Giving Maltese literature its due | Bernard Micallef

We speak to the Head of Department of Maltese at the University of Malta, Bernard Micallef, about the newly-launched Diploma in Maltese Literature, which aims to provide a lively and dynamic experience of the local literary landscape 

Head of Department of Maltese at the University of Malta, Bernard Micallef
Head of Department of Maltese at the University of Malta, Bernard Micallef

What were the initial steps of devising this diploma? What led you to see it as a viable possibility?

The Diploma in Maltese Literature is a completely new programme of studies that breaks the mould in its approach to our literature. It will be discussing literary genres, authors, and styles from their oldest to their most recent periods, including 21st-century experiments in prose, poetry, and drama. This will familiarize students with the basic history of our literature, but the course will go on to demonstrate how literature interacts with other artistic mediums and professional careers.

One self-evident example is a study-unit that will discuss the mutual adaptation of poetry and music in the context of musical composition; another study-unit will demonstrate the whole editing process that a literary manuscript must go through on its way to becoming a published work. This wider artistic and professional domain has long been a vibrant reality of Maltese Literature. It has not, however, been sufficiently addressed in academic quarters. 

In setting up this Diploma, we have simply followed upon this growing cultural and professional milieu, a move that has taken us well beyond the traditional scholastic approach to literature. So my answer to your first question would be that this Diploma is viable because it lays claim to a domain of literary production and performance that is both vibrant and long-standing.                        

Do you think there has been a sizeable resurgence of interest in Maltese literature in recent years? If so, what do you attribute this to, and how will the Diploma engage with this reality?

Yes, I am convinced that a significant literary revival has thrived in the Maltese context recently. Not in quantitative terms – the yearly increase in published works does not, in itself, speak volumes. It merely churns out volumes. Qualitatively, however, the last decades have seen our literature adopting a more cosmopolitan, more morally engaging, less cliched handling of topical affairs. It should come as no surprise, then, that authors such as Immanuel Mifsud and Pierre J. Mejlak (recipients of the European Union Price for Literature) have struck a chord with a readership wider then the national mindset. Their success cannot be put down to an in-your-face narrative style intent only on breaking with local tradition, however.

Theirs is a literary endeavour that nods acknowledgingly at Maltese literary norms on its way to new stylistic achievements. The Diploma will discuss this inteplay between received and reworked norms of writing, describing it in terms of the natural tendency of literature to challenge and surpass its own covered ground. This will not exclude cultural, political, and historical factors outside literature that have contributed immensely towards the continued development of our literary idiom in Maltese.                   

The course will also look into different areas of literary practice – such as public speaking and reading.

This performative aspect of the Diploma proved to be its most attractive feature when it came to finding sponsors for the course. Let me just say how grateful I am to our two sponsors – Banif Bank and Arts Council Malta – for their support in this programme of studies. Banif Bank will be paying the fee, up to €2000, of the student who will have obtained the highest marks by the end of the course. Arts Council Malta will be rewarding €500 to each one of the four students obtaining the highest marks in the second-year project that ends the whole programme.

This final project epitomises the fundamental aim of the Diploma, involving as it does the students’ reenactment of a literary work through such performative skills as the evocative use of space and body language. Specially qualified lecturers will be discussing how literature can be translated from dormant text to effective corporeal delivery, from play script to its theatrical production, from passive reading to an animated interpretation that virtually co-authors the text.

Our aim is to give academic recognition to the public face that Maltese literature has long enjoyed in various professional and cultural sectors, and to equip students with the skills necessary for assuming that public face.

What led you to focus on aspects such as these, and why do you deem them to be crucial to the contemporary Maltese literary climate?

The less recognised performative aspects of the literary experience may well be the most vital for its continued success. Word repetition, refrain, rhetorical questions, rhythm, tone, and a myriad other rhetorical and acoustic elements do not need to be privately read as much as they need to be publicly performed, acted out in full view and clear hearing of a responsive audience.

All the Diploma’s study-units come together in this one defining orientation: literature as it is enacted, staged, or animated between its performing agent and his or her captivated audience. To this end, one study-unit will explore the specific expectations of young and adolescent readers. How does Maltese literature fare with these specific age groups, and what other art forms – say, book illustrations – should be factored into addressing a young readership? What are the styles, typical motifs, and character types that make a literary performance appeal more to one age group than to another?

These concerns are not specific to the contemporary climate of Maltese literature. They have always been there as intuitively mastered skills. But now that we acknowledge a climate change even in our literature, why not study how we are weathering it as performing agents and responsive audiences coming together in our shared literary experiences?  

In terms of the Diploma’s critical arm – will there be any predominant critical and intellectual trends that you will be focusing on?

Since the Diploma will explore how literary works can be creatively adapted to other artistic mediums, and since it will investigate how literary criticism can be converted into creative writing, it cannot but highlight those critical schools that focus on the reader as the agent of literary reenactment and adaptation.

Reader Response Criticism is relevant in this regard, and a whole study-unit will be dedicated to its emphasis on the reader as the animating agent of recontextualized literary works. Naturally, disciplines such as editing, creative writing, public reading, and intermedial adaptations of literature will be delivered through their respective methodologies. It is crucial to have the appropriate methodologies in place when a reader-oriented and performative course such as this is launched.   

What kind of experience can students hope to look forward to after they graduate from the course?

Picking up creatively or performatively where our good reads have left off involves skills pertaining to many careers: scriptwriting, songwriting, public reading, teaching, TV and radio broadcasting, editing, publishing, and reviewing come readily to mind. Add to this the potential synergy between Maltese literature and today’s virtual environments, comprising such experiences as interactive stories and ebooks on the web. A particular study-unit in the Diploma will be going into the role of literature in this intermedial context.

But it is not just editors, reviewers, literary broadcasters, creative writers, literary animators, and so on that will stand to gain from this two-year evening course. Even students simply aiming to become well-versed in Maltese literature and criticism will profit from the Diploma’s blend of literary genres, critical analysis, and creative performance.

A more detailed explanation of the skills to be obtained from the course, as well as a link to the appropriate application form, can be accessed from this page on the official website of the Department of Maltese: Applications are open until July 21. Applicants under 23 years of age will need the basic entry requirements for University students together with a grade C or better in Advanced level Maltese. Mature students (over 23 years of age) will not need these requirements, but must attend an interview held by the Department of Maltese prior to being accepted