Adrian Grima - 31/10/2006
Unlike the great majority of female characters in Maltese literature, many of Clare Azzopardi’s protagonists are strong women who have a mind of their own and refuse to be patronized by others. “/No adjective describe story/,” for example, deals with a whole range of issues, from racism and human trafficking in Malta to the age-old issue of language and its ability, or inability, to express, or perhaps intimate, the inexpressible; but it also about young assertive women coming to terms with themselves as independent beings, and sometimes choosing, like Marisa, an assertive police inspector and cultured mother and perhaps her friend Ruth, the narrator, to do away with men.
Towards the end of Clare Azzopardi’s “Rasi ġo l-Ilma” (“Immersed”), Gordon visits his estranged, violent father Djego Grech who is being treated for terminal cancer at a specialized hospital. He refuses to pass on his father’s message to his mother that her husband would like to see her before he dies. It’s not clear why he chooses to visit his father in hospital and yet deny him this last wish, even because his mother is a strong woman, the only person Djego was ever afraid of we are told, who is perfectly capable of taking care of herself and making her own decisions. Gordon decides to shield her from the despicable man she once married: it’s probably his way of doing something for the mother he has set as his role model. The story ends with Gordon observing his mother who has finally found the love she deserves. She is not the weakling the widow Pawlina turns out to be in Ġużè Diacono’s important play L-Ewwel Jien! (1963).
Writers like Clare Azzopardi who provide new perspectives and explore new experiences allow us to understand our society better, especially if they choose to stand outside, or even refuse, the logic and privileges of the patriarchy and its cosy stereotypes. These unorthodox characters and narratives are bound to raise eyebrows and provoke eloquent silences: in Clare Azzopardi’s “Il-Linja l-Ħadra” (“The Green Line” in Cúirt 21, Ireland), for example, the protagonist tells us that her embarassed mother denies that her daughter’s aunt is a lesbian and lives with her partner. This is not a story she wants to acknowledge, let alone tell.
With a few important exceptions, like novelist Rena Balzan and poets Maria Grech Ganado and Simone Inguanez, Maltese literature has as yet failed to “tell” the stories of “real” Maltese women. This is a serious lacuna, because as literary theorist Peter Widdowson argues, it is the vision of the writer, “articulated in and as the text, which defamiliarizes habitualized sight, and so allows us to ‘know’ a community which is unable to know itself as it gets on busily with living the ‘splendid waste’ of its ‘real social’ life.” Women in Malta still lag behind in gender empowerment and economic participation. The 32% that are economically active are mainly involved in “traditionally female jobs.” Women are also “poorly represented in the power structure” (Joseph M. Sammut, Social Watch Report 2005), but much of our literature that deals with the family reproduces the mutually exclusive roles of the woman as (nurturing) mother and the man as (absent) father. In 2004 sociologist Mary Darmanin wrote about the benefits both for the workers themselves and for their families, including the men, when women and mothers have a job outside the house, and she urged the Church hierarchy to listen to what women have to say about their role in the family and in society. But in their latest pastoral letter about the role of women in society, “A Conscience in Favour of Women” (August 2006) the bishops of Malta and Gozo again chose to speak about women in predominantly traditional terms: “Like Mary, woman has a natural disposition to receive and embrace others. [...] the family is the environment where woman offers a point of reference so that those close to her open their hearts and find comfort; the family is the place where woman consoles and instils peace in one’s heart and peace with others.”
Clare Azzopardi’s “Rasi ġo l-Ilma” appears in her short story collection, Il-Linja l-Ħadra, published in July 2006 (Merlin Library). The English version, translated by Albert Gatt, appeared a few months before in a small collection called Others, Across published in Malta by Inizjamed and Midsea (December 2005). The other story in the Others, Across publication, “/No adjective describe story/,” explores the relationships that some of the female characters have with their families.
The young Eritrean female asylum seeker Adiam arrives in Malta as a clandestine immigrant with her sister and brother and ends up locked in a detention centre for over a year. Eventually, Adiam, her sister and other asylum seekers are smuggled to Pozzallo in Sicily by a trafficker called Ġorġ, the father of Rachel, Adiam’s best friend in Malta. In her letter from Italy at the very end of the story, the only instance in which we have unmediated access to her words, Adiam speaks almost triumphantly of her arrival in Italy and the reunification of what’s left of her family – it’s mostly a letter about family: she and her sister Sania have joined her brother who lives in Italy and now has a child. Sania is told that her husband has died. Their parents, like their other, desperate brother who committed suicide while in detention, are dead.
Rachel’s relationship with her violent father is turbulent and occasionally one of convenience. When she decides to leave Malta to join her mother in Manchester she takes nothing with her: “I’m not even carrying any luggage with me. Just a handbag. ’S all I need, like.” There’s no talk of trying to reunite her family or anything of the sort, because it’s completely irrelevant to her in the same way that it is irrelevant and undesirable to Gordon in “Immersed;” all she wants is to get away from her father and the bad influence she knows he has on her despite the fact that she despises him.
The little Ruth the narrator tells us about Marisa, her best friend from their days at school, is just about enough to grab our attention. Marisa is the unmarried mother of a little boy, but there’s none of the soppy self-pity or “paternalism” that normally accompanies such characters. Marisa is six foot three and “weighs in at 75.” Ruth tells us, with more than a hint of admiration, that “Marisa doesn’t give a damn about anything,” and that she probably “undertakes her work with a strong sense of duty – I mean both as a mother and as a police inspector.” Ruth proudly states that she loves Marisa to bits. “Maybe that’s just because we’ve known each other for so long. Maybe it’s because she likes French cinema. Or maybe it’s because she’s capable of taking the piss out of any man, which scares them shitless every time.”
Like other women in Maltese literature, especially that written after Independence, the protagonist in Immanuel Mifsud’s powerful short story “Sonia,” inspired by a case reported in the papers a few years ago about a young woman recovering from a drug addiction who died after an overdose and was dumped in the sea by her boyfriend, leaves home because she cannot accept her father’s patriarchal attitude and violent nature and the way both her parents decide about her life without letting her participate in any way in their design; but she runs away to another man, who is the product of the same patriarchal culture, because she is incapable of conceiving her relationship with the world outside the terms of this particular culture. Immanuel Mifsud, Kimika (Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin, 2005). In an interview with Gillian Bartolo (“Immanuel Mifsud and His Controversial Book Kimika, The Malta Independent on Sunday, 19.2.2006), Mifsud explains that the setting in the short story “Sonia” “is based on a bar in Valletta that I used to frequent, populated by unemployed Arabs or ones illegally employed, around whom hovered Maltese prostitutes. I never spoke to the people there. I simply observed them.”
Although Sonia has the strength to escape from her childhood home, she is mentally and culturally ill-equipped to consider other solutions to the problems that have been imposed on her by her abusive parents and all she can think of is to set up an “alternative” family dominated by the same oppressive “culture” that she is escaping from and that eventually leads to her psychological and physical death. Sonia runs away into the arms of the same abusive male-dominated culture that has ruined her adolescence.
Sonia lacks the moral and intellectual strength that allows Clare Azzopardi’s women to seek paths that are true alternatives to the patriarchy that oppresses them. “/No adjective describe story/” is also characterized by dialogue, real dialogue, between the female characters, because as Patricia Hill Collins points out, one must not confuse dialogue with adversarial debate. Dialogue, writes Angelo Marchese, is a discourse that focuses on the speaker as interlocutor, as someone who takes active part in a conversation; there are many references to the locutionary situation. Dialogue is active on a number of reference planes simultaneously; it is characterized by the presence of metalinguistic elements and by the frequent use of interrogative forms.” And this is precisely what happens in the various exchanges in Azzopardi’s account. In six out of the nine parts into which the short story is divided, there is explicit use of dialogue between the various female characters who tell, and want to be the protagonists, of their own story. And the various dialogues are riddled with questions, meaningful ones not rhetorical devices. There are also instances in which Ruth, the narrator, addresses the reader; and one must also say that Adiam’s strings of words are clearly addressed to someone who is listening carefully: within the diegesis it would probably be Ruth, because she is the one who is relaying them to herself through her own, highly subjective memory – but possibly also Rachel. Nevertheless, Adiam’s words are addressed to us too, because Azzopardi wants her to tell her own story, even if she has to do it in her absence, through a trusted mediator. This, after all, is a characteristic of most clandestine migrants, and similarly of many female characters in Maltese fiction: their reluctance stroke fear stroke inability stroke desire to tell their own story.
Many of the women of Birds of Passage (2005), the novel by the Maltese-Australian writer and academic Lou Drofenik which is so much about (different conceptions of the) family and which was inspired by research carried out by the author among Maltese and Gozitan migrant women in Australia, have a mind of their own and their life does not dissolve into that of their male companion, or father, or family. Much of the novel is narrated by a heterodiegetic narrator, a narrator who is not a character in the story but hovers above it and knows everything about it. But there are also many individual, first-person voices, both in letters and in sections in which a character tells her or his own story. Cecilja says that she was born and raised in the (fictional) Maltese village of Mintafuq “but, as luck would have it, I escaped its confines, its strictures and its people. Who, tell me, would want to spend all the years of their life in the same house where they were born without experiencing other spaces, other people, other lives?” When she was fifteen Victor Grima started paying court to her: “I need to have a life,” she told him. “I wanted to see, to hear, to experience.” In another scene she tells her sisters: “[...] how good it is to be free, to be answerable to no one but myself.” Her twin brother Paul warns her that “When a woman marries she becomes a slave. You’ll be a slave to a man.” He himself was dying to leave Malta, and they eventually reunite in Australia where the unmarried Cecilja runs a boarding house in Port Melbourne while he marries an Englishwoman, Virginia Talbot Smith, the liberated mother of two children, who left her husband and the Navy he lived for back in Malta. When they were younger, Cecilja used to tell her brother, with a “heart full of jealousy”: “You’ll be a man and you can do whatever you want.” (In another passage, Fina Grima tells herself that men “always get the best deal in life.”) But she was able to appropriate her own story too; and her brother clearly did not enjoy the role/s assigned to him by Maltese society either and their reunion in Australia is a triumph for both of them.
Like Nada in Rena Balzan’s novel Ilkoll ta’ Nisel Wieħed (1987), Cecilja’s niece Susanna fights her way out of the unnecessary constraints imposed on her by her family and she learns from her own mistakes what kind of life she wants to lead and how she can go about becoming the person she wants to be. When she finally meets the Australian former First World War soldier Jack MacDonald again (she had had a love relationship with him in Malta), this time in Australia, far from the asphixiating Maltese society “back home,” she chooses to marry him, even though he is divorced and her community in Malta would never agree to such a union. These are the limitations she left behind when she chose to travel to Australia to look for her lover, despite the opposition of her family which is compounded, without her knowing, by the opposition of Jack’s Australian mother. The difference between Nada and Susanna is that Nada, who admires her rigid, paternalistic grandfather partly because he has treated her differently than the way he has treated his wife and daughter, returns to her country of birth after she has finished her studies and she seems to be unaware of the irreparable harm that his attitude and behaviour have caused on his wife and his daughter Erica, Nada’s mother. Nada does not fight against the patriarchal society that turns Lou Drofenik’s Cecilja, Paul and Susanna away from Malta. Their lives are reconstructed in Australia, where they create their new centre, their new family, while Nada’s return to Malta is a return to the centre which she doesn’t find particularly oppressive. Her mother Erica rebelled against her father and ran away to another country, but like Immanuel Mifsud’s Sonia she constantly looks for the security of another male figure and her failure to find that male companion means that for her, her entire life is a failure: she seems to be unable to live her life outside the framework of a (protective, paternalistic) relationship with a man. In an interview she gave in 2003, Rena Balzan herself stated that “Erica always let her life be led by the men she loved,” even though she was perhaps unaware of this dependence. Nada, on the other hand, has more of a grip on her own life, and the very fact that she narrates her own story is an indication of her determination to take her life in the direction that she chooses to follow. This is certainly the Nada Rena Balzan wants us to see, a self-confident, assertive and independent woman. She is an “improvement” on her mother, so to speak.
These and other works of Maltese post-Independence literature reflect the process of secularisation within Maltese society that started slowly after World War II and gathered pace after Independence in 1964. In her interviews with Maltese women in 1998, Lou Drofenik found that “there was a cleavage between beliefs and praxis.” There had been “a definite change in Maltese people’s attitudes towards the issues of illegitimacy, birth control and marriage separation though only one respondent was critical of the Church’s unchanging stand against them.” The younger women she interviewed did not question or criticize the teachings that were “diametrically opposite to their practices.” For example, none of the young women she spoke to criticized the Church on its stand against contraception, “even though they stated that their friends used some form or other of limiting their families.” Neither did they criticize its stand on sex outside marriage, even though they spoke freely about their friends’ sexual practices and teenage pregnancies on the island. Drofenik writes that “individualism, consumerism and secularisation have opened new vistas for young Maltese living in Malta today and unlike their predecessors they are able to sample other value systems and listen to other voices.”
Fundamental changes to discourse about women and family life in Maltese literature can both reflect the transformations in everyday Maltese life and construct and articulate relatively new realities. The emergence of women writers, including poets like Maria Grech Ganado and Simone Inguanez, who refuse to perpetuate the patriarchal culture on which much of Maltese literature has stood and propose a literature and discourse about literature that explores other value systems, perspectives and experiences, is having a positive effect on literature in Malta. This can in turn help Maltese society to bridge the gap between beliefs and praxis, between what society says it believes in and what it actually tries to achieve in its daily life.
Note: This article is the result of research done within the framework of the Civil Society Project that focussed on “The Family in Malta, Europe and the Mediterranean” and was coordinated by Prof. Peter G. Xuereb of the European Documentation and Research Centre at the University of Malta.