Words Around the World


Selma Dabbagh about literary festivals taking the international arts scene by storm.

“Literature festivals are about the rhythms and sounds of language, about what metaphors can do to take you beyond the here and now,” says Adrian Grima, director of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. “But they also reflect the ideologies of those who create them, invite the writers and set the literary agenda.”

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When Selma asked me to answer some questions for her article, this is the unedited version of what I wrote:

Should literary festivals have a political aim?

The apparently easy answer to this is no, literary festivals should not have a political aim. Literary festivals are about literature. About the rhythms and sounds of language, about what metaphors can do to take you beyond the here and now, or right in the heart of it.

But literary festivals also reflect, inevitably, the ideologies of those who create them, those who invite the writers and set the literary agenda. And they are also the result of discussions about how to run them.

Like literature itself, festivals are interesting both in their content and in their form. I believe in a festival that is not just a sequence of readings but a close collaboration between the participating writers, a festival that creates an air of complicity both between the writers and between the writers and their audience. The break in the middle of every evening is as much part of the festival as the readings themselves.

When we focused on the Arab Spring of Dignity and Freedom in 2011 we were making a political choice, also reflected in the writers we invited. But our aim was to see how literature was participating in the revolutions, how it was narrating them, influencing them, reacting to them.

We feel that having a different theme every year gives the festival an identity. We’ve done this for the past two years and we feel that it has helped us, and the writers, to focus our energies.

What (if any) sensitivities / restraints have you encountered when working on Festivals operating in several languages?

None that we know of… It may sound strange but it’s true. What probably happens is that people who are wary of having to sit through a half hour of reading in some unknown language simply don’t turn up. When they hear there’s nothing of the sort they change their mind and come.

The bulk of the readings at our festival is in Maltese, the national language of Malta, or English, the second language. But we want our festival to explore the sounds of the languages represented by the invited authors, so we also ask all our invited writers to read for no more than two minutes (or thereabouts) in their language (if it’s not one of the about two). Texts in Italian, Arabic or French might be longer but generally speaking texts are read mostly in Maltese or English.

We have chosen not to opt for translations on screen, as is done in some important festivals. It can spoil the magic created by the spoken word.

We also ask the writers to translate each other’s work during a residential translation workshop in the days preceding the festival. This adds colour, texture, emotions to the original and allows the writers and their literary languages to bond. People will still appreciate a Slovene translation of a poem write in Greek… Ironically, the facts that some short texts are read in languages unknown to the audience brings home the fact that literature is also about sounds, performance…

What’s also fascinating is that we do get a good number of non-Maltese in the audience, but they do not form the bulk of our audience. Most of those who attend the festival are Maltese. And this proves that there are a good number of Maltese people who value the diversity of languages.

Nobody has ever told us they will not return to the festival because there were two many readings in unknown languages. Quite the contrary.

To what extent should Festivals try to include and or support female participation and the presence of women speakers on panels?

I think it all depends on the context.

We have a very clear agenda on this one. For well over a hundred years Maltese literature was dominated by male writers and even the representation of women was plagued by stereotypes. We at Inizjamed, which runs the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, have very actively encouraged the participation of women writers and this has produced its results. The established writer Maria Grech Ganado was a great source of inspiration for the younger female (and male) writers and now they are the body and soul of Inizjamed and of our international festival.

We’re also very careful to make sure we have a good representation of women among the writers we invite from abroad, and both women and men have interviewed and been interviewed.

To what extent do Festival organisers try to encourage the presence of national / minority languages?

To a large extent. Those writing in languages which are lesser known in Malta are not the side plates but also the main dishes. Last year we had two gay and lesbian Slovene writers and we’ve published a collection of their work translated into Maltese. In 2009 the Festival gave a lot of prominence to the Catalan language writer Marta Pessarrodona. Arabic, and even Egyptian Arabic, were prominent in the two latest editions

and linked to that: Do you think that the growth of international literary festivals has increased the divide between writers who write in English and those who don’t?

This is a very difficult question to answer because there is so much happening and it is difficult to compare so many diverse situations. But I think that the proliferation of literary festivals has given great prominence to the lesser known languages because English doesn’t need festivals to exert or show off its influence.

Writers are particularly sensitive to the richness of different languages and everywhere they go they inevitably take that richness with them, a richness which is often brought to people’s attention precisely because their work is translated into giant international languages like English, French, Arabic, and Spanish. When I was in at the Ubud Readers and Writers’ Festival in Bali in 2010 I read in Maltese to audiences that barely knew Malta existed. And so did other non-English languages writers. The lingua franca brought us together, and allowed us to give a taste of our linguistic cultures.

How would you measure (or prioritise) the benefit of Festivals to countries like Malta (economic / morale / educational)?

It’s very difficult for me to be objective on this one. I’m too involved.

What I can say is that every year we have a larger audience than the previous year, and an audience which is very attentive. It’s not like people come just for the company. Or to be seen. People actually come for the literature. They seem to like the atmosphere, the way it’s done, the mix of voices and languages, the participation of some of the best Maltese writers translating the work of the non-Maltese writers… but above all the literature. It becomes an event, or better still, an experience.

People who turn up for the first time tell us they didn’t expect to enjoy themselves so much. The festival gives them a new perspective on literature, and how to experience it.

But the benefit of the festival – the only annual international literary festival held in Malta – goes well beyond that, because thousands of Maltese people watch television features about the festivals, including interviews with the writers. And so do thousands of newspaper readers and internet users. People keep telling us that it has become one of the highlights of the national cultural calendar. Writers are starting to think in terms of publishing their work in time for the festival. And audiences are thinking in terms of attending the festival to see what’s going on in the world of literature in Malta and the Mediterranean.

The economic contribution of the festival may be small, but I think it’s a great morale booster for the literary scene in Malta. And in a very broad sense, it is also a highly educational affair so a local audience which knows next to nothing about literatures and writers in the Mediterranean.

Festivals are also very special places for poetry. Everywhere else, poetry is considered marginal, irrelevant even. But in festivals poetry takes centre stage. Its brevity and its penchant for performance, for creating mood, is ideal, for a Mediterranean evening in a public garden overlooking a harbour.

Adrian Grima

Malta, 4th April 2013

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