Immanuel Mifsud is a very well-known Maltese writer. Moreover, he is considered to be the leading writer of the Maltese Generation-X. He started to write when he was sixteen, both prose and poetry. Some of his works have been translated and published in a number of European countries and USA. He also worked with experimental theatre groups, directing his own plays and later works by Chekhov, Dario Fo, Max Frisch, Federico Garcia Lorca, Harold Pinter, etc.
Immanuel Mifsud was a guest of the International Literature Festival in Bucharest. On the 3rd of December, together with the Italian writer Andrea Bajani and the Romanian authors Mihai Radu and M. Duţescu, in an event moderated by Luminița Corneanu, the Romanian audience had the chance to meet the Maltese writer for the first time. The next day, we saw each other in a cafe and talked about one of his books, that that won the European Union Prize for Literature and has been recently translated in Romanian (by Denisa Duran), In the Name of the Father (and of the Son), published at Polirom Publishing House. In addition, he kindly answered questions regarding the Maltese literary scene, why did he choose to write in Maltese and not in English, how did he become a writer, what’s his guilty pleasure, what does it mean for him, as a writer, to win the European Union Prize for Literature and many other things.
Immanuel Mifsud is an excellent writer and a very warm person, so I am thankful I had the opportunity to talk with him and I hope you’ll enjoy this interview.
Pentru versiunea în limba română, click aici.
Malta is a very exotic place for us, the Romanians. And I have to confess that I really don’t know very much about it. Can you tell us a little bit about the Maltese contemporary writers, respectively the Maltese literary scene?
To start with, Maltese literature is a very young literature. Basically, it was a population which was ruled by foreign powers forever. Until 1964, when they got independence from the British. Because of this, there were very serious problems with national identity, which was made even worse because of the position in which Malta is – at crossroads, between the Christian Europe and Muslim Africa, between Africa and Europe and so on.
This is just a very small introduction to why the Maltese literature is so young. The few people who were educated were very Italophile and so they spoke Italian, they thought Italian and they wrote in Italian. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century when some of them started to write in Maltese. At the beginning of the twentieth century, we had some real writing in Maltese. It was a period of very high romanticism, nationalism – which, of course, compared to the rest of Europe, it was one hundred years behind, but you have to keep in mind the proper situation of the island – and then, in the 1960s, there was what we call „the culture of revolution” – nowadays, the term is questioned, but that’s what the people call it at the time. They broke away with the romantic ideas, became very harsh critiques of the nation – it was the time when Malta was gaining independence, there were a lot of question marks.
If we were to look at the last hundred of years, you can see that there are, basically, three main periods: the first one, when they had to start literature literally from scratch, then this 1960s thing, when writers tried to get literature in sync with what was happening in Europe – in West, to be precise, not anywhere else – and then, there was my generation and the one after us, who were already born in an independent country and we started to consider ourselves like any other European nation. We are much more interested than the others before us in exporting our literature outside the country.
Immanuel Mifsud (the first from the right) receiving the European Union Prize for Literature, in 2011 – via
You are considered the leading writer of the Maltese Generation-X. What does it mean to you? Do you agree with having this „label”?
No, I think I’m not the leading writer at all, there are other writers more valuable than me. Well, it is true that I was the first from my generation who spoke very frankly about certain issues which where not tackled before. I lived my youth in the 1980s, a horrible period in Malta because of the political background, and I started to write about those issues that were considered a taboo, no one spoke about them then because they were still very recent, people felt scared to talk about them, maybe. But I don’t consider myself the leading writer.
As for the Generation-X „label” yes, I am part of that generation. It’s a fact.
Was it hard for you to find your own voice in such a diverse literature? And why did you choose to write in Maltese and not in English? It would have opened you many doors…
Definitely, it was pretty hard to find my own voice. It’s also a problem the fact that we are a very small country, in the South of Europe. And, you know, living on an island it’s an extremely great misfortune…
On many accounts. Let’s give just one example: you always have to travel by airplane – which makes it not impossible, but very difficult, uncomfortable, expensive. Now it’s not that bad, because of the internet, but think about one hundred years ago: how could people know what was happening in Romania, for example? Which is why we have to appreciate more the writers from that period.
Going back to your first questions, it would have been much easier if I wrote in English. Why didn’t I? Because Maltese was my language, the one that I spoke home, with my mother and my father – I come from the working class and all of the working class spoke Maltese -, and I can’t imagine writing in English. I simply can’t. Not even now.
Maybe, at some point, it was a political stand the one that I took, nowadays it is more pragmatic. It’s true it’s even more difficult for the Maltese writers, they have to be translated, they have to have very good translators and then it starts the real problem, something next to impossible: to be noticed by foreigners and, eventually, being published. In this respect, I was very lucky: I had good translators and I happened to be at the right place and time. Of course, I worked very hard for it, as my colleagues did. For example, when you are introduced as being a Maltese writer, you get all sorts of reactions – Oh, and you write in Italian? No, we are not Italian. Ah, and you have a language? Yes, we have a language. What is your language? And so on.
To sum up, English is not my language, that’s why I write in Maltese, even if it’s very hard.
Very recently, the Romanian translation of one of your books, In the Name of the Father (and of the Son), was published at Polirom Publishing House. What did you know about Romania when you first heard about the translation?
I have a love relation with the ex-communist countries. I always had this impression – which is possible to be a construction – that, when you come to ex-communist countries, you are dealing with great arts, specially when it comes to literature and film. I always had this fascination for these countries. Not Romania as such – whenever I speak about these countries I think about Poland and Czechoslovakia.
When I was very little, the only thing that I knew about Romania was that Ceaușescu came to Malta. With his wife, of course. I don’t remember what he was doing there, I was just three years old. The next thing I remember is that Romania had a very good football team, which (almost, Ed.) won a World Cup. And then, of course, 25 years ago, the very incredible story – I still find it fascinating -, when people started contesting Ceaușescu. I didn’t know the whole story but, in my impression, it was something of a spontaneous end of a dictatorship. When I started reading about it, I saw there were many ifs and buts. Maybe that says something about Romanians. I heard about this new Romanian president that just won the elections against all odds and I thought that this is the Romanian type, maybe they like to change it all from now and then.
Well, besides these, I also heard about Enescu, the famous composer, the absurd playwright, Ionescu, and the football player whose name I can’t remember right now.
Ah, yes. I’m not too good with sports.
The title of your book, In the name of the Father (and of the Son), has strong religious connotations (Psalms). A little bit risky, I would say. Were you considered a heretic?
Of course that the title has strong religious tones, but it also expresses the thoughts provoked by Lacan with his concept, The name of the Father, and there are, in the book, very strong Lacanian influences. So, the choosing of the title had more to do with Lacan rather than with the religious interpretation.
To be very honest, I wasn’t sure about the title myself, but I couldn’t imagine another one, a better one. I also thought I should change it, but I didn’t find anything else. Of course, as one can see, the „son” bit is in brackets because he is an afterthought to the whole book.
This is a book in which a son, the teller, revisits both his father’s tomb and his diary, and tries to understand him, his past and their relationship. It’s written in the first and second person singular and it’s an intense book. As a reader, I’ve been constantly trapped in interpreting it as an autobiography, even if this is not the „label” with which it is presented. Is it an autobiography? Are there bits of yourself in it?
There are a lot of bits of myself in it! The diary does exist, it was my father’s. My father was born in the 1920s, in a very working class family, his father died when he was still very young – he must have been twelve – and he went to work to support his family. So, he became street wise. Those years made him very tough and he developed this very macho personality (masculinity, force, power), which is very obvious in the book. Moreover, at eighteen years old he went in the army, he became a soldier just because he had no other options in life.
By chance, when he was very old, I discovered this diary – in my view, this diary is not that macho, as it should have been. He couldn’t speak proper English, but he wrote it in English, with many mistakes – all of which I let there, in the book. So, this part is true.
Why didn’t I call it an autobiography or a memoir? Because, as you know, the book is a pastiche of things, which is in the tradition of postmodernity – that resists the idea of definition, genre, voice, narrator and so on.
I took a big risk with this book, it was very different from anything I have written before…
True, but it is not the first time. You took risks with others books, too.
Yes, but those were political or social risks, now it was a literary one.
The son also speaks from a father’s perspective – because he has a baby too. It’s a very complicated and sophisticated construction, with prose and poetry, descriptions, statements, bits of powerful images, politics, psychoanalysis, literature, feminism, religion and so much more. And when you think it is such a short book… it’s amazing, I don’t have a term of comparison. I’m interested in how you wrote it. And, if you were to categorize it, in what kind of literary genre would you put it?
Let me start with the last question. Honestly, I don’t know where to put it. I have a story suitable for that. Like all countries, we have the National Award. In 2011, it was a National Award for Poetry, one for Prose, for children’s literature, non-fiction, religious books, etc. Basically, the jury didn’t know where to put my book. So they put it with the non-fiction books, together with three cookery books and I can’t remember what other kinds of books. It won a cookery book. First, there was a discussion regarding the fact that my book won the European Award, but not the National one. I said that this was not an argument because there were different sets of criteria. The problem was that, in this section, this book competed with cookery books. A little bit inappropriate, let’s say. My publishers found it very offensive.
So, I must confess I don’t know where to put the book. Maybe we shouldn’t try to do that. It’s a book and that’s it.
How did I write? I wrote it in an extremely short time – a month, maybe, and I must clarify that I’m not a full time writer, I go to work and write afterwards -, it was an explosion of very old emotions, I think. I knew the content of the diary for a long period, I wanted to do something with it, but I didn’t know what exactly. I kept postponing the actual decision. My father died in the meantime. During his funeral, I thought about it very much and, the next day, I started to write.
Immanuel Mifsud (the fourth from left to right) at the International Literature Festival in Bucharest
The teller’s father is very angry with him when he’s crying, telling him he’s strong enough not to do it, that it’s shamefulness. It’s a stereotype, a common attitude towards a man’s behavior – not necessarily that crying it’s shamefulness, but surely it proves a sort of weakness. Have you ever been seen as a weak person, taking into account that you are a writer, a poet, a man who „plays” with emotions?
At one point or another, this feminine part crops up because many people believe that I have a very strong female voice. Many people observed that my women characters are much more prominent than the male ones – which makes this book even a more powerful exception. I was told, by women readers, that they could identify with my characters, that they seem real women, not constructed ones. This was one of the main contentions of early feminist literary criticism about the male writing, they said their women were unreal. How I manage to do this? I have honestly no idea. But there was a period of time – two years – when I read only women writers. By then, I had already been told what I said earlier. Anyway, maybe it’s because of the fact that I was very attached of my mother, my sisters, my aunts. But I don’t think I have been seen as a weak person because of this.
By the way, towards the end of the book, we read about the son who becomes a father. He assists his son’s birth and faces a lot of feelings. His role is to cut the navel string, „detaching” the child from his mother, a symbolic gesture. I’ve never seen it this way. Can you share with us more about it?
Well, I had to do it. It’s a real life experience. The midwife told me: You’re the father, you do it! And I said no. I was afraid. But, because she insisted, I did it. It was an easy thing to do, but it made me think a lot about it. Of course, there are Freudian influences in those passages.
When you hear about a delivery, you immediately think about the mother. Never the father. Even when we speak about the postpartum psychology, the postnatal depression, it comes to mind the mother’s figure. We never think of the father, of what he feels and what are his thoughts. I confess, I was very affected by the birth of my son. Sometimes, I think I still am. It’s a huge change, at least from my point of view. Maybe because I’m too sensitive or dramatic. But, if you start talking to men, you’ll see it differently. Let me give you an example.
I receive e-mails from people, telling me that they read a book of mine, that they really enjoyed it and so on. Many of those readers are women. But for this book, there were a lot of men who wrote me, telling me that they identified with my experience. One particular e-mail was truly special, I never got a similar one from an unknown person. He told me that he was reading my book for the third time and that he wanted to tell me something more: that he read my book in the bathroom because he was afraid that his wife will notice the tears that he had in his eyes.
I didn’t expect it!
No, I didn’t expect it!
We got to the part with the European Union Prize for Literature, which you received for this book, in 2011. Did you expect such a distinction? What did it bring to you, as a writer?
No, I was not expecting it, as I was trying to tell you earlier. Every three or four years, this prize is given to a country. Malta was, for the first time, in turn. The prize is made official in November, but you are told in June-July and you should tell no one. They do it because there are some preparations to made before it. I was called and had to go to a meeting, in a cafe similar to this. They told me why they wanted to speak with me. I was more than surprised, I didn’t even know this prize existed for Malta.
When you win the award, you are told many beautiful things. For example, that this will create possibilities for publication abroad. And I think the intention is that. In my case, it didn’t work. I didn’t get any translations because of that. The contracts that I had were through other channels.
The Maltese edition of the book In the name of the Father (and of the Son)
You started to write from an early age. What determined you to become a writer?
This is one question that I am always embarrassed to answer.
How did it all start? When I was a little boy, I enjoyed when the teacher told us to go home and write a story. I hated Maths and anything that had to do with numbers, even to this day. When I go to buy something, I never check the change, I just put it in the pocket. So, I was in the seventh heaven when the teacher told us to write a story. Maybe it was back then, but the real thing started when I was sixteen, in high school – you know, adolescence, the period when you are trying to come to terms with life; I was going through a wild experimentation of life, doing all sort of things. One day, this classmate of mine came and said that he wrote a poem. And I answered: What? You wrote a poem? What are you talking about? He told me again and asked me if I wanted to read it. As if I was high, I took his poem and tore it. I can’t believe, even now, that I did this thing. He just stood there and looked horrified, scandalized, hurt at me. I don’t blame him. Then, I went home and said to myself that, if he could write a poem, then I could too. That’s how it started. Not in a nice way. I never say him name, he is an important political figure right now.
After this, I had the cheek not only to start writing poems, but also to tell everyone, including him, that I do so. And I founded a literary group – he was conducting it, but he had to do everything I said to him. I am ashamed of myself, but I also think that, when you give an interview, you either answer the questions or you don’t give the interview.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I don’t think it’s guilty, but I’ll tell you: I very rarely miss a match of my hometown team. It surprises many people, they think that intellectuals don’t watch football matches and don’t go to the stadium. But I like it, I like my team and my town – which never stood up for anything, except the fact that it has the largest church and cemetery and the only prison in Malta. The football team is very prominent. My childhood friends went on different paths, but we still meet at matches. I also like the idea of crowds and their psychology, I think they are fascinating!
Photo credit for the main picture