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The City and the Writer: In Valletta, Malta with Nadia Mifsud

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Nadia Mifsud.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Valletta as you feel/see it?

Baroque is the first word that comes to mind. Valletta is a bustling yet serene city in the daytime; at night, it is amazingly quiet, near-deserted. It is utterly bewitching. Intrinsically Mediterranean.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

One of the most heartbreaking memories was April 13, 2003. There were celebrations all over the city because the Nationalist Party had just won the elections, which implied that Malta would be able to join the EU. It was also supposed to be my first wedding anniversary, but I had separated from my husband some weeks before. I was with my parents and we kept bumping into relatives and friends of theirs, and everyone kept wishing me a happy anniversary and asking me what it felt like to be a married woman. It didn’t take me long to realize that my dad hadn’t told anybody that I was no longer with my husband. In fact, he couldn’t bring himself to do it—he must have been scared people might judge me. Divorce was still not legal back then. It made me realize just how conservative Malta could be, and why I had always wanted to leave. I still have this image of myself standing in a crowd of beaming faces, feeling utterly lonely and wondering whether Malta’s entry into the EU would actually change anything. Fortunately, it did. Divorce became legal in July 2011, and Parliament approved a law permitting civil unions and gay adoption in 2014. That’s a huge step forward for this country. People’s attitudes are changing.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Recent archeological studies have uncovered an intricate web of tunnels under the city—a vast maze of wells and reservoirs, sewers and war shelters that very few people know about. I haven’t had the opportunity of peeping inside this subterranean Valletta yet—the tunnels are not open to the public—but I like to pace through the streets imagining all kinds of strange happenings going on in this mysterious underworld. Another extraordinary detail is Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John in St. John’s Co-Cathedral. It is Caravaggio’s largest painting, and the only one that bears his signature (discernible in the blood spilling from the saint’s throat!). It is a truly haunting masterpiece. Of course, it is one of the main tourist attractions in Valletta, but I wonder how many locals have actually had a close look at it.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Rużar Briffa, a major figure in twentieth-century Maltese literature, was born in Valletta and lived here most of his life. He was a specialist in skin diseases, and poetry was something very personal for him. He would write his poems on the inner part of used cigarette packets, paper bags, medical prescriptions . . . Indeed, his texts would never have been published had it not been for his wife and a friend of his who edited a posthumous collection of his works. I feel close to Briffa for various reasons: like him, I tend to perceive poems as impressions or snapshots of everyday life; like him, I tend to brood over a thought for months or even years until one fine day, it all comes out and there’s no stopping it. Unfortunately, I don’t believe his poems have been translated into English or any other language. In fact, Maltese literature has only started to be translated recently. This is quite understandable considering how small a country Malta is; however, it also saddens me greatly because we have many extraordinary writers who deserve more exposure. Among our best contemporary writers are Immanuel Mifsud, Adrian Grima, Mario Azzopardi, Clare Azzopardi, Maria Grech Ganado, Oliver Friggieri, Trevor Zahra, Simone Inguanez, Karl Schembri, Walid Nabhan, Pierre J. Mejlak, Norbert Bugeja, Antoine Cassar, and Claudia Gauci. Some of these writers’ works are now available in translation.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Upper Barrakka Gardens. There’s one spot there that I particularly cherish: I look to the right and I see the apartment in Floriana, very close to St. Publius Church, where my paternal grandparents used to live; I look to my left and I see the Three Cities, that’s where I grew up. Far in the distance, I can just make out the playground in Cospicua, across the road from St. Theresa Church and overlooking the Vittoriosa yacht marina, where my cousins and I used to play hopscotch while our grandmother chatted away with neighbors and friends. It feels like an embrace to have all my childhood years in just one glance. Incidentally, these gardens were also one of Rużar Briffa’s favorite places and he wrote several poems here.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Just outside Valletta, the Msida Bastion Historic Garden serves as a setting each year for the Malta Mediterranean Festival, which hosts both local and international writers. This festival is the most important literary event in the Maltese Islands, and the venue itself is quite unique. It used to be a Protestant cemetery, and is the resting place of Mikiel Anton Vassalli, the “father” of the Maltese language, which makes it a most befitting place for an event that aims to promote contemporary Maltese literature. There’s something magical about listening to poets as they read their works in this peaceful environment while the sun sets on Pietà Creek.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

When the city was built in the mid-sixteenth century, the official name given by the Order of St. John was Humilissima Civitas Valletta—The Most Humble City of Valletta. It didn’t take long, however, for it to be nicknamed Superbissima. I actually think it’s both. It is often described as an open museum, and yes, it is one of the architectural showpieces of Europe and a World Heritage Site. However, one’s experience of Valletta is not complete unless one visits its backstreets. There you’ll discover old alleyways, abandoned palazzi, decrepit shops with flaking wooden fronts, houses with traditional wooden balconies that have been left to stand derelict, niches of Catholic saints adorning every street corner. The shop signs in Strait Street are a fascinating testimony to its reputation as the seediest street in town up until the 1960s. Multistoried apartment blocks huddle together in the area known as “il-Mandraġġ.” It is quite remarkable that you can find all this in a city that measures less than one square kilometer!

Where does passion live here?

I’d say in the festivities that seem to take possession of the city at various times of the year. Take Carnival, for example—one big, extravagant explosion of colors and loud celebrations. Or the Notte Bianca, which is usually held in September or October. Religious feasts and processions are yet another example, as is the Malta Jazz Festival, which is held every July at Ta’ Liesse. Another embodiment of passion are the supporters of the local football club, who spill their joy all over the place when their team wins the Maltese Premier League. Valletta is a vibrant city—there’s always something going on.

What is the title of one of your works about Valletta and what inspired it exactly?

I left Malta when I was twenty-two, and I have been living in France ever since, so when I returned it was quite weird but pretty exciting for me to be like a tourist in a city that I thought I knew quite well. I would wander the streets for hours on end, notebook or camera in hand, and I guess it was the first time I was actually seeing the city for what it really was. I guess that’s also when I fell in love with it. I didn’t actually think much of Valletta when I lived on the island, but suddenly it felt like the city kept creeping into my poems, serving as a kind of background. It was only very recently that I wrote a poem in which Valletta is actually the main protagonist. I’m still looking for a suitable title for it, but it arose from this deep need to try to move beyond the city’s postcard beauty and capture some of its hidden sounds and scents.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Valletta does an outside exist?”

In Maltese, we refer to Valletta as “il-Belt,” which literally means “the city.” I guess the expression itself denotes clearly the place that Valletta occupies in our minds and in our lives. Yet leaving was, and still is, a necessity for me. It somehow helps me to grasp the subtleties of the city much better than when I lived on the island. Coming back, however, is always a pleasure and also crucial for my personal development. Somewhere in my heart I know I harbor this secret hope that in the future I may be able to write about Valletta from an insider’s perspective!

Nadia Mifsud was born in Malta in 1976. She moved to France over sixteen years ago, and is currently living in Lyon. Żugraga, her first collection of verse written in Maltese, was published in December 2009. Her second collection of poems, Kantuneira ’I boghod, was published in 2015. Her other works have appeared in various anthologies. Mifsud works as a literary translator. She has translated into French the works of some of the best contemporary Maltese poets and fiction writers, including Immanuel Mifsud, Maria Grech Ganado, Karl Schembri, Claudia Gauci, Simone Inguanez, and Pierre J. Mejlak. Her translation into French of Immanuel Mifsud’s latest novel, In the Name of the Father (and of the Son), was published by Gallimard in 2015. Mifsud is involved in various programs—both in France and Malta—that aim to encourage reading among children and adults alike. She is also a member of Inizjamed, Malta’s leading cultural organization. It regularly holds literary encounters and performances for emerging Maltese writers working in collaboration with local and international artists; plays a crucial role in the publication of Maltese literature, especially poetry, in the original and in translation; and organizes an annual Mediterranean Literature Festival, which has become the most important literary event in the Maltese Islands.  

Published Jul 13, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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