Ġużè Stagno’s 2013 Maltese novel What happens in Brussels stays in Brussels looks at a passive protagonist. Gustav is a journalist caught between the love of his life in Brussels, his fiancé back home, and the temptation to self-destruct as he joins a Maltese contingent of political canvassers in the European capital.
In her 2022 feminist work, Loranne Vella’s Marta Marta challenges Catholic dogmas, the lack of reproductive rights and the focus on women as only wives and mothers.
And Aleks Farrugia’s latest socio-political and satirical novel Ir-Re Borg makes us reflect deeply on contemporary life in Malta.
“If we aren’t in a golden age of Maltese literature, we’re in a shining age,” says Mark Vella, an author and literary critic who in the early 2000s founded Minima, a publishing house known for kickstarting a new age of Maltese literature that promoted works that were critical of society and power.
Minima has since closed shop but other publishers, such as Merlin, and micro- publishers, such as Kotba Calleja, have surfaced, despite problems with the publishing industry, Vella said.
“We have not found a name for this contemporary period, some call it a cosmopolitan movement because of authors writing from abroad, and stories that go beyond the geographical confines of Malta,” Vella said.
Books like Marta Marta by Loranne Vella, Ġganti by David Alosio, Castillo by Claire Azzopardi, X’Seta’ Ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo? by Mark Vella and Wayne Flask’s Kapitali, among several others, have received widespread acclaim.
Ryan Falzon described the current literary period as “revolutionary”.
Having just published his new novel Sajf, Falzon says that Malta, being an isolated island, remains an important theme in Maltese literature, together with the emerging theme of gender.
“Many books being published have substance… The current interest in books and writing was sorely needed,” he said.
Alex Vella Gregory, a researcher and composer, sees two broad themes in new Maltese fiction. One is nostalgic, often steeped in a fictional history and distorted perception of the past. The second is protest, against inequality, environmental destruction, the erasure of communities and capitalism, he said.
Rebellious work is where “hope lies”.
“Young authors are experimenting with form and language, and established writers are thinking on a universal scale, not limited by a parochial mentality,” he said.
Rebellious work is where hope lies
According to popular writer Alex Vella Gera, the outsider in a small community coupled with the idea of escape has existed in Maltese literature for a long time and has remained so.
One of his books Trojan exemplifies this theme.
“Harsher” and “freer” language has also become popularised in Malta, Vella Gera said.
Vella Gera often uses strong language in his works, as do many other contemporary authors.
However, swear words do not a rebel make, Vella Gera said. Work in the 1960s and 1970s had a more conservative approach but still had critical elements. Frans Sammut’s work in the era was incredibly harsh towards society.
“Using harsh language gives the impression of literature being more rebellious and inconvenient for those in power, but that is not the case,” he said.
Author Mark Camilleri believes Maltese literature, bar some exceptions, is not more rebellious than the past.
The former national book council chairman has had a busy year, publishing an anthology of “naughty” literature as well as a novel, Ġaħan Fl-Aqwa Żmien.
Poet and author Immanuel Mifsud, a household name among Maltese literature lovers, said contemporary authors “are less inhibited and more direct in how they write about politics and lifestyle”.
However, self-censorship based on political correctness has become “stifling”.
Aleks Farrugia, author of Ir Re-Borg, believes older literature was more critical, citing Alfred Sant’s early works, as well as Juann Mamo’s Ulied in-Nanna Venut Fl-Amerka, a work Farrugia describes as “seminal”.
Despite a seemingly dynamic literary world, readership of Maltese literature remains low, Farrugia said.
“Selling 500 books is very successful, and 1,000 copies sold would be a phenomenal success,” he said.
Generally, the Maltese do not read a lot, and an even smaller set of people read in Maltese, he said. This means local publishers are in dire straits.
Zvezdan Relijic, from EDE books, a micro-publisher, concurred, saying publishers are struggling.
“There are some really good Maltese authors but without publishers to pay them, how can the scene develop?” he asked.
He called for government assistance to help publishing stay on its feet.
Award-winning author Lara Calleja says that Maltese authors face many challenges. Among them is the lack of agents who could promote and help translate works to be spread abroad.
She also called for more help to improve the quality of writing in Malta with workshops and courses.
“I only learned about crafting stories after having finished my book,” she said.