Under the spell of literature – Times of Malta

With a personality like no other, the life journey of Maria Grech Ganado, one of Malta’s greatest living poets, has been an emotional roller coaster. She tells Simonne Pace that she was saved by literature many a time.

Maria Grech Ganado remembers coming back home from Perugia, where she had been with a group of friends to a hostel run by nuns, shouting to her father at the top of her voice that she wanted to go to university.

“It was an organised trip for young girls, otherwise my father would not have sent me. I was very timorous when I was young and it is only recently that I grew up,” reminisced the 73-year-old poet, writer and critic, who will be the main guest at this year’s Malta Book Festival.

“I’m a free spirit. I’ve never really planned anything. I flow with the current of life,” she told The Sunday Times of Malta at her Għargħur home.

Being the first Maltese woman to attend Girton College in Cambridge to read for a degree in English, she didn’t care much about studying but “I absolutely loved it there, without realising that I was in a section of society where most girls were free souls”.

Also the first ever Maltese full-time woman lecturer at the University of Malta and to study in Heidelberg, Maria’s biggest regret is having resigned from her teaching post to follow her husband, Louis – at the time a Rhodes scholar – to go to Oxford, and not pursuing her academic career.

“I was crazy about Louis at the time,” said Maria, who had her three children, Xandru, Francesca and Louisa, in a span of two-and-a-half years.

Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and gone through a marriage break-up when the children were growing up, the poet said literature and family were what kept her going, “even though I thought I was a horrible mother because I didn’t give them the attention children deserve and instead of being happy I was terrified all the time”.

Discovering that her academic life was much easier, Maria started writing poems both in English and in Maltese, which she lovingly treasured in a manuscript with a pink cover.

Brought up with a lot of culture from a very young age, Maria still remembers an episode at the theatre, when aged eight she hid down her seat in fear, knowing the death scene in Carmen was imminent and then laughing heartily when the same soldiers kept on coming round and round through the wings, to arrest Jose.

“I was always capable of having multi-layered emotions. When you’re being brought up, you take everything for granted and it was only later that I started to realise I was very privileged.”

Suffering from bipolar disorder left the writer feeling more at ease in the world of literature than in the real world.

“In the real world I felt like Alice falling into the hole. Today I realise that Alice in Wonderland was never one of my favourite stories. It was later, when I grew up, that I understood a lot of the stories of Alice in Wonderland,” said the poet who, during her various teaching stints, taught her students about complex issues rather eccentrically, such as when she stood upside down to explain the concept of perspective.

“It was much easier for me to go and give a lecture at the drop of a hat than to bake a cake for a birthday. And when I did things I was able to do, I felt guilty about enjoying it so much, like loving my students. When you’re manic like that, your mania is a way of escaping depression. What kept me alive was literature.

“I now have children who are starting to know me and three grandchildren who visit me. At last I can live like a free spirit. I had a very happy childhood and adolescence and I didn’t need to rebel because studying and obeying my parents’ rules was very easy. But I definitely had a baptism of fire when I married.”

The poet’s very first work in Maltese was Gaea, a monologue by the earth goddess herself.

Iżda Mhux Biss, which she published in 1999, won her the National Book Prize in 2002.

“Iżda Mhux Biss, the poem, starts with a defiant and potent battlecry. When I’m asked why I write in Maltese, it’s because I think I write much better. The language forms itself. I always loved Maltese even before I spoke it. It’s the language of my guts. My prologue to an English lesson was sometimes a poem in Maltese.”

Maria’s favourite poem of her own is Larinġa.

“This remains one of my very best poems. Full of metaphors, it’s about the feeling of love. I cannot write like this anymore. I’ve lost that feeling,” she said.

The poet is inspired by water. “I get so many ideas when I’m swimming or showering. Water has always been a literary symbol too.”

She then talks about a metaphysical story in English she wrote about 40 years ago – Inside William – about Bill and Will who live in a house called William.

“The two characters represent compassion and reason – the mind and the heart in the same person as they develop,” she said.

“I’ve had lots of identity crises. I solve problems through books, or my own work. The very first book that influenced me was Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. I was very young and couldn’t read yet. My parents bought me books I listened to on a record. I still love it. I remember the ending especially. I identified with the story so much. And I think of this story as a happy story, not a sad one, because of the lesson learnt.

“My mother bought me annuals as a young girl. One particular story was about an English teacher who teaches children from slum areas. She wins them over by reciting The Highway Man by Alfred Noyes. Full of harsh but beautiful sounds, it’s a long poem about a highway man who’s in love. I was already under the spell of literature at such a young age. This is how I learnt my values. Luckily, I had a father who invested all this in a girl,” she said.

“I learnt values less from religion than from reading. I love the rituals of Catholicism and I love Christianity and the art it has produced. I believe in religion because it fills a need for most people to think of a higher power. I believe in superior powers, otherwise I won’t be writing. I don’t write. It comes through me, like separate wires (experiences) that suddenly fuse together. This is when a poem comes.”

Now that she has travelled and met different creative people, the poet has never been happier.

“I was very happy when I was young. I was in a garden, like the Happy Prince. But it was a very narrow perspective. One travels to past and future and around the world while sitting down. You do it through a book.”

This year’s Malta Book Festival is being held from November 9 to 13 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta.

The main hall of the MCC will be taken up by stands representing various local publishers, book distributors, educational entities and NGOs and hosting a number of activities, including poetry readings, book launches, book signings and encounters with authors.

The National Book Council has also prepared a number of conferences, some in collaboration with other educational entities, such as the conference ‘Literature and totalitarianism,’ which will feature Basma Abdel Aziz, the renowned Egyptian writer and human rights activist, and a one-day conference on ‘Books and literacy’.

The council has also prepared a number of live interviews with renowned foreign authors who will be among the guests – Basma Abdel Aziz, Patrick McGuinness and Alek Popov.

One of the most important events this year, however, is dedicated to poet Maria Grech Ganado, who won last year’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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