The true story of two siblings whose mother drowned on their way to Malta has inspired a publisher’s first novel featuring a black Maltese protagonist.
Antoinette Borg’s Amina is an eye-opener for many, with the Maltese girl’s struggles – from being called ugly to having her nationality questioned – intertwining with the book’s narrative.
The protagonist started coming alive after the author read an article in The Sunday Times of Malta in which Sr Stefania, from the Ursuline creche, in Sliema, recalled two siblings whose mother had drowned. The children had spent a few days in hospital and had no one.
Ms Borg told Times of Malta she often observed unbelievably cruel attitudes towards black people and migrants, typically starting with the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…”
She has always found it difficult to understand why someone’s physical characteristics, whether skin colour, weight or hair, should have any effect on other people’s attitude and why someone’s ability to be compassionate with a fellow human being should depend on whether or not they were Maltese.
“Whenever we highlight a difference, we get a dimmer view of our sameness and, by a certain point, we seem to be able to ignore that underneath our packaging we are all human with identical feelings and needs,” she said.
“That is where cruel words and actions and, eventually, bullying start creeping in.”
Just like the siblings in the newspaper article, there are many black Maltese children growing up in Malta.
“How does it feel if you are singled out, shunned or bullied because of your skin colour? How does it feel to be Maltese when ‘you don’t look Maltese’, your surname is not Maltese or you have no Maltese ancestors? How does it feel to study your Maltese O-level text - Il-Ħarsa ta’ Rużann by Francis Ebejer - which has the Maltese identity, handed down from past generations, as one of its key themes?
“These are some of the questions I tried to explore by walking in Amina’s shoes, in the belief that if we understand each other more, we can strive towards a kinder society.”
Underneath our packaging we are all human with identical feelings and needs
A former accountant, Ms Borg wrote three books in three years and received three literary awards, including the 2018 Best Emerging Author award.
Amina is Merlin Publishers’ first full-length children’s novel that features a black girl. Asked what came to mind when pitched with a book about the daughter of a migrant, director Chris Gruppetta said it was a non-issue for him.
“The narrative of Amina and her backstory made for brilliant reading and the fact that Amina is the daughter of a migrant reflected the reality of Maltese society.
“We want to introduce open-mindedness among our youngest learners when they’re starting to shape their notions about how not all people are our exact photocopy and it’s fine to celebrate diversity. That’s how future generations can improve on us,” he said.
Is he wary of the criticism Merlin Publishers could get?
So far, Dr Gruppetta said, Merlin Publishers had not received any negative comments on Amina, although it would not be a first if they did. When they published Mamà, allura din imħabba? – the first children’s book in Maltese about same-sex parents – the publishers endured a torrent of criticism.
However, Dr Gruppetta strongly believes that credible publishers need to give a voice to all sorts of different stories, whether about migrants or racists.
“We’re already insular enough as a country without our literature also remaining stuck in 1960s zuntier-u-bar-tar-raħal life,” he said.
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