The trouble with ‘identity’ | Stephen Bonanno

Maltese literature lecturer Stephen Bonanno speaks to Teodor Reljic about Jiena (x’)jien?, an upcoming conference that seeks to explore the dynamic of the subject in contemporary Maltese literature

Upcoming conference Jiena (x’)jien? seeks to explore the dynamic of the subject in contemporary Maltese literature
Upcoming conference Jiena (x’)jien? seeks to explore the dynamic of the subject in contemporary Maltese literature

Why did you deem the idea of the subject in Maltese literature to be worthy of a conference? Would you say there have been some key developments in this regard that then warranted such academic attention?

I think both questions can be linked. The focus of the conference provides a common factor which can help to assess, and then determine, how and why contemporary narrative may be established as a new genre in the tradition of Maltese narrative. This can be explained by the title chosen, that is ‘Jiena (x’)jien?: Is-Suġġett fin-Narrattiva Kontemporanja Maltija’, which can be translated roughly into ‘(What) am I: The Subject in Contemporary Maltese Novel’. 

The insertion of the interrogative element in the narrator’s assertion opening Frans Sammut’s 1965 novel ‘Labirint’, which is considered to be the first example of modernism in Maltese narrative, is ultimately intended as an assessment of contemporary Maltese narrative’s contribution to Maltese literature. The ‘Jiena jien’ is a philosophical assertion providing Maltese narrative with what seems to be the first attempt at creating a subject who is conscious of his existence. By questioning the assertion, that is by interrogating what is the subject making the existential statement, the conference aims to assess how this subject has developed throughout the past 50 years of Maltese narrative, and if this development can be deemed enough to establish contemporary narrative as a genre.    

How would you say your selection of speakers reflects the level of interest and the variety of debate on ‘the subject’?

To be honest, it is not that easy to find speakers who can combine their expertise with an interest in Maltese literature. Unfortunately, there were academics who didn’t even bother to answer our invitation for their participation in the conference. Given these circumstances, we were limited in our selection of speakers. Notwithstanding this difficulty, I have to say that we are more than satisfied with the participants. Two independent reviewers, experts in the literary field, were appointed to assess the standard of the detailed abstract of each participant’s proposal. The reactions given by the reviewers were encouraging, and confirmed that our aim to create a debate of a certain standard is not that impossible to reach. 

Stephen Bonanno
Stephen Bonanno

Apart from the standard reached, it was our intention to provide as much a wide perspective on the subject as possible. That is why the speakers were selected from various fields, ranging from Maltese literature, English literature, Sociology and Philosophy. To add to this, we left up to the speakers to choose which critical methodology to adopt in their analyses. In fact, various methodologies are applied by the speakers, namely Marxist, Post-structuralist, Deconstructionist, Reader-Response and Feminist views on literature. This wide spectrum of schools of thought guarantees different perspectives on the subject, making the conference an ideal platform from which discourses on various narrative aspects can be developed.

Do you think there is a healthy enough debate – or a debate at all, period – about Maltese literature and where it’s heading? Do you think we need more events like Jiena (x’)jien and if so, which aspects of Maltese literature would you hope them to address in particular?

Although one cannot deny that there have been appreciable efforts in trying to appreciate contemporary literature, mainly through essays published in local academic journals, theses and the introduction of study-units covering contemporary Maltese literature at University level, I’m afraid to say that, despite their worthiness, they remain isolated efforts. So no, I don’t think there is a healthy enough debate. In this regard, a conference provides the needed space where a concerted effort can be registered. It is our hope that this concerted effort would in the long run generate similar efforts. An aspect of Maltese literature which is neglected from the critical scene and needs more attention is the establishment of criteria for evaluation. After having established these criteria, one can start analysing the direction in which our literature may be heading. The establishment of a literary canon concerning Maltese poetry, narrative and drama may be regarded as a good step in the right direction.

Jiena(x’) jien will be taking place at the Old University Building, Valletta on December 3 from 08:30. Speakers include David Aloisio, Josette Attard, Stephen Bonanno, Kurt Borg , Ivan Callus, Mark Camilleri, Adrian Grima, Bernard Micallef, Joseph Vella, Anna Zammit and Francois Zammit. To book a place, send an email to [email protected]