The way Maltese sounds has evolved over the decades. While written examples of Maltese have survived, records of how it was spoken are much more scarce. However, thanks to the efforts of Prof. Alexandra Vella (UM), Prof. Ray Fabri (UM) and Dr Michael Spagnol, we now have the opportunity to hear firsthand what Maltese sounded like 60 years ago!Continue reading
Biex taqra l-artiklu bl-Ingliż, agħfas hawn.
Kaxxi fuq kaxxi, miksijin bl-għabra, jistennew is-sekondiera tagħmel ir-ronda tagħha. Is-sekondi jsiru minuti. Isiru sigħat. Ġranet. Xhur. Snin sħaħ. Deċennji, sewwasew.
Il-Prof. Edward Fenech wirithom mingħand il-Prof. Ġużè Aquilina, imma ġara li l-kaxxi u ta’ ġo fihom ingħataw il-ġenb għal ħafna żmien. Parti ġmielha mill-istorja lingwistika u kulturali tagħna konna bil-mod il-mod qed nitilfuha minn taħt imneħirna.
Mistura fil-kaxxi nstabu r-reel-to-reels li l-Prof. Aquilina, missier il-Lingwistika Maltija, kien uża biex jimmortala l-ilħna bil-kisra djalettali ta’ bosta kelliema minn lokalitajiet differenti f’Malta u Għawdex.
Illum, kulma jmur qed nagħrfu u napprezzaw il-ġmiel ta’ mużajk li jsawru d-djaletti tal-gżejjer Maltin. Iżda, sa ftit snin ilu, min jitkellem bid-djalett aktarx li kien jitqies ta’ klassi baxxa. Ħtija tal-preġudizzju, xi wħud ippruvaw jinfatmu minn dan l-aspett ewlieni tal-identità kulturali tagħhom. Il-preżenza tad-djalett qajl qajl bdiet tiddgħajjef. In-nies tħalltu fiż-żwieġ, u magħhom tħalltet il-lingwa. Min mar joqgħod f’raħal ieħor kien espost għal djalett differenti, u t-tfal bdew imorru l-iskola u jitgħallmu l-Malti standard, ‘il-pulit’, sajjem minn xi karatteristiċi li jżewqu t-taħdit.
Il-Prof. Aquilina minn kmieni għaraf li ħaġa daqstant sabiħa ma kellniex nerħuha tiżolqilna minn idejna (jew ħalqna f’dan il-każ), u fis-snin sittin u sebgħin, irħielha lejn xi rħula Maltin u Għawdxin, idur bir-reel-to-reel recorder, jitħaddet man-nies dwarhom infushom, dwar is-snajja’ tagħhom, u dwar it-tradizzjonijiet li wirtu bil-fomm u bl-id. Bil-mikrofonu kien qed jaqbad il-ħsejjes u l-forom tad-djaletti, imma mhux biss. Ma’ kull intervista, kien qed jiddokumenta stil ta’ għajxien li llum jinħass tant ’il bogħod. Bl-għajnuna ta’ Benedikt Isserlin mill-Università ta’ Leeds ġabar 92 audio file b’madwar 50 siegħa taħdit djalettali, mhux kollu tal-istess kwalità. Bil-materjal miġbur, Aquilina u Isserlin fl-1981 ħarġu pubblikazzjoni li tittratta elementi fonoloġiċi tad-djaletti. Daqs tletin sena wara, John Paul Grima sema’ l-audio files wieħed wieħed, u b’reqqa kbira ddokumenta u kkataloga l-ħidma fit-teżina tal-Baċellerat tiegħu.
Fost l-ilħna li ltaqa’ magħhom Aquilina, hemm tal-iskarpan mill-Għarb, li, hu u jmertel il-ġild, jispjega l-proċess tal-ħjūta bl-aktar ġild fin Ingliż. Tħaddet mal-għaġġiena mix-Xagħra, li tispjega kif ħobża titwieled mid-dqiq, tingħaġen u tinħadem sakemm issib ruħha fuq it-tilar, lesta biex tinħema. Tkellem mar-raħħala Żurriqija fuq kif iġġiżż in-nagħġa biex tħaffilha s-suf, fuq nagħġa żgħira li għad ma kellhiex ħaruf (għabura), u n-nagħġa li qatt ma kellha (ħawlija). Skopra kif ix-Xlukkajri jaħslu l-ħwejjeġ bl-ilma salmastru fil-Fawwara tal-Ħasselin, u sema’ kif tinħadem u titħejjet il-bizzilla f’Ta’ Sannat, skont il-bixra li l-lingwa tieħu f’kull post.
Dan il-materjal prezzjuż inżamm f’kaxxi li maż-żmien għoddhom intesew. Kien b’kumbinazzjoni li wara ħafna snin ir-reel-to-reels sabu ruħhom fl-istudio ta’ Anthony Baldacchino. U minn hemm, fuq l-inizzjattiva tal-Prof. Alexandra Vella, beda l-proċess biex il-materjal maħżun fihom jiġi ddiġitalizzat. Xejn ma kien faċli li l-kontenut tar-reel-to-reels l-antiki jinqaleb f’format diġitali. Illum, l-ilħna tal-imgħoddi f’dan il-format, ftit ftit qed jittellgħu fil-portal tar-riċerka malti.mt, li d-Dipartiment tal-Malti se jniedi fix-xhur li ġejjin, ħalli jkunu aċċessibbli għall-istudjużi u għal kull min għandu interess fid-djaletti, is-snajja’ tradizzjonali, u b’mod ġenerali l-ħajja fl-ewwel snin ta’ wara l-Indipendenza.
Bis-saħħa ta’ dan il-proġett, ikkoordinat mill-Prof. Alexandra Vella, il-Prof. Ray Fabri u Dr Michael Spagnol, dan il-felli tal-istorja tagħna jista’ jitgawda mill-pubbliku u jiġi studjat mir-riċerkaturi ħalli nifhmu aħjar il-qagħda lingwistika tant rikka fil-gżejjer żgħar tagħna. Għax dawn l-ilħna jsawru ħolqa f’katina li tixhed li, għalkemm minn fuqhom m’għaddewx aktar minn ħamsin sena, il-ħsejjes, ir-rakkonti, l-għerf u d-drawwiet li fihom inewlulna pinzellati minn ħajja li m’ilha xejn imma ilha ħafna.
Can emojis replace words, or are they pretty decorations to our verbal communication? Latasha Barbara looks into the science behind our use of emojis.Continue reading
Our childhood years are meant to help us develop our sense of identity, belonging, culture, and home. But what happens to those for whom childhood is dominated by moving to a new country with a new language, culture, and social norms? Prof. Carmel Cefai speaks to Becky Catrin Jones.
It’s a small world these days. Developments in technology and transport mean it’s much easier to pack your bags and head off for a fresh start in a foreign land. For many, the destination is Malta. As a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea with a booming economy, it is no surprise that it’s drawing the attention of bright sparks and aspiring families from Europe and beyond. In fact, Malta currently boasts the fastest growing EU population.
Of course, it’s not always through choice that you might find yourself leaving your homeland behind. Humanitarian crises and ongoing wars in North and sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have seen thousands set sail under the most treacherous conditions in search of safety. For this population, Malta is often the first port of call between the dangers of home and the promise of hope in Europe.
It seems strange to group these populations together, given the stark differences in the journeys that bring them to Malta and the life they seek here. But together, this influx of people has contributed to a sudden rise in interculturalism, where people from different backgrounds interact and influence one another. This is a reality all parties are having to adapt to.
Even in a fairytale scenario, childhood is challenging. Growing up when you’re far from home, look different to everyone around you, and don’t speak their language, makes the challenge reach a whole other level. Children’s wellbeing is an increasingly important and emotive topic to study in Malta, which is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. A team of researchers from the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health (University of Malta), set out to explore the situation. They questioned: How do you settle into a new home and identity when you are still trying to figure out who you are and where you are from?
Finding the voices
Children are often a silent group. When analysing the wellbeing or effect of migration on a population, they are usually spoken for by adults. For this study, however, Prof. Carmel Cefai and his team wanted the child’s voice as well. The scope of the study was ambitious; every single contactable, non-Maltese child living in Malta was invited to take part and share their experiences. But this was a challenge.
‘Identifying and obtaining access to foreign children from age zero to 18 was not easy… Some schools suffered from research fatigue and did not wish to participate; whilst translation of instruments and data and use of interpreters drained the limited budget we had for this project.’ Maltese children were contacted and invited to participate too. After all, they are as affected as anyone else when around one in ten of their schoolmates are not Maltese.
The study focused on four main areas; social interaction and inclusion, education, subjective wellbeing and resilience, and physical health and access to services. They covered the experiences of children up to 18 years of age, from various schools, who were either settled into their own family houses or still in open shetlers following a difficult journey to Malta. They also aimed for a balance in migrants’ nationalities; European, North American, African, Middle Eastern, or East Asian; as the experiences of each population are understandably different. Cefai and his team found that the experiences of migrant children in their everyday life are quite positive. In some areas, even more positive than those of Maltese children, with only 8% reporting difficulties in their psychological wellbeing compared to 10% in the native population. Overall, they found that migrant children feel safe, listened to, and cared for by the adults in their communities. Despite the language barriers, most feel like they have a support network, and enough friends though more often than not those friends are other foreign children, not Maltese.They are able to keep up at school, and generally do as well as their Maltese peers, with teachers reporting high levels of engagement.
Adapting to a new world
All is not rosy. Bullying in schools is quite common, though less frequent than that reported by native Maltese children. One in five migrant children also do not feel they have enough friends.
Younger children seem to be more included and engaged than secondary school ones, and in general females fared better in the study than male classmates. That said, age and gender weren’t the main influencers when it came to predicting how well the children engaged at school and in their communities. ‘The study suggests that there are different layers of reality, with the big picture hiding the socio-economic, psychological, and social difficulties encountered by a substantial minority,’ remarks Cefai.
Unsurprisingly, those who speak Maltese feel more engaged than those who don’t, and those who aren’t confident in English are in an even worse position. However, the factor producing the biggest differences between the overall wellbeing, health, and education of the children is their country of origin. ‘The health, wellbeing, and relative comfort enjoyed by many children of European economic migrants contrast sharply with the poverty, poor accommodation, psychological difficulties, learning difficulties, and experiences of discrimination of many children from Africa and the Middle East’, says Cefai. Western Europeans and American children scored highly over all criteria, whereas African and Middle Eastern children are far more likely to be lonely or suffering from social or economic difficulties.
They are more likely to be less proficient in English, which leads to difficulties in making friends with children from other cultures and which also contributes to problems in their education. Although they are generally nourished by their spiritual and religious communities, in all other areas these children report social and emotional difficulties and are also more likely to report facing prejudice and discrimination. Healthcare proved problematic; many parents and children worry that they are subjected to discrimination whilst using services, or do not have enough information to use them in the first place.
A land of opportunity
Despite the additional challenges that these particular migrant children face, the overriding feeling is one of acceptance and hope. Even children in open centres view Malta as a land of opportunity, even when some are in suboptimal housing and lack basic necessities. What children in open centres do not perceive is Malta as their home. Better living conditions in the community, more cultural sensitivity, and openness to interculturalism may help to reduce the feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
So what do Maltese children think? Again, the overall conclusions show that children are open, tolerant, and welcoming of this dramatic and quick rise in multiculturalism that has happened. However, on closer inspection, it seems that there is still a way to go before we can truly call ourselves an open and accepting society.
Relatively few Maltese children have many foreign friends, preferring to spend time with native peers. This hesitation is stronger in children who aren’t from a mixed community, whereas children in independent schools and more exposed to foreign children seem more at ease with the idea that the future might be even more multinational and intercultural. As many as one in three Maltese children also report feeling unsafe in culturally diverse communities, and worry about potential negative consequences of these changes in the future. There also appears to be particular prejudice against children from Africa and the Middle East in contrast to children from Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia.
What has become clear is that both foreign and native children could do with some reassurance. So what do Cefai and his team suggest we can work on to help everyone embrace this new culturally diverse reality?
A united future
‘[We need] to address the needs of marginalised and vulnerable children, particularly those coming from Africa and the Middle East’, says Cefai. There’s also a lot both populations could learn from each other; caring for their environment, sharing cultures, or even adopting healthier lifestyles. By encouraging more open and judgement-free spaces to play, learn, and share, we’ll take away the ‘us’ and ‘them’ ideology from a young age and replace it with one of acceptance, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. This will help prevent the dangerous spiral of segregation and ghettoisation, seen all over Europe.
Cefai suggests a space for more positive role models for those migrant children thrown into a foreign culture that doesn’t seem to have space for them. Having teachers, healthcare workers, or even political representatives who have similar backgrounds will foster this inclusive nature, showing that everyone has a voice when it comes to working together to make this country a home for all.
There’s work to be done with Maltese children. ‘Whilst it is encouraging that the majority hold positive attitudes towards interculturalism, it is worrying that as they grow older children’s attitudes tend to become less positive,’ says Cefai. ‘It’s our responsibility to ensure that educators, community leaders, and parents of Maltese children are part of a national initiative to embrace interculturalism.’
Although overall a positive study, Cefai and team have shown we still have a way to go until every child in Malta feels safe, happy, and at home. And in this ever-changing and diverse environment, Malta has real potential to be an example to its neighbours on how a successful multicultural society can work on every level. These children are our future.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your best friend? Is it the way they wear their socks up to their knees? Is it their long curly hair that seems to have a character of its own? Abigail Galea speaks to linguist Prof. Charles Briffa about the use of nicknames in Malta’s communities.
Experiences feed into our language choices.
‘Your choice of words can tell a whole story about you,’ says Prof. Charles Briffa, a linguist, researcher, and author who studies language beyond its communicative role.
Briffa looks at words and phrases as a way to understand those who speak them. ‘I see language as a reflection of people’s minds—their way of thinking, their values and priorities in life, the opinions they have, and their interpretation of the world,’ he says.
In one of his most recent publications, Il-Laqmijiet Karkariżi fil-Kultura Maltija, Briffa explores the nature of nicknames (laqmijiet in Maltese) in our communities. Commissioned by the Birkirkara Local Council, it is a collection of all the nicknames he could find for the locality.
Discussing the early use of nicknames, Briffa says they were customary for those going into battle. Warriors would choose a name for themselves and with it, a narrative of what they brought to the battlefield. ‘Our names have our identities wrapped up in them. By only making their nickname known in battle, they believed the enemy would have less power over them.’
Briffa talks about primitive man’s belief that the name was a vital portion of the self—a distinct part of man’s personality. People also believed that they could be harmed by the malicious handling of their name. And so they often hid their real names to protect themselves from evil-disposed persons who might injure their owners. The nickname was used to make this possible. Everyone could use it freely and divulge it to anyone since it held no ‘real’ part of the person it belonged to and so would not endanger their safety.
Over time, nicknames evolved into something more social. A nickname was given to you by others in your community, usually based on a trait you possessed, your job, or an experience you had been through. It became a means of describing you as a distinct individual.
For Briffa’s book, an electoral register from the early 1930s proved to be a critical source of information. He also posted about his research on a Facebook group called Muża Karkariża, asking people to give him nicknames they knew about, as well as the explanations or stories behind them. The response was astounding.
Suggestions and stories from the community came pouring in. Often Briffa needed to go through them carefully and conduct his own research. People did not always differentiate fact from hearsay. Other times, they just did not realise certain words were linked,. Take the nickname ‘Paxaxa’. No one seemed to realise that it was an alternative form of paċaċa (a Maltese vulgarity meaning ‘incompetent’ or ‘silly’).
On other occasions, Briffa encountered nicknames with numerous origins. Briffa noted everything he found; ‘I felt I had no authority to choose which was right and which was wrong.’ For example, ‘Tal-Minfuħa’ can refer to physical appearance, since minfuħa means ‘blown up’ in Maltese, but could also refer to personality, since minfuħa can mean that someone is arrogant.
After collecting all these stories, Briffa also looked into the etymology of the words. ‘Some of the names I found had unknown roots. I couldn’t find anything about them in Maltese dictionaries. In those cases, I would go back to Sicilian and Arabic dictionaries to find possible meanings.’ Some nicknames remained elusive. Briffa says he still can’t find the roots of the nickname ‘id-Didunna’. But in successful attempts, Briffa would ‘re-discover’ lost words—an occurrence that gives him joy and motivation.
This ‘linguistic archeology’ is important, Briffa tells us. It links us to an older Maltese culture, reconstructing what language and society sounded like in the past. ‘Ideally every locality would support such publications since they preserve cultural and linguistic wealth. More so, they preserve Maltese identity.’
Dù Theatre are back on stage after an absence of four years. Founder Simone Spiteri speaks to THINK about her newly penned play Repubblika Immakulata co-produced by Spazju Kreattiv, the influences that motivated her to write it, and the importance of using daily language on stage. Words by Franica Pulis.
Repubblika Immakulata revolves around a Maltese family trying to cope, or not, with being involved in a general election, wedding, and local feast all on the same day.
Premju Francis Ebejer winner Simone Spiteri (visiting lecturer, School of Performing Arts) wrote, and is directing, the satirical comedy as an exploration into Maltese identity and the climate of current affairs.
‘So is it about political parties?’ is usually the first question most people blurt out when I’m only a quarter into explaining what Repubblika Immakulata is about,’ Spiteri says. But there is more. ‘The play tries to examine our relationship, locally, to straightforward politics drenched in election fever. But that is only part of the whole. The undeniable can’t be ignored. To say we are a country that is not affected, polarised, brainwashed even, by partisan politics would be a straight out lie. However, isn’t everything else that governs the rest of our lives another type of politics too? Don’t we all form part of smaller communities, and even smaller, family (or similar) units?’ she adds.
In the early days, Spiteri’s focus was always the people rather than the issues at hand. She was also very interested in exploring language.
‘It was a time when most plays in Maltese didn’t tap into the mundanity of how we speak, how we sound, how we behave around each other. I was particularly interested in dissecting naturalistic dialogue. Code-switching from Maltese to English was not something you’d see characters do in most local plays,’ Spiteri points out.
‘I wanted to explore how the understated, rather than the epic and dramatic, worked in our mother tongue on stage and how audiences reacted to that. It was, relatively, a most welcomed effort. Not without the odd purist decrying the meshing of two languages in such a vernacular manner.’
Then, unexpectedly, came five years of writing commissioned plays for young people. It was not something Spiteri thought she could or wanted to do, but it was a challenge that ushered in a new way of thinking about writing. She describes it as a process that demands a thick skin. Young audiences were the toughest to please, she notes. The task demanded her to be exact, precise, and concise.
‘During these years, the niggling thought of going back to writing for an adult audience started bothering me. I didn’t feel the pull to write for pleasure. It felt more like the need to write to purge,’ Spiteri says.
‘There was plenty to write about. Perhaps that was the problem. All I had to do was read the daily papers or scroll through the latest bully-xenophobic-troll infested comment board online.’
‘Or eavesdrop everywhere on conversations between usually sensible individuals parroting away ‘facts’ straight out of a politician (of choice)’s mouth. Or take a stroll anywhere and witness every last speck of green on this tiny rock being gobbled up. Or observe everyone treat one other with some level of impatience, inconsideration, inhumanity. All I had to do was sit somehow and watch this fast-paced, technologically disconnected world pass by… and try to make sense of it.’
Spiteri reports this time in her life as one fraught with frustration, anger, and cynicism. The raw material was there, but moulding it into a play was proving a challenge. ‘I tried a few times, hated the attempt, and threw it away,’ she admits. ‘Then, last summer, the central character of Anon (portrayed by Andrè Agius) somehow popped into my mind and immediately all the disconnected loose ends clicked together.’
‘Here was my pivot to this rapid, sometimes nausea-inducing, merry-go-round. This character, who I didn’t want to define as anything but a voice, who speaks in the play, but you’re not sure is ever heard. Who speaks with authority one minute, but doubts that very same veracity a moment later. Who can be anyone… and no one at the same time. Who, by being there, is a blank canvas for us, upon which we project all those layers of beliefs, self-perceptions, subjective experiences of failure and success as a country, all the divergences of our multifaceted identity,’ Spiteri adds.
That’s how Repubblika Immakulata came to be. But that is not where the writing ends. Currently there is a new writing phase during which the actors imbue the script with their own interpretations during rehearsals. Then, there is the final act of writing: the process of each audience member looking into the metaphoric mirror the theatre stage should always be.
Note: Repubblika Immakulata will be performed at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta in March and April. For more information and tickets visit: www.kreattivita.org/en/event/repubblika-immakulata/
Winner of the National Book Council’s award for Best Novel Loranne Vella has enjoyed an eclectic career, spanning literature, teaching, translation, and theatre, then circling back to literature again. But as Teodor Reljić discovers, her journey across creative modes had its roots at the University of Malta.
It’s not every year that the National Book Council dishes out its annual Best Novel Award to a work of time-hopping speculative fiction. But that’s exactly what happened last December, when Loranne Vella won the award for her novel Rokit (Merlin Publishers), which details the journey of Petrel, a Croatian youth who travels to Malta in search of his family roots, only to find an island ravaged by climate change.
‘With Rokit, Loranne Vella distinguished herself with another prize-winning novel that crosses genre boundaries between adult and young adult fiction,’ wrote National Book Council Chairman Mark Camilleri.
Such a dense and knotted work suggests hard creative labour, which Vella confirms, pointing out that the novel took five years to put together. But one shouldn’t assume that Rokit was all that commanded Vella’s attention in those years, nor that writing is her only chosen pursuit. In fact, she says the process left her hankering to return to performance.
‘I was interested in merging my two artistic passions and experimenting with various possibilities,’ Vella says, explaining how this want led to the Barumbara Collective in 2017, ‘which focuses on collaboration with artists from different spheres.’
As it happens, Vella being awarded the Book Council prize directly coincided with a Barumbara Collective project—the multi-disciplinary performance Verbi: mill-bieb ’il ġewwa.
And while Verbi certainly had a role to play in refreshing Vella’s creative muscles in the here and now, it also channelled key elements of her past experience. The Barumbara Collective is only the latest iteration of Vella’s involvement in the performing arts. The still-active Aleateia Theatre Group was her first and most significant project, beginning as a student project in 1992 and resulting in a generous number of experimental performances held at the Valletta Campus Theatre throughout the nineties and noughties. Vella performed, trained other actors, and documented the group’s progress.
The Barumbara project brought more deep-seated memories back to the fore. ‘With Verbi, I wanted to involve university students from the Department of Digital Arts and the Department of Theatre Studies, seeing how the project was an interdisciplinary one where visual arts, performance and literature come together in one performative installation. I can truly say I was amazed by the hard work done by the students who collaborated. Their enthusiasm reminded me of myself as a student back in the 90s.’
Vella’s own student enthusiasm did not come as immediately as all that, however. While she is now secure in her three-pronged role as writer, performer, and translator (also acknowledging her former role as a lecturer), forging an early path as a student meant first squinting through the fog.
‘It took me quite a while to figure out which were the right subjects for me,’ Vella confesses. ‘Before ‘91, I had spent a year struggling as a BCom student. This course was definitely not for me, contrary to what my teachers and counselor advised me at the time. Before that, I had registered for the one-year-long Foundation Course at university, intended for students like me who couldn’t make up their mind… for a while I was even considering Law…’
It was then that Vella learned about the Theatre Studies Programme, though a couple of years still had to pass for her to take the leap.
‘I guess I finally decided to choose what I was interested in, rather than think too much about what my future profession or career should be.’ The choices in question were Theatre Studies and English, subsequently opting to specialise in Theatre until she finished her MA in 2000.
‘Everything about me, since then, revolves around these two disciplines: theatre and literature.’
These pursuits became an active part of student life for Vella, who loves to turn her passions into more tangible projects. Vella collaborated with fellow Aleateia member Simon Bartolo in establishing Readers & Writers, a literary journal which featured original prose, poetry, and literary criticism. Running for five editions, the journal sowed the seeds for Vella’s future literary output.
‘I was still writing in English back then. It took me almost ten years to start writing stories again, this time in Maltese.’
The breakthrough came in 2004, when Vella began writing the first chapters of what would eventually become Sqaq l-Infern, the first volume of the It-Triloġija tal-Fiddien, together with Simon Bartolo. Like Rokit, the trilogy would be published by Merlin Publishers, and it managed to hit a fresh nerve in the local literary circuit.
Aimed at young readers, the trilogy proved to be a ‘Harry Potter moment’ for the Maltese literary scene. Gr
aced with eye-catching covers by renowned illustrator Lisa Falzon, its mix of local folklore and coming-of-age yarn was met with excitement and healthy sales. The trio was completed by the novels Wied Wirdien (2008) and Il-Ġnien tad-Dmugħ (2009).
‘By the time the third volume came out, Fiddien had a huge following,’ Vella remembers, observing how the trilogy also marked her first shift from theatre to literature. Another influence on this decision was her move to Luxembourg to work as a translator at the European Parliament. The next step in her literary output came in the form of MagnaTMMater, a young adult work of dystopian science fiction published in 2011.
But there was yet another step in the interim to all this—Vella’s stint as a lecturer. For five years, she taught at the University of Malta’s Department of Theatre Studies. ‘This gave me the satisfaction of examining this reality from the opposite side, working with students while keeping in mind the difficulties I had encountered myself.’
Vella had cut her pedagogical teeth much earlier. Right after graduating with a BA Hons in Theatre Studies, Vella taught Drama and English Literature at St Aloysius College. ‘Although I had not studied to become a teacher—it was the last profession I had in mind—I had the right background to teach these two subjects. After a few years at the college, I was teaching only the literature part of the English courses, and I also became responsible for directing the annual school concerts, which became bigger and more ambitious every year,’ Vella says, adding that her time as a teacher left her with many ‘proud moments’.
‘The best of these was perhaps the mobilisation of almost the entire body of students to put up a large scale performance—with orchestra, choir, side-acts, chorus, intermezzo, and all.’
Vella is keen to credit her alma mater with the results of this varied career. She has no trouble stating that ‘everything is connected, and there is a clear connecting line between my years at university and everything else I’ve done since.’
Which begs the question: what advice would she give to current University of Malta students, especially those interested in working in multiple disciplines?
‘Be passionate about the courses you follow. Experiment, explore, be curious. Ask many questions and strive to find answers. Do not just study. Discover. And make that discovery your own.’
A scientist and a linguist board a helicopter, and the scientist says to the linguist, ‘What is the cornerstone of civilisation, science or language?’ It might sound like the opening line of a joke, but it’s actually from the opening sequence of the film Arrival (2016). In the film, aliens have landed on our doorstep, and our scientist and linguist have been chosen as suitable emissaries to establish contact. The scientist, perhaps wishing to size up his new colleague, then poses the question. Whose field has been more important to the advancement of the human race? Science or language?
In reality, they are both wrong (or both half-right). It is true that language was necessary for us to organise as a species, forming complex networks of cooperation over vast distances and time. Without specialising our efforts and collaborating, we could not have built our great structures, supported large communities, or migrated over all continents. Yet, without science, without improving our understanding of the natural world, we would still be at its mercy.
Science is the tool we use to change circumstance. When populations are dying from an infectious disease, we create a vaccine. When we’re unable to grow enough food to support ourselves, we develop a better strain of crop. When we struggle to transport materials over great distances, we create machines that will do it for us. Science is our secret weapon, transforming problems into possibilities. However, science alone means little. If innovation dies with its creator, who does it help? Science must be communicated to others before it can make a difference in any meaningful way.
It would be incomplete to bestow language or science with the title of ‘the cornerstone of civilisation.’ It was science communication that really drove our development. And I don’t just mean this in the external sense. After all, is the transfer of genetic information from one generation to the next not science communication? What are we but a biological game of Chinese Whispers, the message mutating through each host but somehow continuing to make sense over millions of years?
The human race not only benefits greatly from science communication; we are the product of it. It is embedded into our biological and cultural history. Proof that it is not just knowledge but the sharing of knowledge that is the real root of power.
Hopefully the aliens agree.
Author: Amanda Mathieson
In this age of specialisation, finding a niche is key to most people’s career progression. But it is not the only way. Cassi Camilleri sits down with philosopher poet Prof. Joe Friggieri to gain insight into his creative process.
It was a very warm April day when I found myself sitting in front of Prof. Joe Friggieri. My heart was racing—I had just run up three flights of stairs for a rescheduled meeting after having missed our first earlier in the day. I had lost track of time while distributing magazines around campus. My eyes briefly scanned his library, wishing it was mine, then got right down to the business of asking questions.
Friggieri balances between two worlds: the academic and the creative. His series Nisġa tal-Ħsieb, the first history of philosophy in Maltese, is compulsory reading for philosophy students around the island. His collections of poetry and short stories have seen him win the National Literary Prize three times. I ask Friggieri if he separates his worlds in some way. ‘I can’t stop being a philosopher when I’m writing a short story or play. Readers and critics of my work have pointed that out in their reactions,’ he says. ‘I do not necessarily set out to make a philosophical point in my output as a poet, short-story writer, or playwright, but that kind of work can still raise philosophical issues.’
‘Dealing with matters of great human interest—such as love or the lack of it, happiness, joy and sorrow, the fragility of human relations, otherness, and so on—in a language that is markedly different from the one used in the philosophical analysis of such topics can still contribute to that analysis by creating or imagining situations that are close to the experiences of real human beings,’ Friggieri illustrates.
The urge to write
In reality, Friggieri is usually inspired by day-to-day moments, things normally overlooked in today’s loud and busy world. ‘In my literary works, I am inspired by what I see, hear, and feel; by people and events, by what I read about and by what I can remember,’ he says. It could be anything from a news item to a painting, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a piece of music, or a word overheard at a party. ‘All of that can trigger off an idea. Then, when I’m alone, I seek to elaborate the thought and to convey it to others by means of an image or series of images in a poem, or as part of the plot in a short story or play.’
While on the subject of inspiration and starting points, I wondered: how does Friggieri work? First, he swiftly explains his aversion to using computers for his writing. ‘I do all my writing the old-fashioned way,’ he notes. ‘I use pen and paper. I find it much easier to write that way than on my computer. It feels like my thoughts are taking shape literally as I push my pen from left to right across the page. I think with my pen, much in the same way that a concert pianist thinks with her fingers and a painter with her brush. It’s that kind of feeling that makes me want to go on writing.’ At this point, the subject of the Muse comes up. Is this something Friggieri believes in? ‘Waiting for the Muse to inspire you is just a poetic way of saying you need to have something to write about and you’re looking to find the right way of expressing it,’ Friggieri explains. ‘I write when I feel the urge or the need to write,’ he tells me with a smile.
The sheer volume of work Friggieri has built up over the years seems to imply that he writes daily. But in reality, his workflow is more akin to sprints than a marathon. He tells me deadlines are a good motivator for him to write, providing a tangible goal he can work towards. ‘My first two collections of short stories were commissioned as weekly contributions to local newspapers,’ Friggieri says. ‘That’s how ‘Ir-Ronnie’ was born.’ Ir-Ronnie is a man who finds himself overwhelmed by life’s pressures: family, work and everything in between. As he starts to lose touch with reality, ‘ordinary, everyday living becomes an ordeal for him, an obstacle race, a struggle for survival,’ says Friggieri. More recent works, such as his latest collections of short stories—Nismagħhom jgħidu and Il-Gżira l-Bajda u Stejjer oħra—also reflect this realism, exploring the complexity of interpersonal relations between different people from different walks of life. On the other hand, Ħrejjef għal Żmienna (Tales for Our Times) finds its roots in magical realism, which makes these stories a very different experience for his readers. The books have been well received, with translations into English, French, and German. Paul Xuereb, who worked on the English translation, described the tales as ‘drawing on the dream-world and waking reveries to suggest the ambiguity and often vaguely perceived reality of our lives.’
The Creative Philosopher
When it comes to talking about his other works and creativity, Friggieri often refers to language. When I asked him about his thoughts on creativity and whether he believed everyone to be ‘creative’, his response was positive. ‘As human beings, we are all, up to a point and in some way, creative,’ he says. A prime example is humanity’s use of language. ‘Think of the way we use language. Dictionaries normally tell you how many words they contain, but there’s no way you can count the number of sentences you can produce with those words. Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules. In a very real sense, every individual uses language creatively, in a way that is very much his or her own. I think the best way to understand what creativity is all about is to start from this very simple fact.’
Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules.
Is Friggieri creative when he writes his philosophical papers? ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘Each kind of writing has its own characteristic features. But creativity is involved in all of them.’ With philosophy, ‘you need more time,’ he notes. ‘You need to know what others have said about the subject, so it involves researching the topic before you get down to saying what you think about it. When it comes to writing a poem or play, you’re much freer to say what you like, much less constrained.’
In fact, Friggieri has five plays under his belt. Here is where the two worlds of academia and creative writing merge. ‘In three of my five full-length plays, I make use of historical characters (Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Socrates) to highlight a number of issues in ethics and aesthetics that are still very much alive today,’ says Friggieri. Taking L-Għanja taċ-Ċinju (Swansong) as an example, Friggieri explains how ‘Socrates defends himself against his accusers by raising the same kind of moral issues one finds in Plato’s Apology. The Michelangelo and Caravaggio plays, on the other hand, highlight important questions in aesthetics, such as the value of art, the relation between art and society, the presence of the artist in the work, the difference between good and bad art, and the mark of genius.’
Talking of theatre, Friggieri remembers how, before writing his first play, he had directed several performances. This was where he learnt the trade and what it meant to have a good production. ‘I have also had the good fortune of working with a group of dedicated actors from whom I learnt a lot. In my view, one should spend some time working in theatre before starting to write for it.’
As time was pressing, and the sun was starting to move away from its opportune place in the window, I asked Friggieri one last question, the one I had been obviously itching to ask. What advice does he have for writers? The answer I got was one I should have expected. ‘Budding writers should write. Then they should show their work to established practitioners in the field. The first attempts are always awkward. As time goes by, one learns to be less explicit and more controlled, to use images to express one’s thoughts where poetry is concerned, to develop an ear for dialogue if one is writing a play, to produce well-rounded characters in a novel, construct interesting plots, and so on. All this takes time, but it will be worth the effort in the end.’ And with that, we had the perfect closing.
Author: Cassi Camilleri