‘Expect the best’ at the Mediterranean Literature Festival

Poet, lecturer and co-organiser of the high-powered Mediterranean Literature Festival Adrian Grima speaks to Teodor Reljic about what’s in store for this year’s edition of the festival – which is taking place at Fort St Elmo next weekend

Adrian Grima: “Many stories need to be told”. Photo by Virginia Monteforte
Adrian Grima: “Many stories need to be told”. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

What was the starting point of the Mediterranean Literature Festival, and what was the literary scene in Malta like at the time that the festival began?

When we started the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival in 2006, coordinated by Clare Azzopardi, Inizjamed had been organizing international literary events since 1998. Other organizations had been holding one-off international events too, of course. We felt that it was high time Malta had its own annual independent international literature festival and that the focus should be on the Mediterranean. We knew that this would allow us to “create a tradition”, to build up an audience and offer new literary experiences over the long term. We also knew that if we got it right, we could put Malta on the literary map of Europe and the Mediterranean. 

Establishing the festival was possible because we were able to build on contacts we had made over the years, especially through the Literature Across Frontiers network and its ever resourceful and indefatigable director Alexandra Büchler, who Maria Grech Ganado had meet a few years before. The Festival was also possible because we found the support of national and international partners and funders. 

The literary scene in Malta was already vibrant in 2006. The Festival reflected that vibrancy but also offered something radically new, because an annual international event allows you to build on experience, to avoid always having to start afresh.

How did the festival continue to evolve its international dimension?

The Festival comes with a residential literary translation workshop in which the writers live together for a week and translate each other’s work. This not only produces many outstanding works recreated in different literary traditions but also allows the Maltese and foreign writers to bond with each other and to feel that the Festival is theirs too. The participating writers become our foremost ambassadors, taking the Malta festival and Maltese literature to many countries around the world. 

Would you say that the festival has changed with the introduction of new faces in the organisational team, and if so – how?

There has always been a large group of volunteers, many of them writers, in the team organizing the Festival. Some have changed over the years; others have been involved for many years and have ensured continuity. They bring with them a lot of precious experience. It is thanks to the team that the Festival has grown in size and numbers, attracting close to a thousand people in all, without reneging on its core aim of offering a unique, often intimate literary experience. There are some 25 volunteers in the core organizing team this year: they have brought new energy, new ideas, new contacts. But this spirit of innovation has been there every year. And every edition has been special in its own way.  

Would you say that the Mediterranean aspect of the festival in particular helps to break down some post-colonial hang-ups that Malta has had, even in the field of culture? Or to put it in another way: would you say that having authors who aren’t necessarily from the US and the UK helps to create a more specific and powerful link to Malta?

There’s a whole universe of literature out there, and the exciting world of anglophone literature we know so well is only part of it. The Festival allows us to listen to some of the most striking voices around us, in our Mediterranean. This year we’re excited to have one of the world’s leading novelists, the Lebanese writer, journalist and university professor Elias Khoury. It’s a great opportunity to meet one of the greatest public intellectuals of our times. It’s an honour to have him with us and I’d like to thank my colleague and good friend Ghenwa Mumari for putting me in touch with him. I absolutely love the sensual irony of his novels and I’m sure that his work will attract many new readers here in Malta.

So yes, I hope the festival has helped to break down some of Malta’s post-colonial hang-ups in the field of culture. I hope it allows us to see Malta as part of the Mediterranean, south and north, east and west. But the “Mediterranean” in our Festival is also a shared space where we meet with people and literary experiences from beyond our region, from Iran and Singapore... Many stories need to be told.

This year we’re organizing four pre-festival events, talking about cultural and political changes in Cuba and Spain, the much vaunted development model of Singapore, and Kurdish literature, and offering an open mic session at Maori in Valletta on the eve of the first night of the Festival.

What can we expect from this year’s edition of the festival? How does it build on what the festival has achieved in previous years?

Expect different voices, different styles, different languages, different performances. Expect poetry and music, hip hop and jazz, love and unlove, journeys into the depths of sea, fiction and war. Expect good wine and good food. Expect books, in all shapes and sizes.

Expect a lot of good literature by some of the very best Maltese writers publishing today, from the multilayered poetry of the iconic Daniel Massa, to the mystic poetry of Joe P. Galea; from the prizewinning verse in English of Abigail Ardelle Zammit to the captivating stories of Rita Saliba and Mark Vella. Expect the best.

Organised by the literary NGO Inizjamed, the 11th edition of the Mediterranean Literature Festival will be taking place at Fort St Elmo, Valletta from August 25 to 27 at 20:00. For more information, log on to: https://inizjamedmalta.wordpress.com/