Despite challenging market realities for local publishing houses, and readership rates that are none too encouraging, the accomplishments of Maltese literature are nothing to scoff at. Writers keep slogging away at their craft, and stoic publishers battle the odds each and every year by releasing more and more eclectic (and often handsomely bound) works.
While the Maltese language naturally takes pride of place when it comes to Malta’s literary output, the island’s bilingual realities are increasingly leaving their mark on literature. To slake the curiosity of international readers eager for a taste of the Maltese literary scene, here’s a selection of some fine contemporary Maltese prose and poetry written in English.
The Confectioner’s Daughter, by Lou Drofenik
Winner of the National Book Prize for Best Novel in 2017, Lou Drofenik’s multi-generational tale of Maltese migration stems directly from the author’s own experience as a Maltese migrant living in Australia, and is illumined with a nostalgic glow for postwar Malta, the details of which prove most absorbing. Make no mistake – The Confectioner's Daughter is a yarn meant to suck you in; you’ll find very little postmodern irony here. But those yearning to be transported to the Malta of yore, and keen to vicariously experience Maltese migration, would do well to pick up Drofenik’s seventh novel.
Framed, by Maria Grech Ganado
The standard-bearing Merlin Publishers made an exception with Framed, breaking their “no poetry” rule to publish a collection by Maria Grech Ganado, among the island’s most enduring and beloved bards. The witty, eclectic volume is a testament to Ganado’s sensitivity and versatility; here’s a writer who can take on any number of subjects while remaining true to her distinctive voice right up until the finish line.
Shadows in Penumbra, by Lillian Sciberras
A respected poet as well as a longtime librarian, Lillian Sciberras delighted many with her debut novel Shadows in Penumbra back in 2016. Among her champions was communications scholar Gorg Mallia, who described the novel as having “a smell of unanswered questions and indefinite time.” Situated within the confines of Sciberras’s beloved library setting, Shadows in Penumbra is actually a series of loosely connected stories – character biographies, really – that weave into each other, evoking the fluid, barely perceptible passage of time as it really is.
Barefoot in the Saltpans, by Daniel Massa
Daniel Massa is a titan of Maltese poetry. And while an official English translation of his most iconic poem, “Delimara,” has yet to appear, Barefoot in the Saltpans offers an excellent and evocative immersion in his work. Subtitled simply “Poetry Mediterranean,” the collection heaves with the sea-salt atmosphere that rings the island, and is distinguished in part by Massa’s deft infusion of classical references into the Maltese landscape.
The Maltese Bestiary, by Stephan D. Mifsud
Neither a work of fiction nor nonfiction, but something that straddles both, Mifsud’s book is well-encapsulated by its cover’s description: “An illustrated guide to the mythical flora and fauna of the Maltese islands.” Indeed, The Maltese Bestiary provides a showcase of monstrous creatures (illustrated by the author himself) culled from Maltese folklore. A biologist by profession, Mifsud cleverly constructs the book as a work of pseudozoology, adopting a mock-serious tone throughout as he sets about describing the weird flora and fauna of Maltese superstition with the same earnestness a scientist would employ in tackling a bona fide subject. A true revelation for anyone eager to wander through a rogues’ gallery of Malta’s (imagined) bêtes noires.
BONUS: Bormla Babes, by Gerard James Borg
Now that we’ve regaled you with a selection of fine English-language literary material to emerge from the Maltese Isles in recent years, it’s only fair that we plonk some pulp atop the treasure. Riding the wave of his sensationalistic novels Sliema Wives and Madliena Married Men – and apparently keen to adopt an alliterative title – Gerard James Borg, who cut his (rather too shiny) teeth penning Eurovision ditties, tried his hand at the Maltese version of Showgirls. The result is largely what you’d expect – albeit with a few surprises.
Bormla Babes relates how a clutch of competitive would-be singers hailing from the titular Maltese harbor town backstab and shag their way to the top. The top of what, you ask? Why, the Eurovision Song Contest – representing Malta, of course!
Clunkily written but loaded with the kind of juicy details that can only come from real-life experience, Bormla Babes may not make for the most refined addition to the corpus of Maltese literature. Yet as a snapshot of one particular aspect of Maltese society – the tension aspiring singers feel between artistic dedication and the desire to succeed at all costs – it is at least of some anthropological interest!
Plus, for anyone wanting to know more about the area in which AUM is located, it boasts added appeal!
Be sure to check out Part II of this two-part series for an overview of notable Maltese-language works of fiction and poetry available in English translation!