Writing as a form of activism | John P. Portelli

Born in Malta but based in Canada, the author and academic John P. Portelli speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his latest short collection, L-Ittra ta’ Osama, which focuses on marginalised lives in a neoliberal world

John P. Portelli
John P. Portelli

How would you describe your career trajectory as a published author, and how would you say L-Ittra ta’ Osama fits into all of that?

I started writing poetry and essays when I was 16 years old. As a pre-university student I had won first prize for an essay competition organized by Għaqda tal-Malti Universita’. Between 1972 (when I started university) and 2001 I continued to engage in academic writing and poetry, the latter of which was only published in my first collection Bejn Zewg Dinjiet/In Between, other than the odd publication in poetry collections and newspapers.

I have in total published 11 academic books in English the most recent one earlier this year in which I critique neoliberalism in educational policy and leadership. Since 2001, I published three other poetry collections (two in Maltese with English translations, the other in English with French translations).

Five years ago, when I turned 60, I came to the realisation and very strong conviction that literary work is more conducive to bringing about social justice and equity change. Hence, I have tripled my efforts to write literary works including a collection of short stories, Inkontri ta’ Kuljum (Horizons, 2018), which is now available in English as Everyday Encounters (Word and Deed, Toronto, 2019 though available in Malta from Horizons), a novel, Kulhadd barra Fajza (Horizons, 2018, and shortlisted for this year’s literary prize in Malta), and finally, L-Ittra ta’ Osama (Horizons, 2019).  

So, in brief, my latest collection fits within the latter perspective I have developed.  Also, in my view, it continues to develop several themes that arise in the earlier collection and the novel: a mixture of critical existentialism, anti-colonialism, and social justice and equity perspectives and issues. In all of these writings the theme of the struggle of the migrant is very prominent. In my view, writing of this kind is a form of activism.

Generally speaking, L-Ittra ta’ Osama is dedicated to zoomed-in vignettes of individuals in particular social circumstances, mainly to do with the challenges that migrants of varying ethnicities and social strata face when trying to live their lives in new communities. What led you to decide on this particular focus, and what kind of reader reaction are you hoping for, or expecting?

I agree that the collection focuses on social circumstances including several stories that deal with challenges that migrants face. In this regard, my personal concern is with racism that I have observed both in Canada and elsewhere, including Malta, which I have visited frequently in the last decade. Some of the stories also deal with issues of social class, sexuality and homophobia, psychological violence especially as it arises in educational institutions.

My philosophical thinking, as exhibited in my academic writings, have always been strongly inclined towards the left. I consider myself to be a critical pedagogue with a strong interest in anticolonialism, the critique of classical liberalism and neoliberalism, and social justice and equity. I do not have an academic persona and a literary persona. I am one person with different identities.But still one person. Hence, my thinking and beliefs are bound to influence my literary writings.

I do not believe that the aim of literary writings is to moralise or preach. Literary works are not texts in political theory or social theory or philosophical theory, although they may exhibit strong elements of either. But I believe it is intrinsically important as part of the bigger project of understanding the complexities of the human condition, that literary works need to deal with hot political and social issues and concerns.

My aim is to create meaningful discussion and conversations that may bring about a better awareness of the human condition and then hopefully act accordingly. Of course, I also hope that reading literary work will bring about enjoyment.

The situations you describe are also quite specific. Were you inspired by particular events you’ve experienced/witnessed, and people you yourself have met?

Some situations I experienced myself, some were experienced by others, and some are completely imaginary. However, even in those stories based on a situation or incident I have experienced, the entire story takes a completely imaginary narrative of its own. But in most cases the starting point was something I experienced or others experienced. Mixing the two elements is something I find very exciting. Many times, I start a story not even knowing where it will take me. I like to surprise myself. Of course, the subconscious is inevitably always at play.

How does it feel to be a Maltese-language author who is based in Canada?

I feel like a privileged nomad. I left the Island in 1977 partly for political reasons and partly because of the insulation and provincialism of my homeland. While I have lived in Canada for 42 years now, in three different provinces (Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Ontario), I have also had the opportunity to travel widely, especially in the U.S., Middle East, and Europe. Also, my visits to Malta as well as the length of my durations there have increased. Overall, I feel better when I am travelling.

I am also lucky that when in Toronto I have the benefit of the Maltese community or what is left of it, as the community is slowly diminishing. There are friends and members of the community who follow my writing and give me feedback once a book is published. This is always encouraging.

However, since my literary writing is in Maltese (and this is a conscious political, and even ideological, decision on my part), I am at a disadvantage to other Canadian authors who write exclusively in either English or French. The National Book Council of Malta has been supporting the translation of Maltese authors. I have benefited from this support, particularly with regard to Everyday Encounters: Short Stories translated by Irene Mangion.

What do you make of the Maltese literary scene? What would you change about it?

This is a difficult question. My reply is more subjective than any of the other replies. I will be honest and respectful.

Before I left Malta in 1977 I was a member of all the literary groups in Malta including Moviment Qawmien Letterarju (I became a member at the age of 16 and I believe I was the youngest member then), Ghaqda Letterarja Maltija, Ghaqda tal-Malti Universita’, and Ghaqda Kittieba Zghazagh. And during my term as secretary of the Ghaqda tal-Malti Universita’ I represented the association on a newly established committee that had representations from all associations, including L-Akkademja tal-Malti of which membership was then only restricted to established authors.

From my active involvement with these associations, I learnt that the excessive and misconstrued perceptions of each group from other groups created a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and a culture of elitism, the ‘goody goodies’ and the ‘baddy baddies’. Today we have different literary groups. When in Malta I try to attend all of them as I believe they all have something positive to contribute. I also realize that the quality of the outputs from the authors associated with these groups is not monolithic: some writings are better than others. 

And this is normal. But what I find discouraging is that in many instances the negativity among these groups has created unnecessary competitions and ad hoc attacks, and hindered collaborative ventures between authors. It truly breaks my heart as I see history repeating itself. And as Lenin warned us (I think it was Lenin), history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, later as a farce. I hope we will not reach the level of a farce.

Notwithstanding this first point, I truly believe that Maltese literature has overall grown both in quality and quantity. It surely is more diversified.

The establishment of regular open mics sessions and other literary events open to the public, the development of the annual Malta Literature Festival, as well as the development of the Malta National Book Council have helped immensely.  

Yet what is lacking is a proper and professional (non-cliquey) settings for authors of different literary views to come together to comment freely but respectfully on each other’s work, as well as the publication of analytical and critical reviews of publications. It is a real pity as such sessions could help increase the quality of the publications. In my view, some authors publish too hastily without receiving or accepting much feedback. I know there are publishers today that request thorough revisions and offer professional assistance with feedback and copyediting.

I have benefitted from such support. But other than that, it is all up to individual authors to seek feedback. And what happens is that authors of the same literary expectations tend to group with each other. And, in some sense, this is acceptable as long as it does not create public exclusions and antagonisms. It would be meaningful and encouraging if  the current associations can come together to establish a common, open and respectful yet critical forum.

I want to thank several authors from whom I have received meaningful and critical  feedback on my own work: Louis Briffa, Norbert Bugeja, Elena Cardona, Lou Drofenik, Leanne Ellul, Oliver Friggieri, Maria Grech Ganado, Immanuel Mifsud, Walid Nabhan, Terrence Portelli, Tarcisio Zarb and Murat Shubert.

What’s next for you?

I am just about ready to complete my latest poetry collection. I am also working on a second novel, and a book of conversations with authors on diverse literary aspects. Then, a selection of some of my poetry will be appearing in Greek translation courtesy of Matina Tsimopoulou, entitled ‘Loves of Yesterday’.

L-Ittra ta’ Osama is published by Horizons