Klandestini – Emerging Mediterranean Writers

Babelmed | 09/02/2004

In October, 2003, Inizjamed and The British Council launched Klandestini – Emerging Mediterranean Writers, a 15-month multilateral creative writing project. It consists of a series of creative writing workshops for emerging writers in Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and Italy and writing sessions for teenagers in schools. The participants will write in their native language and have their works translated into English. The project ends with a festival of emerging Mediterranean literature in Malta in November 2004. This project is supported by the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in Malta.

The workshops will focus on poetry and short stories and they will be led by established writers based in the UK. The Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey, who recently visited Malta to give a series of workshops and a public reading, will be mentoring the Cypriot group which includes young writers from all over the country.

Hungarian-born writer and translator George Szirtes, who was educated in England and has always written in English, will be mentoring the Greek group. His workshops in Athens will be held in the last two days of February and will last about six hours per day.

The Irish London-based poet and translator Maurice Riordan, who is published by Faber and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000, will be giving a full-day workshop in Malta on Sunday 15 February. Maurice Riordan was one of two guest poets who read their poetry at the New Poetry Live! event on 5 February 2004 at the Royal Festival Hall in London. His latest collection Floods, continues his pre-occupation with instability and flux found in his debut A Word from the Loki. His work is noted for its quietly assured voice and rhythmic panache. At present Maurice Riordan is also translating the poetry of one of Malta’s best-known writers of the new generation.

At a meeting held in Malta in December 2003, the representatives of the writing groups and BC offices in the participating countries agreed that there should also be a local mentor to assist the writing group, especially when it comes to choosing the works that will be published on the website.

Klandestini – Emerging Mediterranean Writers

On Being Unauthorized

One of the issues that was raised when the Maltese cultural organization Inizjamed were planning this project together with Suzy Joinson of the Literature and Film Department of the British Council in London and Ronnie Micallef, the director of Malta office of the British Council was whether there should be a common theme. Some people were afraid that assigning a theme would put writers off because it would be seen as limiting their creativity, while others felt that without a common image or theme the project would lack identity. I had originally proposed water as a common theme – I had just read Vandana Shiva’s Water Wars (2002), and that was received by my colleagues with sympathy – but the image or theme of “klandestini,” a Maltese words which refers to so-called “illegal immigrants,” was an instant hit, because people felt it grounded them in reality and it inspired them without confining them.

Migration is an important issue in the Mediterranean (as elsewhere) and one which artists can, and perhaps should, engage with. According to Maltese poet Norbert Bugeja, Mediterranean authors who have migrated are “obsessed” with their own “mainland situation” while ignoring the actual voyage or the “inter-land movement.” In terms of fiction and poetry the interest is on the personal, the local and the “settled” part of the whole story, rather than on the “portable” moment. Writers speak about the home they left behind and their “new” home, but not about the voyage itself or the transition.

“Both emerging writers and klandestini,” writes young Maltese poet and journalist Stanley Borg, “are uncertain about their past, curious of their future, uncomfortable in a present where they are both trying to make a break, to be included in an uncanny, communal ‘something’. Both are homeless, clandestine, changing their world by changing their homeland. Both sail between two extremes, from the nourishing milk turned sour of a jilted motherland and the promised honey of a new unknown, towards which they journey.”

“Once disembarked on foreign soil, emerging writers and klandestini remain unsettled yet involved in the maintenance of their native culture which has refused or misunderstood them – they feed it, nourish it to keep it breathing, perhaps to see it heal and heave with laughter and dance. And they both write and speak in a different language, which may sound gibberish next to our grey, comfortable gossip, but which could slap us in the face and awaken us to our frail human essence.”

“And both emerging writers and klandestini,” concludes Stanley Borg, “use a slow, rough pen, to see what they write and write what they see while dreaming of a return to their homeland.”

Representatives of the writers and the British Council offices in the four participating countries met for the first time in Malta on 5-6 December, 2003, to exchange information and views on all aspects of the project, including the common image/theme of the clandestine person. Alessandra Sciarra, an EVS volunteer and university graduate in language and literature from Italy who is currently working with Inizjamed, highlighted the impact that such a project could also have on the refugees in Malta and suggested that refugees and asylum seekers should be invited to participate actively in the project by telling their own story.

The leader of the writing group in Cyprus, Maria Thoma, focused on the particular story of migration in Cyprus. In contrast to Malta, Italy and Greece, migration in Cyprus is mostly internal, due to the division of the island in 1974.

Isadora Papadrakaki from the BC in Greece talked of writing as an act of “opposing oppression” through cultural and artistic resistance. The act of writing can be seen as a ‘clandestine’ reaction to the general wave of alienation, consumerism and mass-oriented culture. This is especially true of writing “against” one’s own society. A writer can be a “refugee” within one’s own society, as the established Greek writer Haris Vlaviano, who was also present at the meeting, put it. This leads to a feeling of “belonging to an imaginary community.”

Klandestini – Emerging Mediterranean Writers

Creation and Re-Creation
In an interview with Maltese journalist Zillah Bugeja, the 23-year-old writer and journalist Maria Thoma who was awarded the State Prize for Young Writers for her collection of poems called A Story about the Sky (2001) and represented Cyprus in the Biennal for Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean held in Athens in 2003, described what writing means to her: “Writing is my main way of self-expression, and one of the most important issues of my life. My identity is closely related to it.”

About how her choice of language affects her writing, she said that “Literature is language; therefore the choice of language affects my writing in every possible way! I cannot think in an original way in the same way or even of the same things in different languages. Therefore, the language that I write in is Greek, my mother tongue. I have not tried to commit myself to writing directly in another language.”

The choice of language naturally leads to the question of translation. To what extent is translation a necessary skill for the writers in the Klandestini project? “Translation as a skill is important for the writers insofar as they are able to judge whether the translation of their work is good. It is not necessary for the writers to be able to translate, but their opinion is necessary.”

Maria Thoma believes that creativity certainly comes into the translation process. “However, the translator should not be carried away to interpret what he or she translates by doing so. Creativity comes in when one finds the most suitable word for each case, the one with the most similar connotations and that gives a similar feeling to the reader. In general, creativity should be put into finding the most creative way of being “faithful” to the original piece of writing.”

When Zillah Bugeja asked her whether translation should be left in the hands of ‘experts,’ or whether it is preferable for each writer to translate their own work, she said that she has learnt that “a combination of the two is the best solution. One option would be for the expert to do the translation and the writer to contribute to the result. If the writer is more capable of translating, the expert can be asked to help and correct after the writer’s initial translation.”

About the experience of Cypriot writers working together, Maria Thoma said that she believes in “the power of the group.” “I think that we have a lot to offer to each other.” The project is offering the writers “a good opportunity to take literature a little more seriously, to commit ourselves to writing on a regular basis and to benefit from the knowledge of each other and of more experienced writers.”

She believes that her participation in this project has already offered her “a lot of interesting experiences, and I believe there are many more to come.” Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots have had the opportunity to meet each other after 30 years of separation in April 2003 and the Klandestini workshops are “offering us the opportunity to come together and discover different sides of the literary style of our country, coming from young people who had to grow up separately and form different experiences.”

The leader of the Italian writing group is 26-year-old Valerio Cruciani from Rome. He founded the cultural organization Amnesia Vivace in 2001 and writes poems, short novels, plays and screenplays. He was selected to participate as a poet in the Biennal for Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean in Athens in June, 2003. That is where he met Maria Thoma and Stanley Borg and Clare Azzopardi of Inizjamed. He has put up three photographic exhibitions and produced a documentary about refugees in Italy.

In his interview with Zillah Bugeja he describes writing as “the fundamental and only filter to observe, to understand and to endure reality. It’s an attempt to weigh up my own forces, a constant, incessant journey, a fight against my own and the world’s imperfection.” He too believes that creativity has a vital role to play in the translation process. “A technically perfect translation without poetic and stylistic intuition is not a translation, but simply a transposition for foreigner readers. Every translation is a process of re-creation.”

On the issue of whether the translation of the literary works in the project should be left in the hands of professional translators, Valerio replied that it is ultimately up to the individual writers themselves. “Obviously, the contribution of experts is vital when the writer doesn’t know the foreign language very well. But in any case, the fundamental point is that there should be proper and constant cooperation between the writer and the translator. This is especially important because often the translator is unable to understand the writer’s deepest intentions.”

Making it to the Bookshelves
When the project was officially launched on 29 October, 2003, in Malta, the BC director in Malta Ronnie Micallef argued that “the complex realities of contemporary Mediterranean culture, being voiced by young Mediterranean writers, are simply not being published, and are therefore not making it to the bookshelves of major international bookstores.”

”While a great deal of reading matter is available on life in Latin America, Africa – indeed, any part of the world, through works of globally renowned but locally conscious authors and poets, the same cannot really be said of the Mediterranean.” If the works of contemporary Mediterranean writers are not readily available, it will be impossible for the “wider world” to “understand the tensions, frustrations, hopes and aspirations of the new generation of Mediterranean writers” and the lives they narrate.

In an article on Inizjamed and the Klandestini project, which he describes as “Inizjamed’s greatest breakthrough yet,” for the Maltese magazine Orbis, Dr. Ivan Callus from the Department of English at the University of Malta notes that what strikes him in all this is “the recognition that for Maltese literature the next frontier must be a coordinated (rather than piecemeal or individual) effort to find a presence, through translation, in the consciousness of foreign readerships, and the fact that Maltese writers find themselves marginalised from literature’s most prominent markets.”

In an interview with Valerio Cruciani, Karsten Xuereb of Inizjamed who is coordinating the project outlined the main challenges that the emerging writers in Klandestini have to face. “Even though there is a structure that will help the authors to write, at the end of the day much will depend on them. They have to find the time to do research, to write and to read the works of others. If the writers work alone and then hand in their finished piece, we will have done nothing new. I would really like the writers to use the concept of the project as a means to create a wider community of writers and readers, and not simply to promote their own work. I would like to see works that are the result of a collaborative effort and that go through various levels of criticism and composition before they are finalized. I am confident that the chosen writers in the countries participating in this project share this vision and that they will do a good job.”

Ultimately, this project is about creative writing not about immigration. The three main objectives are to make emerging Mediterranean writers better writers, to allow them to connect between themselves, and to give them the possibility to connect with writers outside the Mediterranean. In this respect, on the initiative of the British Council, in March 2005 a select group of writers from the Klandestini project will travel to Belfast to participate in the Between the Lines Literary Festival. This visit will allow participants to attend workshops with writers from Northern Ireland, share their literature and to gain exposure to the theatre, music and visual arts scene in Northern Ireland.

The project website at http://klandestini.britishcouncil.org/ has been professionally designed to facilitate communication both between the writers in the participating countries and between the writers and the general public. Work on the publication of the best works of the Klandestini project online and possibly in book form will be done between June and September. Some of the authors from each country will then be invited to the November Festival of Emerging Mediterranean Literature at St. James Cavalier arts centre in Malta, during which the writers will perform their literary works, possibly in collaboration with visual artists, actors, musicians, film makers and others.

Adrian Grima

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