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Malta Book Festival: Creating the literary reference point

Having just announced this year’s edition of the event, John Grech, the Manager of the Malta Book Festival, speaks to Teodor Reljic about what’s in store for the annual celebration of local book culture, taking place early next month 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
3 October 2017, 10:39am
This year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival will be taking place from November 8 to 12
This year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival will be taking place from November 8 to 12
What have been some of the most important developments for the National Book Festival over the last few years, and how would you say this year’s edition builds on last year’s? 

Without doubt, the most salient change has been the shift in emphasis from fair to festival. The Malta Book Festival nowadays is truly a festival, not just a book bazaar. The commercial element is still strong, of course – this is the best opportunity for publishers and booksellers to display their products to the public. 

However, book sales are now part of a greater whole – a massive celebration of the book culture that involves local and foreign authors, publishers, artists, performers and members of the public. The emphasis is on the book experience. For this reason, the Festival is now structured around the programme of cultural events – readings, book launches and presentations, meetings with authors, exhibitions and drama. 

Each edition of the Festival is now themed – for this year, we have chosen the theme of the notion of ‘truth’ in literature – and the theme determines the selection of special guests, who are typically local or foreign authors or publishers. The choice of theme is informed by current developments in the political scene and this ensures continuity between different editions of the Festival, with last year’s theme having been totalitarianism and literature. 

 

While statistics have shown that lending from public libraries in Malta appears to be healthy enough, another survey, published earlier this year, has revealed that the majority of Maltese don’t read. What does the National Book Council make of this, and what role can an event like the National Book Festival play to better this situation? 

The Malta Book Festival is one of many initiatives by the National Book Council that are aimed at bringing people and books together. That is the main motivation behind the shift in emphasis I mentioned above. We want people to experience literature not just in the form of a book as a product that can be bought, shelved and, maybe, read. The programme of events features drama pieces based on literary texts, interviews with authors where the latter can talk about and discuss the themes and motifs that inform their work, film adaptations with discussions between the director and the author, and other such events. One of the goals is to show the public that literature, including fiction, has direct relevance to their lives, besides being great fun. The element of fun is also extremely important and our weekday morning events are all dedicated to schoolchildren with plenty of fun activities such as games, drama and even workshops aimed at encouraging reading in both the young and the very young.

That the majority of the Maltese do not read is a fact, unfortunately. A fact that those working in our line have been painfully aware of for a long time. However, one should note that the same survey you mentioned indicates an increase in visitor intensity of festivals, in particular the Malta Book Festival. We believe that the strategy I outlined above, which we have been following over the past few years, will pay off in the long term. At the end of the day, change in this trend will have to start at the roots, i.e., with children, who are usually not targeted in such surveys, meaning that any shift in the reading habits of the Maltese will tend to remain invisible to most surveys during the initial stages of its development. 

 

How does the National Book Festival help out local publishers? And will it ever be at a stage when it can provide local writers bona fide chances to interact with international agents, editors and publishers in a way that can further their career prospects?

The Festival is without any doubt the greatest opportunity publishers get to promote and display their work locally. The cultural programme gives them the means to do so in a variety of ways. We encourage them to contribute to the programme and the response we get is very encouraging. The local market is small but over the last few years we have witnessed the emergence of a record number of authors, some of whom are not afraid of touching upon all kinds of themes and topics. Among other things, this means that Maltese publishers now have material that can kindle international interest. This year we have invited an Egyptian publisher, Ahmed Moneid, to give a presentation on his experience as a publisher of subversive literature in Egypt. He will be one of the special guests of this year’s edition. The programme also features an intervention by Kristina Quintano, a Norwegian-Maltese translator and publisher. We certainly aim to have attract international agents and publishers to the Festival in order to widen the range of opportunities for local publishers.

The Malta Book Festival
The Malta Book Festival
 

This year’s edition of the National Book Festival will feature an international focus on Truth and Fiction, as well as a workshop on literary journalism and reviewing. Why did you deem these subjects necessary to highlight this year, and what do you hope can emerge from these events? 

The conference, which is one of the main activities of the Festival, determines the theme of the whole Festival, which also informs the artwork for the particular edition. The theme of Truth in Fiction and Non-Fiction was motivated by its relevance to the current international sociopolitical milieu, a relevance that holds on many levels. To give an example, local writer Walid Nabhan’s L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji is a fictional account of an immigrant living in Malta, an account which nonetheless is infused with a sense of authenticity. The themes and the logic of the narrative speak of things that are real and of great relevance to the humanitarian crisis reported to us by the press: the plight of thousands of refugees escaping to Europe. In many senses, the book is telling us truths that we might not find in any of those press reports. Not only that, with the political scene so diametrically divided over the issue of immigration, can you really assume that press reports are neutral? The relevance of the theme is not limited to this level but it serves as an example. Among the foreign guests who will take part in the conference this year, there is Ros Barber, the author of the Marlowe Papers – a novel in verse that explores the possibility that William Shakespeare was in fact Christopher Marlowe – and the renowned French novelist Gilbert Sinoué, who mainly writes historical novels whose narrative straddles the line between the received facts of history and pure fiction. 

The workshop ‘A Riveting Workshop’, led by former BBC journalists Rose Goldsmith and Max Easterman, is meant to help local journalists refine their skills in the art of literary reviewing and the promotion of literature. Besides fitting in with our strategy of creating more platforms for the promotion of literature with the Maltese public – better and more frequent reviews of local publications will help boost the public’s interest in the local scene, the workshop is linked thematically to the Festival in that it explores yet another channel of the traffic between fiction and non-fiction.

 

The lifetime achievement award will be given to Mario Azzopardi this year. What are some of the main reasons that Azzopardi is deserving of this award, at this point in time? 

Mario Azzopardi has been awarded the prize both for his literary work and his work in promoting modern Maltese literature. As one of the founders of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju, Azzopardi has been crucial in the evolution of modern Maltese prose, poetry and drama. He was the editor of a large number of cultural review magazines and was active both on TV and radio. Azzopardi’s greatest contribution was possibly that of urging Maltese writers to abandon parochial themes and start addressing social and political issues. In particular, he sought to encourage them – even by example – to take aim at the sacred cows of Maltese society, something which has since become staple in modern Maltese literature especially with the advent of writers such as Guze Stagno, Immanuel Mifsud, Alex Vella Gera and Clare Azzopardi, to mention just a few.

Azzopardi will be honoured with an event dedicated to his life and work on November 10.

What are some of the ways that the National Book Festival will aim to evolve in the coming years? 

The Festival plays a key role in our strategy of promoting Maltese literature and encouraging reading habits among the Maltese. It is our main platform for reaching out to the public and enabling fruitful interaction between authors, publishers and other stakeholders in the book industry. Over the next few years we intend to expand the possibilities of such encounters by encouraging more international participation and greater interaction. This will require more planning and more investment but, crucially, it will require more international contacts, which we procure thanks to our participation in international book fairs such as the London Book Fair. It is important that the Festival continues to grow year after year both in terms of visitor intensity and participation.

 

This year's edition of the Malta Book Festival will be taking place from November 8 to 12 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta. For more information, log on to: http://bit.ly/2yTnAoC

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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