One of my most eagerly anticipated events of the year is the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival – a multilingual gathering of authors and poets set up by the Inizjamed literary NGO, which has been steadily growing in stature over the past few years, boasting an admirable array of foreign guests on its CV while allowing local authors to showcase their work on equal footing.
Thanks to the efforts of lecturer, poet and Inizjamed head honcho Adrian Grima and his many collaborators – not least the helping hand of various local institutions – the festival is a balm against parochialism in the local sphere, as it accommodates not only the (often self-crowed) local contingent, and neither is it limited to ‘special guests’ from the expected English-speaking regions. Rather, and true to its name, it’s a refreshing gathering of writerly talents from all over the Mediterranean.
But at the risk of being criminally reductive to this year’s line-up – which included among its ranks the Booker shortlisted Libyan novelist Hisham Matar and the rousing Palestinian Egyptian poet Tamim Barghouti – I have to confess that the main attraction for me was the participation of Marina Warner – author and mythographer extraordinaire, and a consistent intellectual inspiration for me over the past few years.
Warner’s presence certainly felt like the cherry on the Festival’s cake, and having a writer of this stature on board this time around was certainly apt, given that this year also marks its tenth anniversary.
But Warner would have been a good fit for the festival either way. Though ostensibly British, the former academic, fiction writer and myth-and-fairy tale authority boasts Italian family connections, and a childhood spent in Cairo. Her recent book Stranger Magic is a study of The Thousand and One Nights, and the author doesn’t shy away from addressing the cosmopolitan sweep of the snowballing, multifaceted and latterly controversial collection of folktales of the ‘Orient’.
And in her conversation with Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Malta Prof. Gloria Lauri Lucente – which capped off this year’s edition of the Festival – Warner’s sensitivity to the various cultural networks found within the Mediterranean was fully borne out. But more than anything else, it was a pleasure to witness these two great women discuss both the universal and the personal as it pertains to Warner’s work – from the enduring global appeal of fairy tales, to Warner’s upcoming short story collection Fly Away Home, which taps into her experience of growing up in Cairo.
Once again showcasing her organic, interdisciplinary grasp on cultural studies, when asked why fairy tales continue to fascinate us, Warner went for a musical metaphor.
“I like to think of fairy tales as a tune,” she told Lucente. “You know the tune, I know the tune – we remember it, we can play it – it isn’t confined.” Fairy tales, Warner went on to say, suggest a kind of “lingua franca” for yearning and inquiry. “And stories are vessels for very difficult inquiries.”
Just as Stranger Magic was a sensible and considered riposte to Edward Said’s monumental critical characterization of ‘Orientalism’ – an articulation of how exoticised Western projections of the ‘East’ and the ‘Orient’ serve to facilitate cultural dominance – so Warner encourages us to not dismiss the significance of fairy tales simply because the bulk of them offer seemingly pat endings whose function is to ‘console’.
For in offering alternatives and pathways for the imagination, fairy tales can be emancipatory. In terms of their phenomenological dimension – and while stressing that she doesn’t encourage total escapism and delusion and that she remains an adherent of the Enlightenment project – Warner reminds us that, “the mind’s eye that imagines a mermaid on the shore, and that simply witnesses, and then remembers, a fisherman catching dolphin fish, is the same place.”
(It’s not a dissimilar position to the one expressed by Ursula K. Le Guin in her National Book Awards address).
A discussion on the rift between fiction and non-fiction was another topic – also poignantly tackled by Barghouti on the first night of the festival – which allowed Warner to point out how, far from serving as a distraction from social and political strife, fiction can provide an additional leeway for discourse, especially in countries where those freedoms are otherwise suppressed.
“People are now using novels to do all sorts of things. There is censorship in so many places in the world, that fiction offers some sort of shelter.” But fiction has yet another, more subtle advantage.
“With fiction, unlike in essays, you don’t have to ‘make up your own mind’. And I do find it much more satisfying.”
But as if to illustrate Hisham Matar’s point on the previous night – that while our freedom to reinvent our cultural, social and professional identities in the modern world is a great thing, we shouldn’t forget that we remain privy to historical currents beyond our control – Warner was candid about a key motivation for her wide-ranging work.
Unlike, say, Hisham Matar himself – whose father was abducted by the Libyan regime and whose ultimate fate remains a mystery to the author and his family – Warner’s upbringing remained relatively comfortable.
“I came from a background of petite bourgeois colonialists,” she told Lucente to disarming laughter. “So I always felt like I had to make some kind of reckoning. And this has been my spur.”