A barbed comment that disturbed the détente in the literary scene

Writers’ organisation PEN Malta insists on the removal of National Book Council employee Jasmine Bajada after she claimed the literary scene is rife with favouritism

Immanuel Mifsud (left), Jasmine Bajada (centre) and Lorraine Vella (right)
Immanuel Mifsud (left), Jasmine Bajada (centre) and Lorraine Vella (right)

A writers’ organisation is insisting on the removal of an employee with the National Book Council after she claimed the literary scene is rife with favouritism. 

The comment posted on Facebook by Jasmine Bajada, a budding poet and manager at the NBC, has since been deleted with the council apologising on her behalf and addressing the matter internally. 

However, PEN Malta under the leadership of author Immanuel Mifsud has said the apology is not enough and is insisting Bajada should be removed. 

The controversy has upended the literary scene, disturbing “the comfortable détente” as several players in the writing and publishing community described it in comments to MaltaToday. 

Some established authors publicly took umbrage at Bajada’s comment that authors “whored” themselves for recognition and funds. Yet others were baffled with the heavy-handed approach taken by PEN with its demand for her removal. The organisation’s charter says it defends freedom of speech. 

MaltaToday is informed that PEN representatives met with NBC chair Mark Camilleri last week to press on with their demand for Bajada’s removal. She remains an employee of the council. 

But an author who was granted anonymity to speak freely told MaltaToday the controversy transcends the mere inappropriateness of having a council employee pass such a comment. 

“What Jasmine Bajada wrote should have never been posted on social media; she should have raised her concerns in the appropriate forum given her position within the council. However, the reaction of some of the literary grandees suggests to me that she may have struck a raw nerve,” the author said. 

He insisted it is an open secret in the literary scene that to gain recognition among their peers, authors often praise each other. “It is a comfortable arrangement with some authors doing a good deed for fellow writers, expecting similar treatment further down the line. Call it a détente, if you want, but one where the scene lacks critical review and analysis.” 

The author says that what Bajada wrote was “not at all far from the truth” and those like her who dare to disturb the waters risk being ostracised socially and professionally. “It is a touchy subject, one that could get a person silenced as we are witnessing with the attempts to crush Jasmine Bajada,” he said. 

Bajada had lashed out on Facebook after she ended up on the receiving end of criticism after her recent poetry book was reviewed by her own boyfriend, David Hudson, himself a writer. The review was published in The Sunday Times of Malta and Hudson later admitted it was “a mistake of naivety” to do the review. 

To compound matters, Hudson had himself been at the centre of controversy after admitting to helping a friend set up an anonymous blog dedicated to book reviews and commentary on the Maltese literary scene. 

The blog called Malta Literary Review ruffled a lot of feathers for its savage criticism, the likes of which was unseen in recent years. Many in the writers’ community took umbrage at its anonymity, however others welcomed the refreshing criticism that did not hold back from touching Maltese literature’s sacred cows like Maria Grech Ganado, a veteran poet, and Immanuel Mifsud. 

The blog has since been taken down with no word from the anonymous reviewer as to why. Its articles are not even available on the internet. 

This context helps shape the subsequent reaction that followed when Bajada posted her ‘whoring’ comment. 

A second author, who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity, said the literary community was already agitated with the “raw directness” of the anonymous blog. 

“It obviously did not help that Jasmine’s boyfriend was involved in the blog’s setting up but it is very possible that the young poet realised early on in her literary career that the sector has a dominant elite and breaking through is not easy,” the second author said. 

He noted that PEN’s key people are also present in the other literary outfits – HELA and Inizjamed – that came out guns blazing against Bajada and the NBC. 

“There is a coterie of writers, who were irked and being active in multiple organisations the overall reaction would appear as an overwhelming condemnation of Jasmine Bajada when in reality many believe that all she did was lift the lid on what is an open secret in the literary community,” the source said. 

There have been few public reactions of support for Bajada but significantly the strongest defence came from this year’s winner in the novels category of the National Book Prize – Loranne Vella. 

In a short Facebook post, Vella disassociated herself from what she described the “disproportionate attack” on Bajada. 

“Even if she made a mistake, the issue has now become one of a power imbalance between the individual person and the institutions that are attacking her,” Vella wrote. 

Author Aleks Farrugia reposted Vella’s comment and underscored that he agreed with her words. 

While writer Guże Stagno went on Facebook to highlight a conflict of interest from some years back that saw the then book council chair, also called Mark Camilleri, publicly comment on his book when it was competing in the National Book Prize. “At the time nobody asked for resignations,” Stagno wrote in a veiled barb at PEN’s insistence on Bajada’s removal. 

Mark Vella, who spent some years as sister newspaper Illum’s book reviewer, publicly criticised PEN’s heavy-handedness in an interview with MaltaToday last Sunday. 

“It seems that the writers who were once revolutionary have now become conservative. In the past, our generation was proud to criticise older writers for being gatekeepers. Now it seems that contemporary established writers risk becoming the new gatekeepers,” Vella said, describing it as an aspect of cancel culture. 

“People who dare criticise Maltese writers are being cancelled. Bajada and the writer David Hudson are being cancelled for expressing critical views on social media. They’re being made pariahs, they’re being ostracised,” he said. “It’s ironic that this is happening with the blessing of PEN Malta, the organisation that should preserve and defend free speech.”