‘The Cinderella of the arts’

Immanuel Mifsud - one of the lead figures in Maltese literature.

Immanuel Mifsud – one of the lead figures in Maltese literature.

With Malta hosting the European Capital of Culture in 2018, the arts sector is due for some major improvements. Immanuel Mifsud – one of Malta’s most prominent literary figures – shares his ideas about the current status of literature on the island, or as he calls it, ‘the Cinderella of the arts.’

Immanuel Mifsud – winner of the EU prize for literature with the book ‘In the name of the father of the son’ – states that in order to understand the current status of literature in Malta one needs to travel back to the dark ages. “We had a very strong influx of painters during the times of the Knights of St. John in the 16th century,” he says. They were sent by the Spanish king to protect Malta, and in effect nearby Italy, against invasions. “We had the painters Caravaggio and Mattia Preti coming here and a few very important church music composers as well. But, when it came to literature, it did not evolve at all,” he says. “I don’t exactly know why, but it remained very underdeveloped for centuries to follow.”

The first serious attempts at literature started in the beginning of the 20th century, basically yesterday. “The pioneers of Maltese literature were a number of romantic poets,” says Mifsud. “They were dealing mainly with the idea of a national identity, as this was when we were still under the rule of the British. When James Joyce was writing Ulysses, we still had poems about the motherland and the catholic church.”

The development of modern day Maltese literature, as Mifsud sees it, started in the 1960’s. “Around that time writers became very concerned with putting Maltese literature in tune with the rest of the world. But there was no vision to export Maltese literature abroad,” he says.

This seems to be one of the main reasons why the general public is unaware of any Maltese writers. “Very few people have even bothered to think about translating Maltese works for foreign markets, therefore literature still remains the ‘Cinderella of the Arts’. We have this huge problem: we are a small country with our own language. This very fact has proved to be very detrimental to us. Our next-door neighbours can’t understand or read our language,” says Mifsud. “To the north there is Italy, and to the South there is Libya, both can’t read Maltese. That means that we are very limited in our reach, unless our work is translated. For a very long time we have been living in isolation, which we sort of accepted as a fact of life. Nobody thought we would have anything to offer to the outside world.”

However, if translation is the issue, this is a bit of a paradox. Having been ruled by the British for many years, English is a second – if not first – language on the island. Which begs the question as to why Maltese writers do not simply write in English. “There are a few writers who try this,” Mifsud confirms. “However, it still seems to be near impossible to be published abroad.” According to Mifsud, this is due to the lack of interest from Britain. “England is just not interested in having foreigners translated. There are so many authors around the world, they can’t be interested in them all. Plus, for us it’s a very individual endeavour. There aren’t really any literary agents on the island who can help you when you are trying to publish abroad. Those two things together prove to be very challenging,” he says. The size of the publishing industry in Malta might have something to do with the lack of translated works as well. “We have a maximum audience of about 400 000 people, so our publishing industry is very small. Secondly, we don’t see it as an industry, it’s a business. But that being said, we don’t worry as much about making big profits,” says Mifsud.

In the name of the father and the son - Winner of The European Union Prize for Literature 2011

In the name of the father and the son – Winner of The European Union Prize for Literature 2011

“I remember the shock I had when I was first approached by an English publisher. His first question was whether I would be willing to spend two months in the UK for a book tour. The question, ‘what are you actually writing’ – came second. It’s an alien thing and can be very overwhelming,” says Mifsud. “We need to professionalize literature in Malta, or else we will always remain that same isolated island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.”

Mifsud hopes the election of Valletta as the European Capital of Culture in 2018 will help put Maltese literature on the map. “A group of authors, including me, sat down to discuss the possibilities there are,” he says. “The main project we would like to realise is to create an international translation program me that will be based in Malta. If we can realise this, we can make Maltese literature more accessible on an international level. We have the talent, now what remains is to offer that talent a platform.” Through the election of Valletta will put the spotlight on Malta, and hopefully Maltese literature will also get a chance to flourish.