Towards An Independent Literature: Malta’s Writers and Poets

Photo of Lindsay Parnell
16 December 2016

Malta’s history of colonization resulted in a country steeped in a variety of diverse cultural traditions. When independence was finally gained in 1964, Malta’s writers faced a struggle to resurrect the Maltese language. Literature of the post-independence period rejected the ideal imposed by colonizers and set out to create a Maltese literary voice.

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Malta’s geographic location at the heart of the Mediterranean Sea has made it a target for a long succession of colonial powers over the course of its history, among these: the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Knights of St John, French and finally the British. These powers, and the various waves of emigrants which followed in their wake, all made their mark on the culture of Malta, which is a synthesis of these various traditions. The colonial legacy also lives on in the linguistic world, as Malta still proclaims English as one of its official languages. Its other official language is Maltese, which was only granted this status in 1934, and has emerged as the vehicle for an indigenous literary heritage rich in the arts of translation, poetry and religious script.

The Maltese literary canon is defined by two principal periods of the country’s history; the first during British colonial rule, and the second, ignited by the country’s independence, gained in 1964. A Malta under the British published Romantic-inspired poetry, which celebrated aesthetic beauty and traditional structure. The themes of these poems typically paid reverence to Western greats such as Keats, Wordsworth and Blake. Malta’s independence from Britain in 1964 not only excited a surge of national pride for the newly independent nation, but also stimulated a modern literary movement inspired by innovative philosophies, intellectual considerations and poetic articulation. This modern period embraced a fierce rejection of the Romantic, and ignited the exploration of an explicitly emotive and inventive literary impulse.

Malta’s national poet Carmelo Psaila (pseudonym Dun Karm) (1871-1961) studied theology (he was ordained a priest in 1894) and philosophy, both of which would have a profound impact on his poetry. Inspired greatly by the traditional Romantic works and authors of his adolescence, Psaila’s debut poem ‘La Dignità Episcopale’ was published when he was just 18-years-old. Psaila wrote solely in Italian until 1912, when he began writing exclusively in Maltese. Known for highly imaginative poetry which articulates internal spiritual journeys and the search for a defining cultural identity (Psaila is also the author of Malta’s national anthem, ‘Innu Malti’, written in 1923), Psaila introduced a revolutionary exploration of Malta’s national voice under British rule. Thematically, Psaila depicts this search for a national identity through the lens of deep religious meditation and philosophical interrogations of existentialism. Since Psaila’s death in 1961, his work has been translated into Arabic, English, French, Italian and Spanish.

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As both politician and poet, the career of Anton Buttigieg (1912-1983) features a seemingly unlikely combination of professional endeavors. Buttigieg was not only Malta’s second president (serving 1976-1981) but also an esteemed and passionate member of L-Akkademja tal-Malti (The Academy of the Maltese Language). As an established politician in his late thirties, Buttigieg published his first volume of poetry in 1949, Mill-Gallarija ta’ Żgħożiti (From the Balcony of my Youth). He went on to serve his country through various political positions while contemporaneously working to see the publication of twelve volumes of poetry (translations included). The winner of multiple awards, both in his native Malta and abroad, his accolades includes 1972’s Ġuzé Muscat Azzopardi poetry prize and the International Prize of Mediterranean Culture for Poetry in 1977.

A gifted poet from a young age, Achille Mizzi (1939—) began his professional life as a civil servant through work as an elementary school teacher, a customs officer, and later as the Assistant Chief of the Ministry of Education. As a devoted scholar and student of English poetry, Mizzi’s passion for the written word fueled his desire to further the study and use of the Maltese language. This linguistic growth, in which Mizzi’s involvement was essential, was a crucial component of a post-independence national identity. Mizzi’s forty-year career as an academic, poet and literary critic saw the publications of many acclaimed collections, among these: L-Għar tal-Enimmi (1967), Il-Il-Kantiku tad-Demm (1980’s), the two volume collection Poeziji (1993), Vetrati Milwiena (1996), Poeziji (1991-1996) and Eklissi Perpetwi (2007).

Oliver Friggieri (1947—) is one of Malta’s favourite scholars of diverse literary interests who explored his country’s native tongue through both fiction and poetry. A naturally talented student, Friggieri studied Italian, Maltese, philosophy and literary criticism throughout his numerous undergraduate and graduate degrees. As both a scholar of the work of Dun Karm and a remarkably gifted poet, Friggierri’s own canon includes numerous critical, fictional and poetic texts. His debut novel, Il-Gidba (The Lie) was published in 1977 and was followed by a string of highly philosophical novels including Fil-Parlament ma Jikbrux Fjuri (No Flowers Grow in Parliament) published in 1986 and Dik id-Dgħajsa f’Nofs il-Port (That Boat in Mid-Harbour) of 2011. As a regular contributor to various newspapers, serialized publications, literary magazines and academically peer-reviewed titles, Friggieri still remains one of Malta’s prized literary scholars.

Immanuel Mifsud (1967—) is a research scholar of the dramatic arts, an accomplished multi-lingual author and one of Malta’s essential contemporary voices. His literary output includes numerous volumes of poetry, novels and a collection of short stories. Through his writing, Mifsud confronts and thoughtfully interrogates certain political realities, specifically the Gulf War, which he explored in his debut poetry collection Fid-Dar ta’ Clara (At Clara’s (1998). Mifsud has also written critically revered fiction, including his 1991 collection of short stories titled Stejjer ta’ Nies Koroh (Stories of Ugly People). Here Misfud chronicles the lives of various ostracised members of society and breathes life into these often silenced voices struggling to survive a claustrophobic city-life. This kind of examination of the city’s underbelly, and of identities considered as ‘other’, has become a recurring theme in his work.

Mifsud is also the author of a collection of Slovakian folktales, Hrejjef mis-Slovakkja (Tales from Slovakia) (2011). He was the coveted winner of the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature for his work Fl-Isem tal-Missier and was the three-time recipient of Malta’s National Literary Award (2001, 2002, 2005).

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