IMMANUEL MIFSUD INTERVIEWED ON UKRAINIAN JOURNAL "VSESVIT"
Interview by Dmytro Dostrovsky
A very common question to start our interview with… Dear Immanuel, what influenced your choice to become a poet?
This is a very difficult question, which I cannot really answer. I know that this is not the best way how to start an interview! Well, I could find one million reasons which may have made me a poet, but none of these is essential for anyone to become an author. Whenever I try to come up with an answer to this question I always think of my childhood and, moreover, my family background. I feel that this has helped a lot in making me a very sensitive person. I was born the youngest of a family of eight children. My mother was forty four when I was born, my father forty seven. I grew up in an adult environment where my siblings were old enough to be my parents. This has influenced me a lot … because I was always a loner, and loners tend to develop a stronger sense of observation and intuition. But then again, not all poets were born in such a family, and not all children born in the same situation as mine became poets. So most probably it is a combination of different events which marked my life that turned me into a writer. To be honest, I don’t give much attention to what caused my being a writer. Writing itself is the important thing.
I am concerned about the total increase of violence and cruelty in the world by the media… Don’t you think that this aggression can provoke a lot of world mishaps? Can writers help in this situation? What is your attitude towards the wars these days in the world?
Look, I may sound cynic but I don’t believe writers can make any difference in the world. In Maltese we have a saying: that whoever commands makes the laws. I don’t know of any country where writers command or have political power. And even if they had, I am not so sure they would make a good job out of it. There are poets who are in love with peace and understanding but there are other poets who glorify violence and power. I hate saying this but Hitler was a poet and a performer, yet we all know what he was responsible of. Even Radovan Karadzic writes poetry from wherever he is hiding. He was responsible for the tragedy of Bosnia, and he writes poetry. I haven’t read any of his poems so I cannot judge their literary merit, but still, this killer puts pen to paper and claims to be a poet. I think identifying poets and poetry with peace, love, justice and things like that can only lead to myth. There are evil poets too. As for my attitude towards the wars these days, it is sheer disappointment. I do not think that war will ever disappear. The world has been at war since time immemorial and, to be honest, I have lost all hope that we shall ever find a solution to this. I know that I may sound defeatist but I don’t believe much in dreaming. As for the media, it is true that films and other forms seem to revel in presenting violence, but then, was it not always like that? The great epics from ancient Greece, and also other classic literatures, are full of tales of wars and conflict. Granted, nowadays the media are more pictorial and varied, but in essence they are continuing an old – a very old – tradition. Think of de Sade’s The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom for example. Violence is part and parcel of the human nature. I hate saying this, but I cannot be convinced otherwise. I don’t mean that I condone this, also because there is another side of human nature, which does put stress on love and peace. But these two sides, though being contrary to each other, are not mutually exclusive.
What are your predictions connected with the world changes? Do we have more positive or negative tendencies? Does our information society need art and literature? What changes can literature have in the nearest future? What are the new concepts and ideas?
Permit me a very obvious paradox: the world changes all the time, and yet it has remained pretty much the same old thing. There are evident changes, because the world is in a constant state of flux, but the basics remain the same. There was conflict in the beginning, and, despite the many changes which humanity has affected and been affected by, conflict is still very much the order of the day. Poverty is still around despite the progress which as a race humanity has gone through. Inequality is still very tangible; injustice, sorrow and all that. There are also the positive sides. I think the major changes which we are facing are related to mass communication: the world has become a smaller place and the concept of planetary citizens has become more real than ever. Yet these changes are not making this world a better place. The same knife used to cut a piece of bread could be used in the next minute to kill someone. We definitely have easier access to more information and this could make us believe that the world is worse than what it used to be, simply because formerly we knew less. I think that as humans we have both positive and negative tendencies, and the world at large is made like that. Now, art and literature can be both good and evil as I argued in the previous question. But in any way art (I mean all forms of art) is always present, for the very simple reason that humans have an aesthetic need, which I think it is inborn. As long as this need exists so will art. I don’t think it matters much if we are living in the Bronze Age or the Digital Age. Art is a constant in human history. Now what form this art will take in the future I dare not surmise. I am sure there will be good art and bad art, although I have a feeling that there will be a lot of the latter. The Digital Age has given many the illusion that everyone can be an artist; it’s enough to have some computer programme to become a composer or a writer or a painter. But this is the great illusion of our time. Not everyone is an artist.
Could you say some words about the writers’ life in Malta? Do you have international literary programs or grants?
Well, living in a very tiny island with no resources whatsoever is not the ideal living place for writers. In Malta writers can never make their living through writing because publishing is very limited, given that the total population of the island is barely 400,000. Then again, the Maltese people are not avid readers so it becomes even more difficult for a writer to survive as such. Young writers have a harder life. They usually have to publish their own work until they get noticed. It is only then that some publisher may show interest in their work. With poetry it is even more difficult because poetry is the art form least followed. As far as I know there are no international literary programmes or grants. Since joining the European Union Maltese literature is, on a very low key, creating some interest in readers abroad. Unfortunately foreign publishers are not really interested in investing in the literature of an island such as Malta. Malta remains the European land down under. I have noticed, whenever I have been invited to literary festivals and conferences, that there is some interest in our literature but still we are very much alien. Most foreigners marvel that such a tiny nation has a language, and they do so only after they learn, with some degree of surprise, that there is such a thing as the Maltese language. I don’t want to give the impression that we should keep waiting for international grants and programmes. We have to roll up our sleeves and do our job. It is extremely important for Maltese writers to export their literature. The state is clearly not interested in helping, so it very much depends on the contacts which individual writers have managed to establish through their own initiative. Many things which in other countries are taken for granted simply do not exist in Malta. For example there is no such thing as a writers’ union or a literature information centre, or a museum of literature. I would say that these concepts are unheard of in my country. My generation is trying to change all this.
What is the role of translation nowadays?
It is a lifeline; especially so for writers in a small country. But again, Malta lacks translators good enough to translate the literature that has been and that is being produced. Some of us have managed to get translated and even published abroad. But all this – again – thanks to individual initiative and personal contacts. There is so much to do, and there are neither the means, nor the necessary interest. It would be such a beautiful and significant thing for me (and I would say for most living Maltese writers) to have their work translated into other languages. I’d appreciate it so much to have my work translated into as many languages as possible, into Ukrainian too, of course, because literature is meant to be read and cherished by as many people as possible. So translation is a lifeline, a passport for writers to travel beyond their shores, their physical horizons.
I know that Maltese culture has very deep roots in the past. Is your literature conservative or it also absorbs new tendencies?
Malta has its own peculiarities which, on the one hand make her unique, on the other make her akin to other nations. Being at the centre of the Mediterranean it lies at the periphery, engulfed by two major civilizations: Europe and the Arab world. This tension – which has cultural, linguistic, political and religious qualities – has characterized the whole history of this tiny nation state, the smallest in the European Union. Although Malta has very deep roots which connect her to major civilizations, her literature is very young. The first serious attempts for a written literature go back only to the late nineteenth century. Until the middle of the twentieth century our poets were still producing poetry which had long been dead elsewhere. Maltese Romanticism – which was directly influenced by the Italian counterpart – lingered on until the beginning of the1960s. The regeneration of Maltese literature, the fine tuning, the renovation took place thanks to the literary revolution of the late 1960s, after Independence (1964). Obviously there are cultural and historical reasons for this. Being a tiny island, encircled by fortresses and the sea, Malta has had a history of insularity which began to crumble only thanks to mass communication and other changes happening in other parts of the world. Change was not always quick to take place, because insularity creates conservatism. But, I think, that this is past history. The literary revolution of the 1960s urged writers to, first, become more political; second, to shift their gaze outside the limits of the Maltese shores; and also to start thinking of themselves as planetary citizens besides Maltese. Obviously, not all writers were good at this, because you still had writers who were too much preoccupied with domestic and intimate developments. But the 1960s did beget a major overhaul. Nowadays, writers of my generation consider it elementary that we are not just Maltese. The invasion of mass communication in our private lives is very evident, in my opinion, in the way we are writing, the subject matter we are addressing and the attitude we carry, not just in writing but also in our everyday lives.
Does the real writer need torments and ‘walls’ on his way to become a great writer and a great Person?
I really am not sure how to answer this question. At face value it seems that, yes, a writer needs all these misfortunes to become great. But not all writers led a difficult life. I tend to shy away from generalisations of this kind. Surely, it seems more ‘apt’ that a writer faces the greatest difficulties one can face before becoming great. But I’ve met very good writers who had the most magnificent of childhood one could hope for, they were quite well off and comfortable and yet they were good writers. I’ve also met many people who have been through a real lot in their life, but when they tried to write they only managed to produce garbage. The concept of the poor, struggling writer is only a romantic image in my opinion.
What are your poems about? Prose?
So far I have published five collections of short stories and six others of poetry. My prose is considered by many as “tough and rough” and my latest book in Maltese – Kimika (Chemistry) – has created a lot of controversy, suffice it to say that the original publishing house stopped publication two weeks before the book had to go on sale on grounds of immorality and obscenity. That created quite a stir, also because books do not usually catch the eye of censors much in Malta. When the book finally got published by a different publisher it was the newspapers’ turn to censor it by refusing to run coverage on it or simply accusing me of having a perverse mind. I’m saying this simply to put you more into the Maltese picture. My prose deals with what I deem to be the harsh realities of today’s Maltese (and European) society. I write about drugs, violence, sex crime, and what one could call the underworld of contemporary society. I am also very much concerned with the way the media – particularly television – commercialise every aspect of human emotions, especially sorrow and pain. Only very recently a collection of stories translated into English has been published. My poetry is somewhat different. My last collection was also translated into English and the translated version was published in Ireland, sadly even before the original version, which is still to be published. Last year I also published a collection of travel-poems, recounting my travels to countries like Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Czech Republic and others. Poetry is a personal matter, prose vents out my anger and frustration.
People who live in Ukraine practically know nothing about your literature and culture. I think that this a great problem that we — Europeans — know so little about each other? Do you see any projects that can help to solve this problem, to fill the intercultural gap between the worlds on one land? What do you do to make your literature communicate to the world?
Well, I know that officially the European Union strives to create more cultural cohesion between the European countries. There are also other foundations and associations which run the policy of creating cultural encounters. However, I am not so sure that all the countries are given the same importance. Translation plays an extremely important part in all this. It is not enough to have the literature of the larger countries translated, but the smaller literatures have to have the same treatment. Now as for what is being done to promote Maltese literature abroad, the answer is simply very little. In the absence of serious literary associations, of a national policy for literature, of a Maltese Literature Information Centre, and other bodies which other countries have set up to achieve this goal, it all depends on individual initiative. There are no structures and no funds to cater for such an important thing as promotion of the Maltese literature abroad. Some of us young writers get invited for festivals and publications abroad simply because we have the vision, we see the importance of crossing the borders, and work for it. But on state level nothing – nothing – is being done to have the Maltese literature promoted elsewhere. There is, however, the good work being done by a voluntary group called Inizjamed who have at times teamed up with the Wales-based Literature Across Frontiers, and organized a conference, writers’ residence, a translation workshop and some other projects.
Dear Immanuel, what is your main achievement in your life?
I don’t know yet. I believe that the main achievement is still to come. Maybe it is just round the corner. I don’t know. I don’t think I have achieved much as yet. I could mention winning the National Literary Award in 2002, but that is not enough.
When do you feel that you are happy? What is ‘happiness’ for you?
I am known to be a very melancholic person. My humour is often biting and bitter, and laughter is not one of my virtues. But I do have my happy moments, of course. Seeing my son Nikol being born was one such recent experience. And before that I felt extremely happy when I first saw his image on the ultrasound screen with his tiny heart already beating. But I think too much and can very easily feel sorry even for people I do not know. Ever since I was a child I used to think a lot about death and misery, so although on the whole I have had a very happy childhood, this was punctured with frequent bouts of thoughtfulness and melancholy. I feel the happiest when I see people merry and celebrating. Although I am not able to make merry myself I do enjoy seeing people having fun and celebrating. It gives me joy although I don’t show it.
If you had the chance to change your life what would you do? What is life for you: nirvana or a staircase to the heavens, transmission or something else?
I think I’d choose to be a fisherman. I adore the sea, although like most fishermen I have a certain reserve about it because as the Maltese proverb goes: the sea has a soft belly but a hard head. I cannot live without the sea. All through my life I have been toying with the idea of emigrating, given that my country frustrates me. But I would definitely feel sick without the sea – and that has to be the Mediterranean of course. So if I were to change my life I would probably choose to become a fisherman. However, if I were to live anew and constrained to become an artist, then I would choose to be a music composer: at least musicians don’t need translators! Or even better, a painter, because they need neither translators nor practitioners to execute their work; they can do it all on their own and can reach everyone. But life is just a passing moment. I have no idea if there is an afterlife or not. Sometimes I believe there is, but more often I’m scared that this is all make belief, and at the end of the tunnel there is nothingness. So there is no point, really, to try to imagine what you would do if you had the opportunity to start again. This thought saddens me a lot. Maybe life is a staircase which leads to nowhere. I try to live day by day and try even harder to put aside thoughts about afterlife or the end. Many of the characters in my prose live day by day too.
The Ukrainian magazine of world literature ‘VSESVIT” has celebrated its Anniversary — 80 years! What could you wish to the magazine?
I would wish VSESVIT many more eightieth anniversaries! And from an egoistic point I would wish VSESVIT to enjoy Maltese literature by translating some works into Ukrainian and offering them to the readers. I am sure that VSESVIT has helped many foreign literatures to travel to Ukraine, so maybe it is the Maltese literature's turn now. Given that my country – sadly – lacks any form of literary journal, I cannot but feel amazement that your journal has served its readers for all these years, offering them a wealth of other literatures.
Vsesvit (Vol 949-950) 2008
Copyright 2002-2021. Immanuel Mifsud. All rights reserved.