Monthly Archives: June 2017

The readership rate conundrum

The recently released Arts Council and the National Statistics Office Cultural Participation Survey shows a 44% figure for persons who have read at least one whole book during the last 12 months. The survey on cultural participation is based on a sample of around 1,000 positive replies approximately divided per capita, according to Malta’s regions. The survey is on whether people have read a book, went to the cinema or a film-screening, listen to the radio, visited an art gallery, watched a play or engaged in these same cultural activities and others, including parish feasts.

This survey is a commendable yet rare exercise. Scientific surveys on culture are always welcome and Etienne Caruana at NSO, who for years has coordinated cultural statistics, should be commended for his work. Admittedly, public functionaries in education and culture have to work with a dearth of statistical data and scientific studies and the work of professionals like Caruana should be intensified and extended both at a central level, meaning at NSO, and in ministries and public entities. Since the Cultural Participation Survey is a rare exercise, it is even more important to commission other surveys on culture to obtain the best scientific result possible. One can easily cast doubts on aspects of the results of a survey if it stands alone, without being corroborated with other surveys on the same subject.

I would not be so fast as to jump to pessimistic conclusions on the basis of the 44% figure. As a matter of fact, I have some doubts about its accuracy, although I might be proved wrong if more surveys are commissioned and they all corroborate the same figure. Still, the Eurobarometer survey of 2013 had marked a 55% readership rate of books, recording an increase of 10% from the 2007 figure. The increasing readership rate was then corroborated with an increasing trend in book consumption and imports. Thus, overall we had very good reasons why to be optimistic of readership rates and book consumption.

The new 44% figure does not decrease my optimism. One has to admit that the same Cultural Participation Survey gives reasons to be optimistic. The survey indicates that it is the young who form the greatest chunk of the reading population. If the young generation is more likely to read books than their progenitors, then an upward trend in readership rates could be in the offing. This argument can be challenged by the fact that once young people have children, they might abandon many of their activities.

We also still have to wait to see the full benefits of the massive literacy and reading campaigns which have been initiated at a primary school level by the previous Labour administration. The National Book Council has played a small and yet crucial role in this strategy by giving out free book tokens to school children who attend the Book Festival in November and ensuring that the Festival inspires a positive outlook to reading and books in children and young teenagers.

School and class libraries are also being filled to the brim with books. The raison d’etre behind this drive is simple: catch them when they are young. Promoting the importance of reading and books to the general public is still a government priority and this is how the National Book Council comes into the formula. This is why under my chairmanship, the Book Council has spent considerable sums of its budgets in both print and online media, TV programmes, and even adverts and marketing drives on social media.

The survey also gives us the possibility to ask more questions and this is another reason why more detailed surveys are needed. Assuming both the Eurobarometer and the Cultural Participation are accurate, is there a chunk of readers who may read books intermittently according to what books are published? Fifty Shades of Grey might be a case a point.

If one were to assume this survey is accurate, then surely this should serve as a wake-up call for the government to increase exponentially the budget for the National Book Council. Under the previous Nationalist administrations, the book industry was all but ignored on a policy level, with the result that most of the cultural funding went to theatre, music and other cultural sectors, leaving the book sector completely out. Catching up with lost time and opportunity is difficult when the priorities had been set before one comes to office. Moving funds from one sector to another is also a bone of contention and a political issue, so any funding we receive is over and above the funding which has already been previously prioritised by government policy.

Books are not just a cultural segment offering enjoyment and an experience. Books are a pre-requisite for the educational and intellectual development of a society. A low readership rate should be a wake-up call for a government to pool its resources and step up its efforts in education, literacy and book promotion.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/78501/maltas_low_readership_is_a_wakeup_call_for_the_government#.WVO4xh9NwnR

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National Book Council’s Summer Book Festival

The National Book Council announces it has prepared a treat for all book lovers this Summer: the Summer Book Festival – Gozo, a two-day event packed with cultural activities as well as a book fair. It will take place in Gozo on 14 and 15 July at Sir M. A. Refalo Sixth Form in Victoria. The activities in the cultural programme of the festival will be based on the themes of youth literature and poetry.

Friday 14 July is dedicated to literature for youth. Activities for this day include a panel discussion on the topic of Youth and Literature, which will touch upon various themes, among which youth literacy, and the problems of addressing youth issues without being patronising. There will also be events that focus on particular authors who have distinguished themselves in literature aimed at or concerned with youth and youth issues. Among the guests, both for the panel discussion and the author events, there will be Leanne Ellul, Antoinette Borg, Matthew Schembri, Roberta Bajada and other winners of the Literary Contest – Novels for Youth, which is co-organized by the National Book Council and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ. Summer school students from Malta and Gozo will be invited to attend the Festival with their teachers and parents, as part of their summer school programme.

Poetry will be the focus of the activities on Saturday 15 July. The main event, in honour of the late Gozitan poet Gorg Pisani, will be set up by the National Book Council and will feature readings of excerpts of the poet’s work. A number of well-known local poets will also make an appearance during the various activities in the cultural programme for Saturday. Among these Prof. Michael Zammit and Maria Grech Ganado.

The publishers/associations participating for the event are: Merlin, Glen Calleja and EDE books, Faraxa, MCA (Malta Classics Association), Horizons, SKS, Midsea.

The National Book Council invites all members of the public to remember the dates and find the time to visit the festival during the day or later in the evening. Do not miss out on this opportunity to browse through great literature while getting to meet some of the most exciting authors and poets active today on our islands.

http://ktieb.org.mt/summer-book-festival-gozo/

Walid Nabhan, the immigrant song

In this year’s round of the European Union Prize for Literature, the Maltese recipient was Walid Nabhan with his novel L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji, published by Klabb Kotba Maltin, which had won the National Book Prize in 2014. The awarding of the prize to Nabhan is of great significance, not only for the merits of the novel, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest novels of the Maltese literary canon, it is also relevant in the historical sense since this is a prize awarded to an immigrant who writes not in his native language but in the language of his new home country. The fact that the language is Maltese, a minor one in the global hierarchy of languages, and a language known only to the inhabitants of the island of Malta, makes this prize even more particular.

The story and themes of Nabhan’s novel make his rise to the Maltese literary college even more telling as if Nabhan is writing his own story in history through literature itself, distorting the boundary between his literary creativity and the material reality he lives in. L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji is an existential tract on a protagonist who tries to understand his identity in a reality of displacement.

This is the reality of the immigrant whose identity is changed by a voyage, and the emergence and assimilation of a new native reality. Displacement is the result of a movement from one place to another and through this process a new identity is created. This movement is caused by the fact that, for some reason or another can not build one’s home and life in one’s native country usually for political reasons or reasons of war. The new identity, the life and culture of the new home-country, which the immigrant is suddenly entangled in, comes into conflict with the old one, yet there is also the new over-all and arching identity of the immigrant himself, an identity comprised of a mixture of the old, the new and their bond through the unintended voyage.

In simpler terms, one can say that Nabhan’s novel is a novel on the spirit of the Arab immigrant who moves to Europe, from the perspective of the immigrant himself, and this is what makes it historically significant. Nabhan’s protagonist is the voice of the immigrant in a new reality and his voice is also the voice of millions of immigrants coming to Europe in our times.

This is a literary genre which is growing, and a genre heralded into Europe by immigrants themselves. In bookshops which sell books in different languages such as Librebook in Brussels you may find a shelf category dedicated to literature by immigrants in Europe, writing in their adopted tongue.

What gives an edge to Nabhan’s novel, is its very critical outlook. There is no romance, nostalgia, patriotism or love for any particular culture in the protagonist’s view. Rather, the protagonist laments on the tragic state of his people, the Arab world, but mostly on the Palestinians. The beauty of L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji lies in the thoughtful consideration of the protagonist’s consciousness and the impeccable detail of the representation. Ideology and politics infuse the book, but all of it is sublimated in the personal experience of the protagonist and his sardonic commentary.

In his old identity and previous homeland, the protagonist recalls how old people are always obeyed and their thoughts are never objected to, women are contradictorily inferior and superior to men, but men always end up having the better share of the deal, and male homosexuality is looked down upon because the arsehole is property of the community and not of the individual.

Dictatorship in the Arab world is part and parcel of the social frame of mind and the fruit-seller is as much a dictator as the police and the government. There is no love lost for the protagonist to his old home-country, but there is neither any optimism for the new world he has suddenly found himself in. Albert Camus would have probably responded to Nabhan with great acclamation.

Although this is arguably just the beginning of Nabhan’s writing career, Nabhan has already taken Malta by storm. Furthermore, his great work of literature, so unique as it is, may take over international literary circles too. Already there are plans for his work to be published in London, Beirut, Sofia and Tirana, and this is just the beginning. Nabhan has already gained respect for his impeccable translation of Adrian Grima’s poems into Arabic, published in Egypt, but it will be his works in Maltese which will probably make him one of Malta’s best known authors abroad.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/arts/books/77910/walid_nabhan_the_immigrant_song#.WTkgRR9NwnQ

Truly great expectations

Summer is coming, schools will be closing and National Book Prize judges will be busy reading through their book lists. The adjudication process has already started, yet it will take as long as October for the jury to reach their final verdict, right before Malta Book Festival which traditionally opens with the announcement of the Terramaxka Prize for children’s books. The winners of the Prize for adult literature and research categories are announced later in December in a separate ceremony.

Children’s books are becoming increasingly more attractive. Merlin publishers dominated last year’s Terramaxka prize and this comes as no surprise to anyone who has leafed through its books. Merlin’s in-house designer Pierre Portelli needs no introductions, and is well-known in the literary and artistic scene. Merlin prides itself in its varied choice of prestigious artists for its productions. Mingu, penned by renowned author Clare Azzopardi, is illustrated by Lisa Falzon, a Maltese artist who has made a name with her mystical and dream-like paintings. Mingu tells the story of a flamingo that was shot down by a hunter and the book is indicative of a new trend in children’s books, in which authors seek to bring out contemporary and controversial themes in their work. It is hoped that this trend will, in due course, completely supersede the more traditional children’s book type, which depends so heavily on slapstick humour.

Other winners in the children’s categories included Pierre J. Mejlak, a recipient of the European Union Prize for literature, Loranne Vella and John Bonello with his book Irvin Vella: investigatur virtwali a fantasy crime novel for children to ages from 8 to 12. The winner for the ages from 12 to 16 was Djamantini, a collection of poems, stories and illustrations by children from Pembroke’s secondary school; an interesting project made possible thanks to school teacher Sharon Micallef Cann.

The prize for adult novels was once more awarded to a publication by Klabb Kotba Maltin, Alex Vella Gera’s Trojan. Klabb Kotba Maltin has recently emerged as the dominant winner in this category with authors such as Immanuel Mifsud and Walid Nabhan, both recipients of the European Union Prize for Literature. A second-time winner of the Prize, Vella Gera needs no introduction, and his work speaks for itself. With Trojan Alex Vella Gera takes a more sublime route to existential crisis, in contrast to his highly controversial Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi. I will not spoil the book for those who have not read it yet, but in Trojan, a story about a conservative author who made a name from the only book he published, you only get the significant and relevant background at the very end of the story, in a way which illustrates perfectly the art of keeping a secret with all its dark, deep and hidden implications.

A new publisher to enter the college of Book Prize winners is Kite with its astonishing pictorial album of Antonio Sciortino’s models, written and compiled by Gerald Bugeja. Antonio Sciortino: The Lost Album is a collection of a significant number of photographs of models of works by Antonio Sciortino complemented with Bugeja’s insightful commentary on Sciortino’s life and work. The prize in the historiography section went to Keith Sciberras with his important study of the Baroque art of Malta Caravaggio to Mattia Preti, which he shared with Paul George Pisani’s The Battle of Lepanto, 7 October 1571, an unpublished Hospitaller account, a study of the account of the Battle of  Lepanto by Abbot Luc Cenni. The translation category prize was awarded to Edmund Teuma with his translation of the Arabic Nights, published by BDL.

The poetry prize was won by Nadia Mifsud, a Maltese translator working and living in France, with her collection of poems Kantuniera ‘l bogħod. This was probably the most difficult category to adjudicate given that the other entrants included some well-established names such as Adrian Grima and Norbert Bugeja, not to mention Joe P. Galea, whose Bla Qiegħ: Poeżija mit-Trab, published by Horizons, impressed the reading public to the point that the book seemed certain to win the prize. It is being said that Galea will be publishing a novel soon and this is surely a book to watch out for.

A veteran author and a household name, Trevor Żahra carried off the prize in the short-story category with a collection of dark and mysterious stories, Vespri. Published in 2015, the book had been received with accolades of acclaim by both critics and members of the reading public. There can be no doubt that this is one of his best works to date.

Last year a new prize was introduced to award emerging authors, that is, authors who have one or very few publications to their name but who have nonetheless managed to win the attention of critics. The first winner of the Emerging Author Prize is Leanne Ellul, who had already made a name when her debut novel “Gramma” won the National Book Council’s and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ’s Literature for Youth Contest. Gramma is a young-adult novel about anorexia and body-issues with a female voice.

This year round, we once again expect some great titles to awe us and grab our full attention. With regards to the administration and the adjudication of the Prize, the National Book Council continually strives to raise the standards and the level of the adjudication process. The prize will always be highly controversial, since giving a prize to a book and not to another may always be reduced into subjective criteria even though we have a system which is aimed to create the best possible objective outcome. Authors are always invited to speak about the National Book Prize at our consultation meetings and the National Book Council has always given due consideration to their feedback, along with that of the publishers. As the Prize becomes ever more popular, prestigious and sought-after, the National Book Council will find itself more and more intensely scrutinized by the critical eye of our many authors and the reading public. Meanwhile the National Book Council’s adjudication board is busy evaluating last year’s published books.

Happy reading everyone.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/arts/books/77723/truly_great_expectations#.WTE0QR9NwnR