Loranne Vella’s ‘Marta Marta’ clinches best novel in National Book Prize

Feminist novel that takes on Catholic dogmas that shape the role of women and the family awarded top book prize

Loranne Vella. Photo taken during 2018 National Book Prize
Loranne Vella. Photo taken during 2018 National Book Prize

The writer Loranne Vella has clinched Malta’s top book prize with Marta Marta (EDE), the feminist novel that challenged gender structures and celebrates diversity and non-binarity.

Vella’s award was announced at the awards ceremony of the 46th edition of the National Book Prize at the Magazino Hall at the Valletta Waterfront.

Marta Marta deals with the debates stemming from Catholic dogmas still shaping Maltese opinions, the absence of reproductive rights, and as described by Vella herself, “the unnecessary sanctity of the family unit, the outdated emphasis on the role of women as wives, mothers and carers... This continues to insistently repeat itself one generation after another as if there are no other ways of living, which sometimes makes me think of Malta as an echo chamber. Why are we still obsessed with marriage, with having a family?”

Vella dedicated her award to the silent voices whose stories remain unheard. “These words from Marta Marta come to mind: When we put on our feminist-tinted glasses, we can see the form the dominance of the mighty takes upon the weak.”

Vella is a writer, translator and performer whose creative career spanned literature, teaching, translation, theatre, before returning to long-form literature. Her first foray into novel writing is marked by the publication of It-Triloġija tal-Fiddien (Merlin Publishers, 2007, 2009, 2009), a trilogy for adolescents written together with Simon Bartolo, which steadily achieved a huge following and won her the National Book Prize twice.

Her fantasy novel Rokit (Merlin Publishers), a story about time, space, photography, roots, geometry, revolution and ultimately hope, was also awarded first prize in 2018 in the category ‘Novels in Maltese and English’.

The winning titles were selected from a shortlist of 61 titles across 15 competitive categories: 36 books in the eight categories for adults and 26 in the six for children and young adults (Premju Terramaxka).

Two special prizes were also bestowed during the ceremony: the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award to Daniel Massa for his seminal contributions to Maltese poetry, who could not be present for the ceremony due to illness but who sent in a recorded message. Thanking the National Book Council for honouring his 60-year career trajectory in prose and poetry, Massa urged young poets to look to both local and international luminaries of the craft for inspiration — among them Dun Karm, Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot — and to bear in mind that the road to poetic greatness is long and rewarding. “Search for beauty, but do not shy away from ugliness,” Massa said.

Adjudicators this year expressed a particular enthusiasm for the submissions in the Poetry category, noting that a healthy selection of high-quality work from both established and up-and-coming poets made it to the shortlist.

This year’s General Research shortlist was also deemed to be exceptional, with adjudicators stating the certain entries could easily transcend their specialised niches to appeal to a wider reading public.

The award for Best Emergent Author was given to Lon Kirkop, who also emerged victorious in the Drama category with his collection of short plays, Fil-Ħajja li Jmiss u Drammi Oħra tat-Triq (Merlin Publishers).

Kirkop said that receiving this award fills him with added confidence to continue sharing his writers with readers as an emerging writer. “Especially when you’re just starting out, like I am currently, acknowledgments like these provide reassurance that what you’re doing is meaningful,” he said.

The members of the adjudication board of the 2023 National Book Prize and Terramaxka were Omar Seguna, Robert Pisani, Simone Spiteri, Rachel Baldacchino, Liam Gauci, Joseph M Brincat, Sandra Hili Vassallo, Kristy Borg and Charmaine Bonello.

National Book Council (NBC) executive chairperson Mark Camilleri hailed the significant legacy of the National Book Prize, which came with a surprise announcement that as of this year’s edition, all winning publishing houses will receive a €1,000 prize.

The decision to introduce this new strand to the National Book Prize stemmed from an acknowledgement of the challenges faced by publishers in recent years, by dint of the economic disruption caused by international upheavals, Camilleri said.

National Book Prize for Adults

Novels – Loranne Vella, Marta Marta

Short Stories – Rita Saliba,  Tbajja’ tax-Xemx u Stejjer Oħra għad-Dell

Poerty – Murad Shubert,  Imbagħad il-Qiegħ

Drama – Lon Kirkop, Fil-Ħajja li Jmiss u Drammi Oħra tat-Triq

Translations – Mark Vella, Mur Ġibek… Eżerċizzji ta’ Tortura u Seduzzjoni

General Research – Christian Attard,  The Art of Dying Well: Visual Cultures in Times of Piety and Plague Malta 1675-1814

Biorgraphical and Historiographic Research – William Zammit,  Slavery, Treason and Blood: The 1749 Plot of the Slaves in Malta

Best Book Production – Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti,  Society Fashion in Malta: The Portrait Photography of Leandro Preziosi 1830-1869

Best Emergent Author – Lon Kirkop

Lifetime Achievement Award – Daniel Massa

Terramaxka Prize for Children and Young Adults

Original works for children (0-7) – Maria Farrugia, Louiselle Sciberras (ill), Luċjan u Enzo: is-sriedak li kienu jgħiru għal xulxin

Original works for children (8-12) – John A. Bonello, Francesca Grech (ill.), Irvin Vella, Investigatur Virtwali: Il-Każ tal-Ħabsi Bla Ħtija

Young Adult Literature – David Aloisio, Ġganti

Translation for children (0-7) – Janet Mallia, Kieku Armadillo Jmur f’Ristorant

Translation for children (8-12) – Noel Tanti, Każ Miftuħ: Segwi l-Indizji!

Young Adult Literature in Translation – Dwayne Ellul, Sherlock, Lupin u Jien: Il-Katidral tal-Biża’

Best Book Production – BDL Publishing, Luċjan u Enzo: is-sriedak li kienu jgħiru għal xulxin