Birds of Passage

Babelmed | 16/09/2005

Birds of Passage by Maltese-Australian author Lou Drofenik is a rare novel about Maltese migration to Australia, but it is also an equally rare account that celebrates, as the author puts it: “the resilience of Maltese and Gozitan women.”

At the launch of the book in Parkville, Victoria in March, the feminist author and researcher Dr Robin Burns described the novel Birds of Passage as an account that is “frank and warmly human.” Through her characters Lou Drofenik “interweaves the vexed issues of female servitude in a strongly male dominated world, the dominance of tradition and the tragedy of female oppressions.” However, there are also “some wonderfully independent women” who lead “self-determining lives.”

Birds of Passage is a rare novel about Maltese migration to Australia, but it is also an equally rare account that celebrates, as Lou told me recently, “the resilience of Maltese and Gozitan women.”

Lou Drofenik

Born in Malta, Dr Lou Drofenik (nee Zammit) migrated to Australia at the age of 20 in the early 1960s as part of the Single Women Migrants Scheme. At university in Australia she read for a Masters degree in Education and eventually she wrote a doctoral thesis where she researched the effects of migration on the moral identity of Maltese migrant women in Australia. This research inspired her fictional characters in Birds of Passage. When she was doing research at university she realized that there was little or nothing about Maltese women who migrated to Australia and that “Maltese women lacked a voice.”

Lou Drofenik has been researching Maltese women’s migration for the past twelve years. In an interview on SBS Radio in Australia, she said that it took her more than four years to write Birds of Passage, because she rewrote whole parts of it and edited others a number of times before she was finally satisfied that it was ready for publication.

In her research, and clearly even in her novel, Lou Drofenik focuses on the differences between Maltese women living in Malta and those living in Australia. Those Maltese women who like Lou herself emigrated in the 60s found themselves in an Australia where feminist ideology was being aired in the public domain, an Australia in which women were finally discussing subjects such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality and divorce, that until then had been considered taboo subjects. In another interview on SBS radio, Lou Drofenik explained that these Maltese women had to take positions on these moral issues that were being discussed openly around them without ignoring the values that they had brought with them from Malta. She suggests that what really differentiates Maltese women in Australia from those in Malta is that Maltese-Australian women have had more choices. In the interview she suggests that because they are not bombarded, and therefore perhaps alienated, by religion, Maltese women in Australia needed to use the values they brought with them from Malta as reference points whenever they had to make decisions about morality.

When Lou Drofenik interviewed Maltese-Australian women in their 50s and 60s, she found that for them the family had become a strong moral value in itself. They formed very strong bonds with their children, and with their children’s children, and were ready to do everything for them. “When they left Malta, these migrant women lost the moral community that told them what was right and what was wrong,” and so “they turned to their family in Australia and that became their new “community.”

At the launch of Birds of Passage, the first speaker, Dr Keith Simkin, a lecturer in the School of Educational Studies at the University of La Trobe in Melbourne who has taught in universities and colleges in Australia and Asia, gave an overview of the main themes that Dr. Drofenik dealt with in her doctoral thesis which he supervized. The first theme looked into the reasons why the Maltese went to Australia and “what were the characteristics of Maltese society, culture and life” that influenced the Maltese to leave Gozo and Malta to go to Australia. Dr. Simkin said that in her academic work, Lou Drofenik was “very blunt” about this and that one “could summarize the reasons in probably two words, “exploitation” and “exploiters.”

“Lou was very critical of the exploitation that derived from European colonialism and in her academic work she actually traces the historical antecedents or beginnings of this imperialism and the way it shaped Maltese society.” She was also very critical of “that aspect of the Maltese church which was fossilized, living in the dark ages, and more focussed on ritual than on good human relationships. She was also extremely critical of men,” something which is also very much present in Birds of Passage.

The main part of Lou Drofenik’s research dealt with what life was like in Malta, how it affected people, and “how they struggled to either accommodate to life in Malta or to find a way out of the predicament by migrating somewhere in the New World.”

The second theme was the adaptation of the Maltese to life in Australia. Lou Drofenik “documented the struggles that the Maltese communities faced (because there were very different and varied groups coming from Gozo and Malta) to get a job, to get housing, accommodation, to save up to buy or build a house, to establish communities that would provide them with health, welfare, spiritual guidance, food and sustenance, and to develop community relationships, to recreate if you like, the relationships that they had left behind in Malta. She doesn’t say that life was easy in Australia, far from it.”

Lou Drofenik’s research also tackled the issues of multiculturalism and multilingualism in Australia from a Maltese perspective. Dr Simkin argued that in her thesis she went beyond what a lot of people write in theses about multiculturalism because she started off with the assumption that the Maltese, with their connections with the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Knights, Italians, French, and British “have always been multilingual and multicultural.”

Dr Simkin said that Lou’s academic and creative writing “contributed to my understanding, not only of Malta and the Maltese in Australia, but also to the understanding of human beings in general.” He went on to say, ‘When I read a book I look for a number of things: How clever is the author, in other words, can the author instruct me, can the author teach me; how amusing and entertaining is the author; what do I learn about the author as a person and then what do I learn about all of us by reading the book. Now I think that Lou does all of these things […] I learned heaps from the book: about Maltese society, about history, about birds, about nature, about fish, about women…”

A Maltese Woman in Australia
Adrian Grima interviews Lou Drofenik, the Maltese-Australian author of the novel Birds of Passage.

I met Dr. Lou Drofenik in Malta over a typically overpriced cappuccino in a coffee shop at the Ferries in Sliema. It was one of the most engaging conversations I’d had for some time because she introduced me to a vibrant and different kind of Maltese world that I had always equated exclusively with arguments about whether Maltese emigrants still speak Maltese or whether they celebrate Maltese feasts or make pastizzi in Australia. I was too absorbed to take notes so we agreed we would carry on with our conversation via email.

1.At the book launch, the Consul General of Malta for Victoria Dr Clemente Zammit spoke about your “restless spirit” and suggested that Malta in the late 1950s and early 60s may have become a “prison” for you. We often gauge the Maltese in Australia according to how much they have conserved their “Malteseness,” whatever that may be. And yet for you, and presumably for many other Maltese emigrants, Australia was a “liberation.” But Dr Zammit also said that in Birds of Passage, “the passion with which she clings to her roots is evident in the way she shapes them into an enchanted world.” There seems to be a strong tension in this double desire to leave and to stay, to renew and to conserve.

How right you are! This is the tension that exists in every migrant’s heart. This ambivalent desire that comes from the deep love that we have for our country of origin, this place of our memory and the new country where we have formed new roots and that we have learnt to love and respect. “A migrant always has one foot firmly placed in the country of birth and another in the country of settlement,” I heard someone say and how many times I’ve heard migrants saying that their Malteseness increases with ageing!

2.In Birds of Passage, one of the main characters, the Gozitan woman Katerina remembers her days in the convent where she was being taken care of after she gave birth to a child conceived when she was raped. “The walls of that convent hemmed me in, suffocated me and in the end, even though the people in there were so good to me, I had to escape.” The description of the convent reminds me so much of similar representations of Malta. Did you feel that the walls of Malta hemmed you in?

Absolutely! And for this I have to thank the wonderful Maltese teachers who gave me a love of literature which opened a vast world for me. Thanks to their encouragement by the time I finished Secondary school I had read extensively, and this opened my eyes not only to other landscapes but also to other lives – other experiences which at that time, I felt could never be my own if I stayed in Malta.

3.Unlike many, mostly pre-Independence, Maltese novels that tend to appreciate the presence of the British military forces, your novel is particularly critical of British colonialism in Malta. One of your characters claims that the English “have a policy to keep our people ignorant and illiterate to serve their purposes.”

Isn’t that just what the English did? As I was growing up in Malta I always felt that there was a definite apartheid – a sense of them and us, we the servants, they the masters. I well remember when I was little and my dad took me fishing near what used to be the barracks at St. Andrews and we were told to get out by an Englishman. How furious dad was to be told that he couldn’t get to a good fishing spot by someone who saw that part of his beloved beach as belonging to Her Majesty!

4.The novel documents one of the darkest episodes in Maltese emigration history, when the ship Gange, with hundreds of Maltese emigrants on board, was refused entry into Australia in 1917. How do you interpret this particular episode? Is it really an example of the racism that many emigrants had to face, or does it have more to do with the Australia’s involvement in the First World War?

The Gange experience is a prime example of institutionalised racism that migrants had to face, racism hidden under different guises. Early Maltese migrants faced this institutionalised racism and they suffered many hardships as a result. The story of racism is well documented by Dr. Barry York in his book Empire and Race: The Maltese in Australia 1881-1949 (1990).

5.In Birds of Passage there is also a reference to the so-called War on Terror/ism. “In 1917,” says the third person narrator, “conscription was the catch cry in Australia, as terrorism was to be many years later.” I can see you write that, giving in to the temptation of defying the norms that regulate what in your novel is a generally unintrusive third person narrator…

In Australia where I’m writing from, many of the issues are very much of the present. It was quite uncanny that while I was writing the Gange chapter the Australian Government was repeating the very same process with a group of refugees who had been picked up by the Norwegian vessel Tampa because their boat was sinking. They were shuttled backwards and forwards from one island to another till they were sent to Nauru. This happened during a Federal Election campaign and the Liberal Government’s action helped it gain another term of office. Their excuse this time was terrorism, I couldn’t resist the parallels and the fact that history hasn’t taught us much.

6.In the section called “The Islands of Miracles” and in a few other passages there is a kind of romantic narrative that doesn’t quite reflect the style of the rest of the novel. There is a celebration of the Maltese temple culture and the woman in it that reminds me of a certain brand of feminism that hasn’t really taken root here in Malta.

I’m glad you brought this up, for the inclusion of those romantic passages was a deliberate attempt to bring different kinds of voices into the narrative. I wanted the passage you speak about to be a celebration of all that is female, the body shape, the gift of reproduction, motherhood, a woman’s sexuality. As I was writing I had a clear picture in my head of the voluptuous, headless statue that was found in Mnajdra and to me this figure was an embodiment of what it is to be a Maltese woman, definitely not the thin almost anorexic figure we aspire to be, but the shape of the women who came before us, our mothers, our aunts and grandmothers.

7.When Susanna “went back home on her days off she found that she automatically reverted to her submissive Self where she was constantly trying to please, to say things she didn’t mean so as not to seem forward and presumptuous. Now she understood that it was her upbringing that had made her who she was, introverted, fearful and tractable.”

In Susanna’s time (who was born around 1900) a girl’s upbringing in Malta was quite different to what it is today. Physical punishment was common and mothers were not loathe to use it to keep their daughters submissive. Young women’s lives were monitored and regulated not only by their parents, but by culture and community. How they were terrified of what their parents would do if they were caught doing something that was unseemly! And how bold and daring their escapades seemed to them!

8.Lou, much of the discourse I hear as a rather casual observer of Maltese-Australian affairs and the affairs of Maltese emigrants in general seems to be dominated by the issue of whether people of Maltese birth or origin speak, or at least understand, the Maltese language. This preoccupation with retention of the language has taken our attention away from other interesting issues that can shed light also on the Maltese living on Malta.

Yes, I agree with you. First of all in regards to the second and third generations of Australian / Maltese I feel that our discourse needs to shift towards celebrating and acknowledging their successes and achievements, listening to their voices which believe me, resonate with a wonderful energy in all areas of life, be it in the creative arts, the sciences, in sport or in business. The question of language retention is a dilemma since fewer and fewer of our children and grandchildren are interested in picking up Maltese as they see it to be irrelevant in their lives.

Lou Drofenik’s Birds of Passage is distributed in Malta by Miller and is available from Agenda Bookshops.

Adrian Grima

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