One hundred years of Maltese literature about the Other
A public talk by Dr Adrian Grima, followed by a discussion, hosted by the Maltese Historical Association (Australia) at the Maltese Community Council of Victoria, Parkville, Melbourne on Tuesday 15th July 2014.
This are some of the points I made during this talk that was followed by a very interesting discussion about what it means to be Maltese today, especially for Maltese-Australians.
In an era of increasing cultural diversity within nation-states and the deterritorialisation of cultures and peoples, the notion of a national citizenship signifying a single, homogenized culture shared by all citizens, always a construct to be fair, has become obsolete, but this can’t be entirely true for insular communities like those of the Maltese Islands with their physically delineated territory that establishes clear demarcation lines between the ingroup and those who lie beyond, between “our” culture and “theirs.” In such cases it is easier to understand how a mental combination of territory, people and culture can form “the country” as a single, homogenized community, ignoring the many differences that exist between the various members of the community and the diversity that characterizes the supposed unity of their culture.
The presence of diversity, both now and at many other junctures in history, requires that we take a more critical view of the dominant narrative of citizenship, with its “homogenizing objective.” The objective of any new understanding of citizenship should not be to reconstruct some kind of (narrative) unity in society, with shared standards and values, common goals, and brotherhood, but rather to “organize plurality” within society.
The representation of the non-Maltese in Maltese narrative written before and immediately after Independence is, at best, partial, because it is conditioned by the romantic nationalist project of the largely middle-class, Catholic, male writers who established the unwritten but nonetheless powerful literary canon, the “Literature” which Barthes aptly sums up as “what gets taught.” Ġużè Aquilina’s supposedly enlightened “classic” Taħt Tliet Saltniet (1938), a novel that has been reprinted no less than five times, an extraordinary achievement for a work of fiction in Maltese, is set in the turbulent years between the collapse of the rule of the Knights of St. John brought about by the invasion of the French in 1798, and the arrival of the British in 1800. It deals with an important moment in the creation of Maltese cultural identity because the popular uprising against the French in 1798, “as Catholics perhaps more than as ‘nationals’,” which brought together people from all socio-economic groups, marked the beginning of the evolution of a Maltese “colonial” identity. This fledgling national identity continued to take shape and to slowly overshadow the “several” smaller identities that were clearly identifiable in the nineteenth century: the rural peasant one, the urbane cosmopolitan one, the Gozitan one and other more parochial identities. The young Muslim and Jewish characters in the novel only acquire a respectable identity when they become Catholic, while the churchgoing English widow is venerated because of her Northern European origin and white skin.
Seventy years later, the encounter between Maltese and non-Maltese characters in three short stories by leading contemporary Maltese writers is characterized by the virtual “absence” of the narrated “other,” like the young Polish woman sleeping in the Maltese protagonist’s bed. These stories were written into an ethnocentric narrative tradition that has been largely unable, even after the Maltese Islands gained Independence from Great Britain in 1964, to narrate from the perspective of a non-Maltese other, whether European or non-European.
Unlike most of their predecessors who were mainly concerned with issues related to the national imaginary, Clare Azzopardi, Pierre Mejlak and Immanuel Mifsud are among a new breed of 21st century writers who increasingly see themselves as (Maltese) citizens of the world, but they continue to write from a point of view that is psychologically if not physically bound to the Maltese Islands. In these 21st century Maltese stories which attempt to explore what Rosi Braidotti calls “the complexities of our age” (2001, p. 410),cultural exchange between locals and foreigners seems to undermine not only the conventions about Maltese cultural identity but also the identification of “Malteseness” with a particular territory.