Connecting through literature | Leanne Ellul

Ahead of the upcoming edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, organised by enduring literary NGO Inizjamed, Teodor Reljic speaks to the organisation’s administrator Leanne Ellul about what’s in store for this year’s edition of the local and international showcase of poetry and prose

Singaporean author Marc Nair reading at last year’s edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort St Elmo, Valletta
Singaporean author Marc Nair reading at last year’s edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort St Elmo, Valletta

For those not familiar with it, could you tell us a little bit about the Mediterranean Literature Festival? What is its history, and what are its aims?

The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival is an annual international literary festival organized by Inizjamed.  The first edition of the Festival was held twelve years ago. Over the years it has changed location: from Couvre Porte in Birgu to the Msida Bastion Historic Garden in Floriana, to it’s current location at Fort St Elmo in Valletta.

The aims of the Festival have more or less remained the same: showcasing Maltese, Mediterranean and international contemporary writing. The Festival promotes interaction across languages, geographies and artistic genres, and discusses topical and political issues. Through these aims literature – be it spoken or written – is both a special and exciting use of language and an accessible expression of everyday life.

The spoken and written word is the starting point. Poetry can also be experienced through the music that accompanies the readings or is juxtaposed to it, and the poetry films too. And why not? Through the wine and food and handmade books.

Being the only literature festival in Malta, it also aims to strike a good balance between female and male authors, authors from Malta the Mediterranean and beyond and between literary genres. The Festival has featured internationally renowned prose writers such as Hisham Matar and Marina Warner and poets such as Tamim Barghouthi and Giacomo Sferlazzo.

But what really stands out is the sense of community that is created between the authors, the organisers, foreign festival directors, and the audience. The week-long translation workshops held before the Festival help to foster this sense of community and create a degree of trust between the authors themselves – something that is transmitted on stage and can be felt by the authors and audiences alike.

How would you say this upcoming edition of the festival builds on previous editions? What can visitors expect this time around? 

This year and for the two years that follow, the Festival is also being funded through a Cultural Partnership Agreement by Arts Council Malta. This partnership gives Inizjamed financial security and time to plan ahead. The funding and endorsements like the EFFE label 2017 – 2018 continue to consolidate Inizjamed’s investment in a Festival that speaks excellence in all aspects. 

Therefore this year we also have a vast pre-festival events programme. As in recent years, the authors and organisers visit schools and other spaces that would not otherwise be inhabited by the Festival. For instance, this year we are holding an evening with Immanuel Mifsud at St Vincent de Paul Residence. The first public pre-Festival event is a round table discussion on so-called high and popular literature on August 20 at 20:00. On August 22, we are interviewing two of the Festival authors about poetry as public space, while on August 23, we’re holding the much awaited open mic event with the participation of writers based in Malta and abroad. Through these pre-festival events we aim to engage audiences further and deeper. The Festival is not just about the three final nights held at Fort St Elmo. It is much more than that.

As in previous years, we have a strong line-up of authors, musicians and of course poetry films, both local and foreign. As for the local poetry films Trevor Borg, is producing a poetry film of Victor Fenech’s work ‘Fuq Għoljiet Dingli’, whilst Nicky Aquilina and Lyanne Mifsud are working on a poetry film which presents Maria Grech Ganado’s poem ‘Relazzjoni’. This is a multi-annual project in collaboration with the Valletta 2018 Foundation.

This year our audiences can also expect a different set-up and some cool t-shirts too! The authors participating in this 12th edition are Asja Bakić (Bosnia Herzegovina), Mourid  Barghouti (Palestine), Lilia Ben Romdhane (Tunisia), Jean Portante (Luxembourg), Zoë Skoulding (Wales), Ma Thida (Myanmar), Arvis Viguls (Latvia), Gjoko Zdraveski (Republic of Macedonia), and John Aquilina, Mark Camilleri, Immanuel Mifsud, and Alfred Sant from Malta.

How does the ‘Mediterranean’ element of the festival play out, exactly? Is it determined by the location, or by the authors selected to participate? How do you characterise the realities and dynamics of the region in relation to the festival?

The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, and the translation workshop preceding it, were born from the need to place Maltese literature within a Mediterranean context. The Festival also implies a Mediterranean identity – one cannot deny the strategic position of Malta within the Mediterrean sea. As much as Malta acts as a bridge between Europe and Africa, the Festival acts as a cultural bridge between continents and countries alike.

The Festival aims to broaden the perspective of Maltese readers of local and world literature. The Mediterranean is the space where authors and audiences from all over meet to discuss, read, write and create – it is the space where literature and poetry are. So, as it happens, our Mediterranean is not just the Mediterranean. It is a melting pot (as much as it is not) of cultures, languages and influences that intermingle to create something that is unique and sensitive to a particular space and time.

The Festival has a strong impact on how the Maltese literary community and general artistic audience look out to the world – not only towards the north but to the Mediterranean as a whole  – and on how they see themselves. Being central in such a space puts a certain responsibility on Inizjamed when it comes to choosing the authors. For instance, in 2015 we made it a point have a writer from Turkey because of what was happening there and so, through Literature Across Frontiers, we invited Efe Duyan. This is what makes the Festival and literature even more relevant.

Do you agree with the idea that the festival prioritises writers and works who are politically engaged over others that are perhaps more overtly focused on aesthetics and entertainment? 

Politics (not partisan politics, of course) govern most of our choices. We make political choices all the time. We have no choice. Literature is not alien to politics. As Olive Senior has said, “Literature is political because we are political animals”. Literature is not free of political choices because even the language we choose to write in is a political choice. Why write in Maltese? Why write in Catalan? Why is the language of translation so important? Should we write in dialect or not? 

The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival seeks to strike a balance between authors that bring something different to the table. Nonetheless, there are authors who are more politically engaged than others about social and environmental issues, for instance. The pre-festival events tend to focus more on the social and political aspects and tap into issues such as migration and urbanisation.

Moreover, through the years we have had performance poets such as Tsead Bruinja and Marc Nair who appeal to wider audiences because they tap into performance and make music an integral part of their work. Politically engaged work can be aesthetically engaging and entertaining just the same. The Festival is about speaking, creating discourse, making the most of words.

What kind of impact do you hope the festival has on the local literary scene?

First of all, it is the only literature festival in Malta. Tying back to the political aspect, let’s hope that the discussions and performances will have a wider impact on different communities that are an integral part of the Festival. The open mic sessions (which are not exclusive to it) have created a sense of community and literature, I feel, is being spoken more of. Open mics are also being organized by different entities whilst Inizjamed continues to organize it’s own monthly session.

As I said before, the Festival is also a showcase. It brings local authors closer to local readers while it introduces new names to local audiences. Local authors also get the opportunity to meet renowned authors, that one might otherwise not get the opportunity to meet in person. 

The Festival, I feel, is a space that allows people to connect. And to have literature at the core of such happenings, is added value.

What’s next for Inizjamed?

While the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival is really and truly a year long project, Inizjamed continues to work on several other projects, namely Poetry in Potato Bags, with the Valletta 2018 Foundation. This project is growing bigger and getting better and better. We will continue to hold workshops in schools and readings in the most unexpected of places. Another initiative tied to the project is poetry on napkins at Ta’ Nenu, the Artisan Baker in Valletta. And there will be a vintage looking poetry/grocery shop in Strada Stretta as part of the Valletta 2018 opening festivities. Watch out for poetry every step of the way!