This year’s Malta Book Festival puts the spotlight on Lillian Sciberras, whose contributions to Maltese literary culture earned her the 2018 National Book Prize Lifetime Achievement Award. Interview by Ramona Depares.
How have you seen the Maltese literary scene evolve since the 1960s?
Like many of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju cohort, I belong to the immediate post-war generation, born at a time when Dun Karm, Francis Ebejer, Rużar Briffa, Anton Buttigieg, and other distinguished names in the Maltese literary canon potentially still had years of writing ahead of them.
With deference to the writers who came before, the Moviment was a defining moment that for Maltese literature marked the leap into the global literary currents of the 20th century.
Evolution is of course an incessant process, and new authors continue to emerge and enrich the field of Maltese writing, sometimes quite rightly challenging the status quo and breaking new ground, even irreverently. Besides, there are now a good number of valid women writers who are breaking barriers and overcoming the obstacles that hampered those that came before.
To go back to older writers, a poet of great calibre like John Cremona, born in 1918, who I hold in high regard, is happily still publishing books and enriching the corpus of contemporary Maltese literature, and that is in itself an evolution of sorts.
How has your style changed through the years?
It is never easy to talk objectively about one’s own writing, and even less so to pass any sort of reasoned assessment. One thing I can say without blinking is that I am not a prolific writer, and decades of intermittent inspiration have only managed to eke out a modest output. I first started writing verse when I was about 20. Love poetry in its various moods and stages of maturity and manifestation has thus been present in my writing and, as is the case with most poets, will likely stay on till the end.
Such themes too, persist, though they have evolved, I hope, towards a balance between scientific ‘certainties’ and what might be termed a metaphysical or ‘spiritual’ journeying.
The ruination of our natural environment was also an early theme, dating to the 1970s, that continues to the present day. There came a time in my 30s when I was absorbed by the sway of Marxist ideology, both New Left and Old, and the new feminism, prevalent at the time. My half of the book Wara ir-Repubblika (co-authored with Mario Vella) contains a blend of political, existential and personal poetry.
In later years, sickness and death reduced the family I grew up in and dearly loved (two parents and five daughters, I being the youngest) to myself and one remaining sister. By then, having smelled the presence of death at close quarters, my poetry took cognisance of its inevitable certainty, and this prompted me to produce elegiac wistful verse and poems of nostalgia, to be found mostly in Klessidra: Versi taż-Żmien Maħrub.
The Moviment was a defining moment that for Maltese literature marked the leap into the global literary currents of the 20th century
The style throughout the years has mostly been free verse, though there has also been occasional rhyme. I have experimented with forms such as the ballad and għana tal-fatt which are particularly suited for telling stories in verse. It was for me a great satisfaction that two of my poems have been made into short films and shown publicly, and that the poetry collection Klessidra was shortlisted for the National Book Prize in 2015. I have so far talked about poetry, though I have also published a small book of short stories, Happenstance: Tales of Circumstance, and a novel, Shadows in Penumbra.
You’re one of the few writers who switches effortlessly between language, prose and poetry. Does this happen consciously or is it a more of an unconscious choice that the theme and work itself dictate?
When I began to write the first poems, they came naturally in the language I had first learned to write. In the bilingual Malta: the New Poetry the original poems were the English version, with the Maltese translation having been helpfully done for me by Mario Azzopardi.
By the time of Wara ir-Repubblika my (by then) more committed social conscience had spurred me to begin to write also in Maltese, though I never gave up writing in English.
Maybe because poetry relates directly to the emotions, Maltese does now arise more instinctively as an inner voice when I feel inspired to compose a poem. Having said this I do have a small collection of poems in English still unpublished which I hope to eventually see in print.
My first attempts at writing stories were in the 1980s but, between completing studies for a Masters degree and eventually researching for a doctorate at University College London concurrently with pressing work duties at the University of Malta, I wasn’t sure I would continue writing any until I discovered time and a resurging desire to do so after my retirement. There were by then just about enough stories for a small collection, Happenstance, to appear in print.
For most of my life I was quite sure I was incapable of writing a story of any drawn-out length, so I had ruled out the possibility of ever writing a novel, until that began to happen almost without my realising.
The long afternoons of the years following retirement, I found, were ideal to indulge in having a go at sustained writing over an extended period of time. An initial idea, sparked by the memory of a noteworthy character from decades gone by, began to merge with recollections of family life during my younger years.
This resulted in a preliminary mind-sketch that grew and took a life of its own over many months of writing that evolved into a complex narrative that covered six countries and included among its protagonists none other than Jorge Luis Borges, Jeremy Bentham and the Senglea-born hero of Argentina, Juan Bautista Azopardo. Two or three years later Shadows in Penumbra saw the light of day and my first, admittedly short, novel was published and shortlisted for the National Book Prize in 2017.
Besides last year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, what do you consider to have been your biggest achievements?
When I timidly climbed the staircase on my first day of work at the university’s St Paul’s Street building back in June 1967, little could I have foreseen that 40 years and more of my life would be spent serving that institution. My staying power is in itself maybe not a small achievement.
Many of the students whom I taught have given me great satisfaction with their own staying power and their successes and publications and contributions to the profession and the country in general.
Each graduation was a vicarious achievement for me. As have been the friendships sustained over the years. I am enormously proud that the current university librarian and several members of his staff, the national librarian and a number of members of the National Library staff, the deputy librarian (Public Libraries) and a number of her staff, the head of the National Bibliographic Office and staff members, the recently retired Mcast librarian and staff, the Central Bank librarian and his assistant, some members of staff at the national archives, the national library, and the Gozo public library, librarians at various special libraries and schools all over the country, and the current head of the department of library information and archive sciences are all graduates of the department of which I was founding Head.
Surviving a PhD viva in London followed by graduation was something I could never have foreseen at the beginning of my years of work, and being shortlisted for the national book prize for both poetry and prose is also something that has given me a great sense of fulfilment. I have been honoured by the Malta Library & Information Association and by my academic and professional colleagues on more than one occasion. In 2014 I was invested in the National Order of Merit and given the National Librarian’s Award.
These were milestones I can never fail to recall with satisfaction. The National Book Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award now honours me greatly, and I am grateful to the Book Council and the staff for the confidence they have shown in me.
The National Book Festival takes place between November 6 and 10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. The festival closes with an event dedicated to Dr Sciberras on November 10 at 5pm.