Prof. James Corby and Prof. Adrian Grima about “Love (in) Letters,” pp.36-39. Article by Daiva Repeckaite.
Here’s an excerpt:
‘Up until Independence, and partly even afterwards, Maltese male-dominated, heterosexual love poetry was conditioned by the norms and discourse imposed by the Catholic Church. The narrative of the so-called ‘traditional nuclear family’ meant that many everyday experiences never made their way into [Malta’s] traditional literature,’ says Maltese literature Professor Adrian Grima.
‘The stylised Maltese nuclear family constructed by Dun Karm and other romantic poets and novelists has survived the social and cultural changes brought about by World War II and Independence,’ Grima asserted in his 2006 analysis of familial love in literature in a paper titled “‘Fashioning’ the Maltese Family”. In his view, the Maltese literary tradition takes nuclear family for granted – in its idealised form: ‘the patriarchal father solidly at the helm; the dedicated but ultimately submissive mother tied very much to the home (she is the family’s ‘unsung hero‛ and its ‘moral pillar‛) with lively but ultimately submissive children.’
The published version of the article is the result of an email conversation held in August 2019 with the author, Daiva Repeckaite.
- What would you name as the main influences for the conceptualisation of love (familial and romantic) in Maltese literature? Any particular Italian, British or Mediterranean traditions?
As Oliver Friggieri has shown, Maltese literature in Maltese owes much of its birth to the Italian Romantic writers who came to Malta in the 19th century as political exiles of the Risorgimento that fought for the unification of Italy. The influence of Italian romanticism looms large over our literature, but so many other influences have since reshaped and reinvigorated it, including that of British romanticism and modernism, and non-anglophone literature.
Nowadays there is really no limit to what writers read and how they allow themselves to be influenced by world literature, including literature written in the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, the Arab world, and beyond.
Up until Independence, and partly even afterwards, Maltese male-dominated, heterosexual love poetry was also conditioned by the norms and discourse imposed by the Catholic Church. The narrative of the so-called “traditional nuclear family” meant that many everyday experiences never made their way into our traditional literature. But the post-Independence writers and the post-national or cosmopolitan generation that took over in the 1990s have rewritten, and continue to rewrite, the national literary narrative. Poetry that deals with love or the strains of love within the family, from that written by Mario Azzopardi, Albert Marshall and Doreen Micallef, to that by Maria Grech Ganado, Antoine Cassar, Nadia Mifsud, and Simone Galea, to name but a few, has become an important feature of Maltese poetry in the past 50 years: it’s a theme which deserves much more critical attention.
- You have published papers on the nation-mother and the concept of the Maltese family. Could you elaborate a bit more whether familial love is central to Maltese literature and how it is presented? Could you name a few influential authors?
In a paper about “Fashioning the Maltese Family,” which is accessible online, I start by looking at “The stylized Maltese nuclear family constructed by Dun Karm and other romantic poets and novelists” and how it “survived the social and cultural changes brought about by World War II and Independence.” I argue that the more authoritative, inevitably male voices of Maltese pre-Independence literature, who were highly educated, middle-class, conservative Catholics (and in some cases priests), constructed their own narrative of the quintessential Maltese family. When we read their works, we often forget that they are constructing a narrative and not documenting sociological phenomena.
We know from the work of historians like Frans Ciappara that the Maltese family in the second half of the 19th century, for example, was not quite what the Maltese romanticists made it out to be. The social reformist writers of the 1930s and 40s, like Ġużè Bonnici, Ġużè Ellul Mercer and Ġużè Chetcuti, opened the can of worms, and the iconoclasts of the Modernist movement were partly influenced by their work.
In fiction, contemporary female writers like Clare Azzopardi, the Maltese-Australian anglophone writer Lou Drofenik, and more recently Nadia Mifsud in her short debut novel, are amongst those who are “questioning the Model.” But they are by no means the only ones. Immanuel Mifsud’s alarmingly beautiful In the Name of the Father (and of the Son) (2010), has already become a classic, not least because of the way it bravely straddles deep emotions, memory, psychoanalytical and feminist discourse, and literary genres. In many ways, these works have redesigned not only the narrative of familial love but also Maltese literature itself.
- Could you name the most influential female authors who have prominently featured the theme of love in their work? What was their writing about love like?
Female writers have really taken Maltese literature by storm and have featured prominently in Inizjamed, the cultural association focused on literature that was founded in 1998. The crucial moment, I think, was the publication of Maria Grech Ganado’s (belated) first collection of poetry in Maltese, Iżda Mhux Biss in 1999.
There are now many women, including Simone Inguanez, Clare Azzopardi, Claudia Gauci, Nadia Mifsud, and Simone Galea, who are writing very intense and engaging poetry and fiction about different themes, including love. There are others, of course, and there is also renewed interest in the works of women writing in the 60s, 70s and 80s, like Doreen Micallef, Lillian Sciberras, Rena Balzan, and Marlene Saliba. Maltese literature is no longer the male dominated, heterosexual fare it was until not so long ago. And it is all the richer for it.
- Which works have influenced the way entire generations speak and write about love?
This is a very difficult question to answer. The way I see it, today you cannot write in Maltese about love without first having read the poetry of someone like Immanuel Mifsud, to name but one influential writer.
But don’t get me wrong: when you write about anything in Maltese, you read anything you can lay your hands on, from Pablo Neruda to Ashok Vajpeyi, from Elias Khoury to Roja Chamankar. It couldn’t be otherwise. As Daniel Massa and Maria Grech Ganado have shown us, the literary influences on the best Maltese literature have never been exclusively Maltese.
- “We know from the work of historians like Frans Ciappara that the Maltese family in the second half of the 19th century, for example, was not quite what the Maltese romanticists made it out to be.” — Could you add a few details on what it has emerged to be in real life?
This is a subject I dealt with at some length in the doctoral thesis on “Dominant Metaphors in Maltese Literature” (that is available online). Frans Ciappara argues that in late eighteenth century Malta, even though people spoke ill of unmarried couples that were seen together at “inappropriate hours,” engaged couples were not expected to remain chaste before marriage. It seems that the custom of examining the bedsheets to test the virginity of the bride that has been frequently associated with the Mediterranean region, did not exist in Malta, and “fallen girls” did not find it difficult to get married. Ciappara claims that “not only virginity was not valued, but its loss could be an asset, proving the girl’s fecundity.”
Although many Maltese romantic writers idealize the marriages of their ancestors in their works, it seems that marriage in traditional Maltese society was characterized by a lack of affection. Ciappara suggests that there was little time for the couple to be by themselves because the community was closely involved in the family’s life and consumed much of their time. And the structure of their houses made sexual privacy practically impossible. Marriage was centred on having children, not love.
- “Poetry that deals with love or the strains of love within the family, from that written by Francis Ebejer, Mario Azzopardi, Albert Marshall and Doreen Micallef, to that by Maria Grech Ganado, Antoine Cassar, Nadia Mifsud and Simone Galea, to name but a few, has become an important feature of Maltese poetry in the past 50 years.” — Could you provide us with a few examples of how they influenced the tradition and redefined love?
Mario Azzopardi broached the subject of profound family malaise in his poem from the early 1970s, “Demgħat tas-Silġ.” In his prize-winning cycle of poems called Erbgħin Jum (2017), Antoine Cassar took the strains of love within the (idealized Maltese) family to a whole new level with his heart-wrenching account of domestic strife and violence (and so much more). This collection, that has touched (and shocked) many readers to the core, challenges the taboos surrounding representations of the family in Maltese poetry. Albert Marshall’s Modernist poetry dealt with the subject of sex in children while Doreen Micallef laid bare her fantasies of love in poems that, despite their hermetism, refuse to temper the passion.
Poets like Maria Grech Ganado, Nadia Mifsud, Simone Galea, and Elizabeth Grech write about love and the strains of love within the family with a focus and verve that finally brings this major aspect of human experience to the fore in Maltese poetry. They are very different writers and they have very different experiences to tell and different ways of telling them. But they give prominence to family life, both to the relationship between the spouses and that between parents and their children.