It’s that time of the year again when the judges of the National Book Prize start going through stacks of books published in the previous year to select just a few to include in the prestigious National Book Prize shortlist. The finalists are then announced in September as part of the marketing campaign leading up to the Malta Book Festival.
The judging process for this year’s National Book Prize is going to be tough as usual. As the years pass, local writers are becoming more prolific and their work is becoming even more daring and creative. Last year’s prize for the novels category went to Jutta Heim by Immanuel Mifsud and published by Klabb Kotba Maltin, which surprisingly enough was the author’s first published novel.
Mifsud faced stiff competition, yet his first ever published novel ticked all the judges’ boxes. In a story set in Malta in the 1980s, a married Maltese man falls in love with a young German waitress while he is on a business trip in Berlin. He ends up sending her love letters without ever receiving a reply, yet just like Florentino Ariza in Gabo’s mythical novel Love in the Time of the Cholera, Mifsud’s main character keeps hoping he will one day reunite with the woman of his dreams.
Jutta Heim is an interesting addition to local literature; it is set in a period which authors are increasingly trying to address in their stories. The great thing about good local literature addressing the 1980s is that it is not didactic and judgmental.
Good literature presents the 1980s in a genuinely personal perspective which political or historical literature overloaded with bias and judgmental overtones may be unable to offer. This was also partly the reason for the success of Alex Vella Gera’s prize-winning novel Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi in 2013. With his novel, Vella Gera succeeded in presenting the perspectives and realities surrounding a hardcore right-wing group and the inevitable bourgeois society within which the group functioned without lapsing into any patronising overtones.
Mark Vella’s debut novel X’seta’ ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo? is also an interesting addition to the young and small yet growing canon of literature set against the backdrop of the 1980s. Vella’s story starts during the height of the Government-Church dispute over Church schools in the 1980s and continues through the 1990s with the story revolving around the mystery of an autistic child gone missing during the tumultuous years of the 1980s.
Women, a rare breed in the community of Maltese authors, made a strong statement in last year’s National Book Prize and I have no doubt that the gender imbalance in this sector is closing up faster than ever expected. Maria Grech Ganado, one of Malta’s most popular poets and literary giants was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding contribution to Maltese literature with her distinctive poetic voice. The spirit of Grech Ganado’s poems are well known to the avid local reader. Some of her poems, which sound like they are being intoned by a palpably distraught and hurt female voice, remind me of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Grech Ganado also won the National Book Prize in the Poetry category for her anthology Taħt il-kpiepel t’għajnejja thus leaving the ceremony with literally a trophy in each hand.
Clare Azzopardi, the young and rising star of Maltese literature also left last year’s National Book Prize ceremony with a trophy in her hand. Azzopardi secured the prize in the short stories category with her collection of short-stories Kullħadd ħalla isem warajh published by Merlin publishers. Each story in this book is an account of a woman, some of which are narrated by the main character herself in the first person. Azzopardi has also very recently been honoured with the title of “New Voice from Europe” by Literature Across Frontiers during the 2016 London Book Fair back in April.
Giving more weight to my claim that the gender imbalance in the local literary scene is closing in is the fact that this year’s Literature for Youth contest organised by the National Book Council in collaboration with Aġenzija Zghazagħ was also won by two women writers, Roberta Bajada and Rita Saliba. Saliba was even short-listed for the National Book Prize last year in the short stories category with her collection Satin published by Horizons, an emerging publishing house which is carving its niche in the local literary setting. Leanne Ellul who won the Literature for Youth contest in the previous year along with Stephen Lughermo is also an author to watch out for. Ellul’s winning novel Gramma is a story about anorexia, body image and weight issues prevalent amongst young teenagers.
Paul Zahra, competing with a previous and regular prize-winning translator Anthony Aquilina, secured last year’s National Book Prize in the translation category with his Maltese translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô. Apparently, Zahra has willingly opted to spend his days in a perpetual state of suffering and turmoil since, as luck would have it, he has recently started translating Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu from the original French into Maltese. We, at the National Book Council wish Zahra all the luck in the world with this difficult and gruelling enterprise.
Last year’s prize for the historiography section was secured by the esteemed and prolific historian Frans Ciappara with his voluminous masterpiece, The Social and Religious History of a Maltese Parish: St Mary’s Qrendi in the Eighteenth Century. Ciappara’s book had been crucial in filling what is unfotunately a large gap in Malta’s social-history and one can only hope that Ciappara’s future contributions continue along the same line. The prize for the general research Category was secured by a newcomer, Michael Refalo, with his book The Maltese Nineteenth-Century Notary and his Archives. Refalo, a retired notary and a PhD from the University of Malta has proven to be a meticulous researcher with an eye for detail.
As the judges get on with their work, we can only wait in anticipation to have revealed to us this year’s star. The list of participants for this year’s National Book Prize may be found online on our website http://www.ktieb.org.mt. Can you guess who this year’s winners will be?