where the very existence of “a literature” can be put into question. The problem is not only that in a country with a population barely exceeding 400,000 people, the domain of the literary is inevitably limited by the laws of probability, making this a “small” or a “minor” literature almost by definition. It is also that, in the absence of a sizeable body of translated work that places Maltese literature, at least potentially, in the other’s field of vision, Maltese literature remains peripheral, lacking both a wide readership and a critical discourse that attempts to locate it within a broader context.
This problem – the acute awareness of one’s peripherality – has been felt by many Maltese writers and critics for some time and is a theme that clearly emerges in the critical essays solicited for the current issue, which deal, among other things, with the significance of existing (also as a writer) in one of the smallest states in the world. Arguably, this awareness has deeper roots. Ultimately, perhaps, it stems from Malta’s location on Europe’s borders, which gives rise to the sense of incomplete belonging that makes us “ambivalent Europeans” – to use a phrase coined by Jon P. Mitchell in his 2001 book – and determines our relationship with the other, whether that other is the European co-citizen, or the non-European migrant.
Within the Maltese literary scene, current developments can themselves be viewed in terms of a dialogue between what has emerged as “central” or “canonical” on the one hand, and what is novel and therefore still “peripheral” on the other. The selection for the current issue is partially informed by this dynamic.
For the past forty years, since a group of young writers calling themselves the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju (roughly, “The Literary Awakening”) burst on the scene in 1967, literature in Malta has been dominated by a generation of writers most of whom were born in or around the 1940s. Today, only a handful of these writers are meaningfully active. A few have managed to re-invent themselves. For example, the poet Mario Azzopardi has also started writing short stories for adolescents, while continuing to write engaging poetry. Apart from Azzopardi, the current issue features the work of three other authors who more or less belong to this generation: the poets Albert Marshall and Joe Friggieri; and the prose writer Trevor Żahra. While not all these writers were central figures in theMoviment, their output continues to be steady and their work has been enormously influential.
The partial eclipse of the sixties generation has meant that a younger group of writers has come to the fore. In poetry, the impact of Immanuel Mifsud and Adrian Grima (both born in the late nineteen sixties) cannot be underestimated. Both have been publishing for decades now and have opened doors for younger authors, including Norbert Bugeja and Antoine Cassar. Perhaps the greatest difference has been the emergence of a good number of women poets, such as Simone Inguanez, Nadia Mifsud and Simone Galea, who have created a niche for feminine/feminist writing that has in turn attracted new readers. In this connection, the figure of Maria Grech Ganado is of particular interest: although she belongs to an older generation, she was not a member of the Moviment of the sixties, publishing her first poetry collection in 1999, since when she has been an important catalyst for many younger women poets.
In the case of fiction, the situation is not so straightforward. Immanuel Mifsud, together with the younger Clare Azzopardi, Pierre J. Meilak and Walid Nabhan, have produced ground-breaking works of short fiction, but have so far shied away from tackling the novel. Offerings from other writers in this genre have been few and far between. The upshot is a curious situation where contemporary prose writing in Maltese is dominated by the short form, while the novel continues to be dominated by figures such as Frans Sammut (another member of the Moviment, who died in 2011), Alfred Sant and Trevor Żahra.
The work gathered here is intended to be an incomplete snapshot of contemporary Maltese literature. It is not intended as a representative survey. Nor is it intended to delimit, in spite of the risks we pointed out above, but rather to contribute to an opening up that has been occurring, slowly but surely, as old and new writers work at pushing the boundaries of the periphery they inhabit. Perhaps the time is also ripe for a more representative survey, but that would entail a different approach and definitely a different forum.
Image Copyright Gilbert Calleja