Over the past couple of years, I have been involved with a group of friends in an exercise aimed at promoting writing in Maltese both locally and internationally.
It may be argued that one of the best ways of doing this is by engaging directly with the language. This is particularly true of reading, translating into and out of our language and writing in it in diverse contexts – from creative writing to communicating online and on social media; from keeping a journal to academia and research.
I find our mother tongue to be very much alive in the written form. One way of deducing this is by taking note of all the publications that, year in, year out, address various subjects – whether local or international, historical or contemporary.
Indeed, as noted by artist and curator Bettina Hutschek, the term ‘Melitensia’ may evoke images of grandiose corridors of knowledge marked by venerable portraits of learned scholars and professors, such as one finds in the numerous ancient archives in Valletta, Rabat and elsewhere in both Malta and Gozo.
At a stretch, one may also include popular and accessible tools for (re)discovering our heritage, including books that try to link local lore with studies into topography, civil history, the development of our parishes and their possible appeal and exploitation in terms of tourism.
However, such an assessment of publishing, learning and the Maltese language is incomplete if one does not include uses that, both on paper and online, combine traditional approaches to the exploration of local identities with other, possibly less didactic and purposeful ones.
Ironically, seeking a reason (be it economic or educational) with which to argue for the value of language, learning it and the love and creative use of our oral and written means of communication may curtail the potential and intrinsic enjoyment of any relationship we may build with others through the spoken and written word.
Ara x’ħela! one might say. Or is it?
This line of thinking may be applied to other areas of our social and dynamic activities with one another, especially in the fields of culture and education. Parents of young children seem to equate the value of reading and writing with doing better in exams and securing an easier or more successful passage through adolescent and adult life.
Does this mean they have lost sight of the simple fun their sons and daughters feel when cheating the passage of time by turning the pages of their favourite books? Are older students, including mature learners, too taken by the almost tangible value of their education – sometimes reduced to units of credits as if these were something to be traded and exchanged on the stock market of career making and the social ladder?
Admittedly, it is difficult to argue against the educational advances brought about in Europe by the establishment of measurement techniques supported by the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area. Through these, nearly 50 countries within and outside the EU benefit from the robust quality assurance and common recognition of qualifications that in turn instigate years of dedication to investing in the development of scientific and social learning across the continent.
It may suffice to consider the concern that academics and students who are in or working with the UK are facing in the light of Brexit to appreciate the wisdom of this further practical and coordinated approach towards welfare and advancement in Europe.
And yet, a significant number of people in different countries seem to have grown a resistance to the instrumental interpretation and application of learning and the development of themselves and their societies. This is surely one constant strength of civil society organisations, especially when they combine their expertise in various fields of environmental and social life with their ability to reach out and collaborate with other stakeholders, be they State-driven or private.
One such initiative is the Hub for Excellence in the Literary Arts, known as HELA. The group of people forming this organisation aim at nurturing and supporting the creative use of the Maltese language in its written and published form through the development of networks and shared spaces of exchange that encourage best practice, training and the production and consumption of books and online resources in Maltese as well as through translation.
One of the main strengths of this young and relatively recent hub is the balance it seeks to find between purposefulness and the simple state of being. Faced by the constant pressure to prove oneself and justify one’s existence in terms of economic value or the development of strategies and plans that may be quantified against opportunity cost and investment interests, HELA seeks to nurture Maltese creative writing and research in and of itself, and to do so in relation to its contemporary realities, be they local, Mediterranean, European or global.
Examples of relations that are being woven include collaboration with libraries that act as community spaces and bookshops that serve readers in their quest for personal and social literary exploration.
In a rather cheeky, humorous way, the title says it all. In the best way possible. One may comment that HELA evokes the Maltese way of expressing wasted time, money or other valued resources. Ara x’ħela! one might say. Or is it? Is not the point of seeking a purpose that fits one’s needs, excites one’s wants and encourages one’s dreams what is actually called for in an age when memory is short and innovation does not seem to last long enough?
Paradoxically, HELA challenges us to pursue a careful, even studied, wastefulness, not in terms of our basic resources such as the environment, our human nature, our heritage or our creativity, but with regard to the straitjackets we sometimes, even unwittingly, drive ourselves into. It may be time to loosen up a little bit, and waste one’s time on something that is worth cultivating.
Dr Karsten Xuereb is a member of the Hub for Excellence in the Literary Arts (HELA).