interviewed by Hassan El Ouazzani
1.) If you have to present a cultural autobiography, on what would put you the accent?
Well, I think my last book of short stories, titled Sara Sue Sammut's Strange Stories, would be something I'd talk about. It made quite a hit, reason being that for the first time a Maltese author has written about the politically turbulent period of the late seventies and early eighties in a certain way. Somehow writing about that period has remained a taboo with us Maltese. In this book, I revisit those years through the eyes of a young woman called Sara Sue Sammut, who is a common working class woman, trying to make sense out of a very tense world. The book also talked about today: about the way media are twisting reality making a spectacle out of people's suffering, about young people dying with drugs, about violence and all that. Many people read the book and liked it simply because it was down to earth, honest and broke many taboos.
2) You profess that you have never touched a book before 1983. How did you « come » to literarture ?
It's all true. I never touched a book and somehow I was good at school, especially in creative writing. Maybe it is all true that some people are born with a gift, although I don't really believe that. When I turned sixteen and was reading Maltese, English and Philosophy at high school, I had Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams on the Philosophy reading list, and that had a spell on me. It was there that I started reading and started to enjoy it. Rather than enjoyment, I thought it was my duty to read from then on, because some close friends convinced me that I was writing 'good' things. Freud was the stepping stone to discovery of James Joyce, especially his Ulysses, and then the theatre of the absurd, and on and on.
3) You are poet, writer of short stories and of scripts for theatre. How do you conceive the relation between your poetic narrative and theatrical projects ?
Well, let's put it this way: I find some genre more conducive to my mood at that time. Poetry is all the time present in my mind. Poetry is all those moments when I go through what Joyce called 'epiphany' : a moment of sheer magic, which could be downright melancholic or erotic or other things. Prose is there to satisfy my anger at the world around me, especially my own country. I have loads of anger at the world: nothing different from the anger of so many other people. But I have it there all the time. And I am a savage. I need to satisfy my needs there and then. If I'm angry I have to vent it all out. Prose, I found to be perfect to satisfy this need in me. As for theatrical projects I don't write scripts any more. I did only when I was seventeen but then I started working in what we call 'physical or research theatre' which is a blend of dance and act, a performance where the importance is laid on the performer's physical presence rather than on costumes, light, décor etc.
Many critics have pointed out to the gross differences there are between my poetry and my prose. And yes, they are different. But after all, my firm belief is that even though I have one body, there are many people living in that body. I am many people. My poetry could be one person, my prose could be another, my theatre projects could be the voice of yet another person who lives within me. So what is the connection between these genres? Maybe it is sensitivity, a deep sense of melancholy which is always there even in the most humorous moments, and pain. These sentiments (and there could be others) connect one genre to the other.
4) Some of your works were translated into various languages (Italian, Spanish, French, English..). what can the translation give to the text, and to the writer ?
I think translation gives two things to the writer: first, it gives him a passport to travel to other realities, different from his own, and therefore more exposure. For a writer living in a tiny island, lost in the middle of a troubled sea, translation is a life line. For many years, Maltese writers were unable to even think of being exported abroad. The world seemed so far away! Typical feelings of an insular people that was ruled by foreign powers for centuries on end. But my generation, despite having obvious direct links to our former generations, was the first one to be born in independent Malta. And so, together with other social phenomena which took place in the meantime, we don't think that the world is that far. And we also know, that despite the size of the country we live in, despite the very short literary tradition we have (especially when compared to European and Maghreb countries) we are in tune with what is happening all around us, literaturewise that is. Being translated, being exported to other countries, being read by people who are not sharing your citizenship or your culture, is of utmost importance for the generation of writers I belong to. It has become top priority. And translation gives you that possibility. Of course, it is not so easy for a writer living on island which is not even drawn on maps, a nation that is so unknown, to manage to enter the vast European or world literature scene. It is very very difficult. But translation can pave the way. So that is the first thing translation gives a writer.
But there is also a second thing: there is a relationship between writer and translator. Or should we say, there should be one. Translation, itself, is a work of art. It is not simply changing language, switching from the original language to a new one. No, it is far more than that. Translation is capturing the spirit of the original, and also enriching it. One of the great thrills I get is when I read a translation of my works done beautifully by someone else. For that reason I never translate my own works, not even to languages I am proficient in. I always have someone to do it for me. Reading the translation gives me such a thrill that for moments I even forget that that piece is my own. I believe that a literary piece is the author's until it is published. Once it is published it becomes the readers' work of art, not the writer's. And the best way how one could measure the richness of one's work is by having it shared with others, including translators.
5) You have co-founded the literary group Versarti when you were student in the New Lyceum. Do you always believe at the utility of the literary groups ?
Not any more no. I felt the need when I was younger, because it was a new generation in Malta and it had to make its presence felt. But I don't believe in movements and groups any more, simply because I came to realise that a writer is on his own when he writes. And in any movement there is, you find big differences between a writer and the other one. Rather than having a group of writers forming a group, it should be the other way round I think: writers write and if a common trait, or common traits, exist, then they would automatically be forming a movement. But it is not that important. When I was at the Lyceum I was only 16, and together with other writers, most of whom have since stopped writing, I felt the need to make my literary presence felt. Then it was needed, now it is not. And I think it is the same all over the world.
6.) You have a deep relation with poetry and the culture of Italia. What represents for you such a relation?
Well, this is a difficult question. For me as a Maltese citizen, Italy is my neighbour. And as my neighbour, Italy means a lot: Italy has proven to be very influential even in the language I use. For many centuries there were many links with Italy. There still are between Malta and Italy: economic and cultural links. We all watch Italian and Sicilian television; most of us speak Italian fluently and even study it at school and university; we listen to Italian music, ranging from Verdi's operas to the latest Italian pop groups. As for me personally, the link is much less important. I haven't read much Italian literature for the simple reason that my education was more bent on British literature, and then I came to realise that the two points which intrigued most when it came to literature were Latin America and Eastern Europe. On a personal level then, the relation with Italy is only superficial and far from being deep. In that sense, artistically at least, I have a much stronger relationship with Eastern Europe than with my neighbouring country.
7) You take part of the new poetic generation. What are the principal characteristics of it? What are your reports with the precedent generation?
The new generation of Maltese writers are more down to earth I think. We have different preoccupations than those our previous generations had. The Romantic movement, which occupied the first part of the twentieth century, had a mission to undertake: creating a national identity when Malta was still a British colony. They had to do that because the Maltese people were always very docile to their foreign rulers to the extent that they forgot what it really meant to be Maltese. By the late 1960s, the modern generation took over, reacting directly to the Romantics, sometimes creating parodies of their work and their ideals. Of course, Malta gained independence from the British in 1964, but British naval forces remained here till 1979, despite independence. And that created a lot of discomfort amongst the modern generation, a discomfort which led them into questioning the very reality of independence. They had questions to deal with: what does it really mean to be independent? Should we try to re-create our past as the Romantics were suggesting, or should we start everything anew? Besides, they were living in a world order dominated by the Cold War, and that effected the way they wrote and what they wrote. Basically, they gave birth to the anti-hero which was very much similar to that created by Camus in his existentialist prose, although, to be fair, traces of this anti-hero could also be found in the socialist literature of the 1930s, propounded by a very small nucleus of writers who had nothing in common to their contemporary romantics. As for us, the world order is totally different. We live in the electronic age: the Internet, the mobile phone, reality TV, fast cars, and broken marriages. Our protagonists are neither heroes nor anti-heroes: they are lost souls so to speak. We have no ideology to follow. I'm not saying that ideologies no longer exist; I'm saying that we don't follow any. There is a stronger sense of despair yes, and our preoccupation is with the present. Contrary to our previous generations', our literature does not seek to instil any ideology or beliefs in our readers. I don't think that any of us is interested in that. We simply do not care. We criticise without offering solutions because we have no solutions and we don't think it is our job to offer or create solutions. I also think that my generation is more open: we have no taboos keeping our mouths shut. We can speak very freely of politicians and police, very freely about our erotic fantasies, our violent selves as well. There are more women writers in my generation than there ever were in Malta. And that is very positive because women writers were harnessed for many years.
As to what is the relationship with our previous generation, most unfortunately I would say it is the same as they had with their fore-generation. They have become the establishment and there is a lot of gate-keeping going on as to what should be published and studied at schools and universities. But that is almost natural I think and it could happen to us too in the future.
8) According to you, which are the principal characteristics of the Maltes poetic and intellectual scene ?
The Intellectual scene is non-existent. Our 'intellectuals' are simply data banks which feed information to their students. Hardly anything else. From time to time there might be someone who comes out in the public, but that is a rarity. Maybe it is not inherent in our culture. The Maltese people is a very pragmatic people. We have no philosophical tradition, no scientific one either. We are not a thinking people. For many centuries the Maltese had to struggle for survival, and that left little time for philosophizing. Keep in mind, this is a country which started governing itself as recently as 1964. Before that, there was a long succession of foreign rulers or invaders which treated the Maltese as their subjects. Malta was a poor country: no natural resources except the sun and the sea for tourism, and the human being…hard working, without any real other choice. Nature has not helped things either: as I said before we have no natural resources, no oil, no materials, no rivers, no mountains. Malta has been called by many as “The Rock” and that suits it well I think. The only interest which foreign rulers had in Malta was that related to the island's strategic location: in the very middle of the Mediterranean sea, a gateway for Europeans to the African continent and vice-versa. There was nothing more. So I think that the evolution of the Maltese mind had to follow this stark reality. There was also a conscious drive against intellectuals and intellectualism in the 1970s by the Socialists who were ruling back then. And that made matters even worse. Of course, the 1970s are now long way back, but certain traits linger on. To top it all, this is an island which for many long years was controlled and dominated by the Catholic Church and her morals, and by politicians. The influence of the Catholic Church has become much less effective nowadays, as people tend to become less religious. So basically the Church has lost most of the influence on Maltese society it previously had. But politicians are still very powerful; their power extends to every aspect of Maltese life. Even the so called 'intellectuals' are dominated by politicians. I am one of those who believe that Malta's entry into the European Union will start to change this stale and stagnant situation. The bi-party political system has defiled the Maltese mind; European membership can help us, I firmly believe, to change things. That is why I was in favour of Malta joining Europe. But then again, intellectuals and writers had contrasting views: they were divided along political party lines. We need free minds, and that is, I believe, happening in my generation, although I must be careful not to be over-optimistic.
As for literature, we are more confident in what we do. And as I told you earlier, our priority is now to put our literature on the map. So far it has never been there. I go to conferences and festivals where people are genuinely interested in our literature but no next to nothing about it. They even ask me what language we speak, totally ignorant of the fact that we have our own language let alone literature.
9) Malta is characterized by the plurality of components and references of its language. How do you manage this plurality in your literature ?
Yes, that is the Maltese identity : a blend of components, sometimes contrasting components which is perhaps mostly evident in our language. Maltese language has a Semitic structure with Romance and English superstructures. It is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet. This reflects our history. It is still uncertain where the first Maltese came from, and it is also uncertain if we are related to them after all. History has shown that when the Arabs came, around 870 Christian Era, they took all the inhabitants to Sicily, leaving the island uninhabited. Later the same rulers returned and settled but nothing can show us (so far) if they returned with later generations of those same people who lived there before, or if they returned with other people. Malta is a Catholic country, even the constitution declares that, but it is very probable that during the Arab rule the Maltese, or some of them, did convert to Islam and later re-converted to Catholicism when the Normans came and ousted the Arabs. We are very akin to the Spanish, who were also ruled by the Moors and the Sicilians, who up to a certain point shared our same history. This is our Mediterranean identity I would say. But then, we were also ruled the Knights of St John, who were very European, by the French, albeit for a very short time , and later by the British. These three rulers insitilled a European flavour which maybe distanced us from our North African - Arab - neighbours and culture. Also it is important to point out that during the second world war we were fiercely attacked not only by the German Nazis but also by our neighbouring Italians, and that has also left a mark on our psyche.
So basically that is Malta : a blend in many respects : a meeting point of Islam and Christianity ; of Europe and the Arab world ; of European influence and Arab culture ; with a long history of non-Mediterranean colonisation by Britain. All this has contributed to the very complex Maltese identity.
Obviously this has also effected our literature. The Romantics wrote in Italian as a start because that was the language of the elite and the educated. When they did switch to Maltese, the influence of the Italian Risorgimento Movement remained. The moderns were nearer to the Western world : English and American literature. These tried to modify our literature according to those lines so you had modern poets experimenting with Western forms such as Beat Poetry, cut-out poetry and the myriad of experiments which characterised the 1960s and 1970s. As for my generation, as I told you before, we lack an ideology although some of us are trying to capture the Mediterranean identity once more.
10) Maltese is influenced by Arabic language. In which measure this factor has been able to facilitate your rapprochement from the Arabic poetry and culture ?
Unfortunately we are almost completely ignorant of Arabic literature. And this is very surprising and not surprising at the same time. Very surprising when you consider that it takes me just 45 minutes by plane to arrive to Tunis and maybe a little more to arrive to Morocco. And also, very surprising given our Semitic influence. On the other hand, it does not surprise me, given the political state of affairs. I think that culturally, the Arab world is still 'far away' from 'us'. I only know about Mahmoud Darwix, and that for political reasons also. The West - and it is funny how I am including us to 'the West' now - is not interested in the Arab world culturally speaking. And it is a shame, and I know that we are missing a lot. To be fair, a Maltese cultural group called INIZJAMED, has done its fair share to introduce Arab writers in Malta, but there needs much more to be done. I think there is much more space for dialogue and sharing. Of course, language is always a problem, but it should not stop there. I find it really absurd that I know more about what Mexicans and Brazilians are writing, than a Moroccan who lives practically next door does ! I also think it is something which needs to be dealt with by the Arab writers themselves. I think they should really think of how to encounter other fellow writers from other parts of the world. And given our geographical proximity, I honestly believe there should be some kind of dialogue between you and us. I hope this interview will lead to something concrete about this, because i don't like the things as they stand now. It is absurd, simply absurd.
11) What does it mean for you to be a poet in the 21st century?
I have no idea !
Al Khaleej, 27 September 2004
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