The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
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Tongue in cheek: Maltese edition

Tuesday, 21 May 2024, 13:53 Last update: about 3 months ago

After a prolific start to her writing career, accountant-turned-author ANTOINETTE BORG has been lying low for the past couple of years. Finally, we now know what she’s been up to, as she’s just unveiled – with a bang – her exciting new book, titled Mela ... l-istorja stramba, straordinarja (u sigrieta) tal-ilsien Malti kif ma jghiduhilekx fil-klassi, published by Merlin Publishers and co-financed by the National Book Fund. The Malta Independent on Sunday sat down with the author for an insightful look into her perspective and the themes explored in the book.

Mela ... what is 'Mela' about?

Mela is a fun, exhilarating journey through the evolution of the Maltese language. In an original and engaging way, it seeks to shed light on the mysterious origins of our language and the fascinating characters that have shaped its trajectory over the past centuries. At the same time, it's teeming with fun facts, quizzes, games, jokes and word play encouraging readers to actively engage with the language and relish using it creatively.


What inspired you to explore the history of the Maltese language in such a fun way?

It was a fusion of several factors. My fascination with the Maltese language was first kindled while I was writing my debut novel, Fittixni. As I wrote I was intrigued by its richness and versatility, and at the same time I felt disheartened by people's attitudes to it. Some look down on it, others claim we don't need it, and still others say it's too difficult. Very few seem to appreciate its beauty and potential for creative use. Additionally, I noticed that Maltese is often taught in a solemn, almost reverential manner - in other words, mind-numbingly boring - which I found regrettable. Finally, thanks to my daughter's keen interest in the Horrible Histories series, I discovered that it's indeed possible to use the terms hilarious and history in the same sentence. All these created the conditions for Mela's seed to sprout.  


What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Doubt. It crept in at every turn, right from the very start. I continuously questioned whether the idea would work, whether I was the right person to tell this story (never having studied history or Maltese before), whether I was focusing on the right things, what to include and what to leave out, and whether - ultimately - anyone would care to read a book about the history of the Maltese language, of all things! However, driven by my persistent nature, combined with support and encouragement from various people, notably Chris Gruppetta from Merlin Publishers and Trevor Żahra, I kept working at it - and I'm so glad I did! Mela fought many odds and I'm immensely happy with how it turned out.


Did you encounter any surprising or unexpected discoveries while researching this book?

Absolutely. I never imagined that the story of Maltese would feature a gruesome murder in a religious convent, followed by the framing of an innocent person. This is just one of numerous curious facts and intriguing stories I came across in the course of my research.

However, the most astonishing discovery of all was how the language managed to survive for an entire millennium despite our small population, foreign rule for most of our history, and a good number of close calls. It's fascinating to learn how Maltese evolved from its humble origins to being one of the official languages of the European Union, no less, and how it has been influenced by historical events, migrations, conquests and trade and cultural exchanges over time. Uncovering these hidden layers of history was both enlightening and humbling.


Your book explores not only the linguistic aspects but also the cultural significance of Maltese as it evolved over time. How do you see language influencing identity and community?

Language is deeply intertwined with identity. It reflects our heritage, our values, our sense of belonging. Through language, we connect with others who share our cultural background and forge bonds that transcend borders. I think it's a powerful force that unites us and helps us understand ourselves in an increasingly diverse world.


The cover and illustrations of the book are striking. Can you tell us more about them?

The design of the book including the cover is the brainchild of artist Pierre Portelli. My favourite element on the cover is the typescript used for the word Mela, which is inspired by the manuscript of the oldest surviving text in Maltese, namely Pietru Caxaro's Kantilena, dating back to the 15th century. The illustrations by Mark Scicluna are likewise on point, echoing the jovial tone and harmonising seamlessly with the narrative style of the book.


How do you hope your book will resonate with readers?

I hope readers come away with a deeper appreciation for the beauty, complexity and rich history of Maltese. Language is not just a means of communication, with one language being as good as any other "as long as we understand each other". Rather, it is a living, breathing entity that connects us to our past and can continue to shape our future. Ultimately, I hope my book inspires readers to embark on their own linguistic journey and discover for themselves both the privilege and the joy of using our own amazing language.


Finally, what's next for you? Do you have any writing projects in the works?

My Maltese translation of the second novel in Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, Il-Kelb tat-Terrakotta, is due to be published shortly. Beyond that? It's a blank slate so far.


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