The Virtues of Empathy and Niceness | Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018

When the week of the festival finally comes — and it is a week, it is a full, full week — the climate also decides to give us a breather. There is a palpable sense of the trademark Maltese summer swelter finally lifting to give way to something ever so milder, and this shift appears to coincide directly with the very first “pre-events” that Inizjamed’s most prestigious annual appointment is preceded by this year.

For me, it all starts with a brief trip to Gozo, not too long after yet another ‘culture-work’ related trip to the sister island for both V. and myself. With a presentation on the mechanics of storytelling saved in my laptop and generously driven to a from the island with the help of Keith and Justine — just two of Inizjamed’s many diligent literary elves — I still refuse to face the direct sunlight on the ferry however, and eschew the immediate sights of the brief, familiar but still beautiful trip across the archipelagos in favour of an airconditioned enclosure and mediocre-but-effective coffee.

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Delivering a talk about the ‘scaffolding’ of storytelling at the Ministry for Gozo, Victoria on August 17. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Once there, the presentation goes a lot better than expected — I’m regaled with an attentive, intelligent and fully engaged audience — and though the food at St George’s Square (a smaller, quainter variant of its Valletta namesake) does leave quite a bit to be desired, we depart with a sense of goodwill towards this particular endeavour that awaits us. The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, my subconscious niggles around to tell me, is already striking a welcome nerve.

There is also the far more basic, immediate balm of having the luxury of being able to effectively indulge in the production of literature — or at least, in an active discussion of the parameters that makes this possible across countries and cultures — and this certainly lends a keen buzz to the beginning of the week, something that is only helped along by a dampening of the heat and the welcome breeze which, thankfully, persists all throughout this fateful period.

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Fort Manoel, on the final night of the festival. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

What also looms over the proceedings, however, is the threat of rain. There’s the odd shower during our daily workshop sessions — really the fulcrum of the festival, and where, internally, the most important connections are made among the participating writers — but thankfully, it does not stretch into the festival nights themselves. What the shifty climate does bring in, however, are some shockingly beautiful cloud formations, whose winding textures and rich colours provide yet another layer of beauty to an already ridiculously beautiful venue.

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Fort Manoel, on the final night of the festival. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Fort Manoel is also a politically contested space, the dynamics of which are very curious to our guests. They listen, intrigued, as we tell them of how the access we do have to the space is the result of direct political action, the like of which rarely happens with the same degree of success on our island. The ‘magic’ of the venue is also given a sobering tinge during Claudia Gauci’s interview with participating author Clare Azzopardi, who contrasts the well-meaning awe of our guests in the face of our historical and architectural heritage with the contemporary realities of overdevelopment.

But in some ways, these strands and tensions were always part and parcel of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, which has consistently proven itself to have a political focus that extends beyond some neutered, dewy-eyed appreciation of cultural products in pretty locales.

And it was just as well that a discussion about the (perceived vs actual) effectiveness of literature was also at the root of ‘Losing My Space‘, a round table discussion on how the loss of public space is clearly affecting our consciousness, and whose moderator — the celebrated Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — asked, “how can literature react to this?”.

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Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

The debate, taking place on the Sunday before the festival-proper, was bereft of a friend-to-be, as the soft-spoken poet Arjan Hut from the Netherlands had just experienced what was sadly to be his first train-and-plane mishap out of two. So Roger West and I were left to field Mifsud’s gentle but stern questions and provocations, an exchange sensitively documented by Kurt Borg in a well-written piece for Isles of the Left.

Quick introductions with travel-weary guests were made after the debate at Gugar, right across the street — an appropriate venue for the festival’s political and intellectual make-up, and where I finally got to have a proper chat with Roger West and his partner Kate Rex – poets both, and in many ways the guardian angels of the festival, having attended nearly every edition of the event to help its always-international array of writers with English-language translations of their work.

And the world of translation is where we head to straight after — nevermind the introductory drinks the night before, and never mind the early wake-up calls: we’re heading to the imposingly-named Fortress Builders building to talk about our work at length the next morning, and that’s that.

 

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Nadia Mifsud introducing the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop to the assembled authors at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 20. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

But while it certainly requires focus and comes with no small amount of fatigue at the tail end of the day — particularly when more ‘pre-events’ are in the offing — the sessions are the kind of oasis that contemporary writers yearn for with every fibre of their being. Because contemporary writers face contemporary realities, chief of which being that we’re often forced to write in the margins of life.

With me it’s copy writing that occupies the bulk of it, as it does for our Spanish guest, Laia López Manrique — a realisation that breaks the ice with world-weary gusto during our first ‘official’ meet-and-greet at Studio Solipsis in Rabat.

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Laia Lopez Manrique presenting her work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 21. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

The tacit understanding is that we’ve been expected to work on our selected translations — whittling them down to a performance-friendly few come festival night/s — from beforehand, coming up with a rough draft before finalising them ‘face to face’ with the authors in question. But this only comes later, after we’ve been allowed to introduce ourselves and our work, and field questions about what makes us tick as writers.

And while we may be used to reading about the processes (and pains) of other writers online — with a lot of us even growing used to interacting with them on various digital platforms — being physically present in the same room with them makes all the difference.

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Iraqi poet Ali Thareb (centre) presenting his work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 20. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

There is the sheer variety of experience, for one thing — the first and most obvious benefit of assembling such an internationally diverse group. Ali Thareb let us in on the very real hardships of existing as a poet in Iraq, with limitations giving way to acts of resistance and defiance through poetry. Massimo Barilla spoke with potent focus about the political ramifications of his theatrical work, giving a voice to those felled by the toxic mixture of mafia mechanisms and the pitfalls of a corrupt state.

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Massimo Barilla (right) presenting his work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 21. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Award-winning Icelandic poet, lyricist and novelist Sjón was always going to be a highlight, especially for someone like me, who’s very much attuned to the generic fluidity that informs his novels. But both his introduction to the workshop group and the interview that closed off the first night of the festival proper — where he spoke at length with Albert Gatt about the rich cultural and thematic make-up that informs his work — offered sometimes amusing, sometimes powerful but always achingly humane observations which radiated out of the texts.

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“It may happen in poems / that when the fog lifts / it takes the mountain with it” — Sjón reading at the grand finale of the Malta Mediterranan Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island on August 25. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Both Iceland and Malta are, after all, small islands with a minority language each. But Sjón proudly pointed to a piece of legistlation which discouraged the use of “small languages” to describe those like Icelandic — which, after all, has also housed a translation of Dante’s La Divina Commedia. “And if the language is big enough for Dante, then it’s big enough for anything.”

But something he said during the interview struck an even keener emotional chord. The importance of languages spoken by a few could become of immediate concern once the realities of climate change begin to reach a fever pitch, he reasoned. Because it is the native communities of the world who will be struck down by these temporal changes first. “But they are the people who can speak to nature far better than we can. They may just hold the key to the solutions that we need.”

The true emotional gut-punch was to come during the interview with the Turkish journalist and novelist Aslı Erdoğan, whose recounting of “disappeared” loved ones, and her exiled status from Turkey simply for being critical of the regime left a sobering but necessary pall over the proceedings, and truly pushed the pitch of the Festival into important, urgent territory.

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Asli Erdogan interviewed by Nadia Mifsud on the final night of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

While Erdoğan’s interviewer Nadia Mifsud — a poet and novelist herself, and a high-ranking Inizjamed elf in her own right — had the unenviable task of bringing this powder keg of an interview to something resembling a life-affirming close, it was in fact Erdogan herself who picked up the strand in the end, reasoning that despite everything — that “everything” includes over 70,000 students being locked up in Turkish prisons, I hasten to add — it is down to the resilient activism of a few that Erdogan herself is not currently behind bars, an empathetic thread that is uncoiled, in part, thanks to the power of her literary output.

It is an output allowed to spread thanks to the miracle of translation, which we celebrated daily at our workshops and for which this edition of the festival even had something of a theme song (or ‘mascot poem’). This was Juana Adcock’s ‘The Task of the Translator’, a beautiful evocation of the Platonic ideal of what a translation should “do”.

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Juana Adcock (far right) presenting her work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop on August 20 at the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector building, Valletta. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Juana’s confession that she always feels as though she exists in a “perpetual state of translation” resonated even more deeply with me, however. Juana being Mexican-born but Scotland-based for some years, she straddles two languages at any given time, and proudly pens poems in both the ‘pure’ variants of Spanish and English while also embracing Spanglish from time to time.

It’s an artistic position towards the tools at hand — language, of course — that I’ve not quite reached yet. I’ve always existed between Serbian, Maltese and English, but only ever considered the latter to be adequately accessible to me as the languge of professional and creative endeavour. Some of the place names in Mibdul do hint at this melange, but that’s about it for now. It’s something to think about and build on for future projects and future work.

Because being placed side-by-side with authors and poets of such variety also makes one reconsider what you take for granted. Some choices may be informed by sensible and germane approaches to one’s work and character; others will have gnawed their way up to the brain by spider-shat strands of caution, self-consciousness and fear.

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Jean-Rémi Gandon delivering a multi-media performance of his work on the final night of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

As we’re constantly reminded in this era of excessive stimuli and information overload — a mechanism that also has a moralising corollary, when any protection of our internal coherence is labelled as a retreat into an “echo chamber” — humans will always seek out established patterns. This becomes impossible when you share a room with the lovable mad bard from Toulouse, Jean-Rémi Gandon, on the one hand, and the Maltese poet Caldon Mercieca, whose language experiments with Maltese glisten with a kind of crystalline perfection and are animated by an intellectual rigour that was both humbling and baffling to us workshop participants.

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Caldon Mercieca reading a Maltese translation of a poem by Massimo Barilla at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018, August 24. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

After being asked to close our very first workshop session on Monday, August 20, Caldon was also invited to read at our ‘meet and greet’ that same evening, by way of smashing the champagne bottle on the festival ship as it begins to make its way through the fateful week. Before beginning to read he made a couple of self-deprecating comments to deflate his austere approach to the work. But the poem he read out had a zen-like perfection that was neither distancing nor emotionally bereft. It lay the ground for the creativity that lay ahead.

With no obligation towards any formality and hand clasped firmly on heart, I can say that it was truly an honour to form part of this edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. It is an event that I’ve always looked forward to experiencing, both as a “mere” spectator back when it took place at the Couvre Porte in Birgu, then at the Garden of Rest in Floriana; as well as a reporter on the event for MaltaToday when it moved to Fort St Elmo in Valletta (by then also acting as a tag-along partner as V. became the event’s official photographer).

But participating in it confirmed that one key ingredient of its success is not so much the high-profile nature of its headlining guests, nor the inspiring variety of authors or the geographical melting pot that they represent. It is, quite simply, the niceness of the Inizjamed team. It’s a niceness that is contagious, and that flies in the face of the notion that any worthwhile cultural endeavour is run by divas and stentorian dictators who place their aesthetics over people.

Because without that human impulse, without that edge of empathy, all that would be left would be exercises in vanity — a hollow march of the self. What we witnessed instead was in fact what Inizjamed coordinator Adrian Grima labelled “Mediterranean Humanism” in his introductory note to the festival. Taking a long hard look at the challenges the region faces, but also embracing the opportunities for dialogue, and creation.

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Adrian Grima ripping open a gift from the Inizjamed team, in honour of his 20-year tenure at the literary NGO. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Adrian Grima will be stepping down to make room for both someone new to take the helm, while also giving himself time to focus on his own academic and creative work as of next year. A wise and sensible decision, especially given how Grima’s work as a poet and lecturer must have been a key inspiration for the dedicated team behind Inizjamed to continue doing the work that they do.

That was the 13th edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Long may it continue.

Featured image by Virginia Monteforte

 

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The lingua franca of yearning and inquiry | Marina Warner

Marina Warner in conversation with Gloria Lauri-Lucente, Valletta, 29 August 2015

Marina Warner in conversation with Gloria Lauri-Lucente, Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

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).

Marina Warner reads from 'Fly Away Home'. Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Marina Warner reads from ‘Fly Away Home’. Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

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.”