Maltese women writers in Australia

Maltese women writers in Australia

One might be surprised to learn that there are many women writers of Maltese background in Australia publishing novels and poetry as well as involved in literary-related activities. Since most of these authors are probably unknown to Maltese readers, Maurice Cauchi offers an introduction to this efflorescence of literature within the Maltese diaspora.

Lou Drofenik

Lou Drofenik (née Zammit) is one of the most prolific of Maltese-Australian writers in Australia at the moment. She wrote her first novel Birds of Passage in 2005, and since then she has written several others, including In Search of Carmen Caruana (2007), Of Cloves and Bitter Almonds (2008), and Cast the Long Shadow (2010).

What stands out in Drofenik’s writing is the more liberating atmosphere in Australia compared to that in Malta

She was born in Birkirkara, the eldest of eight children, and for a time taught at Siġġiewi primary school. She migrated to Australia in 1962 under the Single Women’s Migrant Scheme.

She obtained her B.Ed, M.Ed and Ph.D from La Trobe University in Melbourne. Since then, she has been an educator in the Catholic primary school system and held various positions of responsibility.

She is married Vinko, a Slovenian and they have four children and six grandchildren.

She says she has always wanted to be a writer and started writing when she was very young. She loves writing but it was only after her children grew up that she had time to write seriously.

She has written poetry in both English and Maltese, which has been published in various anthologies, and one of her poems was displayed on a V Line train in Melbourne as part of the Moving Galleries Initiative.

Drofenik gets inspiration for her writing from everywhere. In her writing she depicts the way women in Malta have lived, going back to the beginning of the 20th century, which was in marked contrast to life in Australia.

What stands out in her writing is her struggle to depict the more liberating atmosphere in Australia compared to that in Malta, which she finds patriarchal, and in many ways antiquated, even bearing in mind the fact that the timeframe of her characters’ life ranged over a century.

This liberating exodus is a major aspect of her writing. Her characters seem to breathe fresh air as soon as they leave the relative safety and comfort of their family homes to tackle the unknown in a foreign land.

She is particularly moved by evidence of women leading a second-class existence in their homeland, conditions imposed by men in power, but also aided and abetted by the submissive acquiescence of women themselves who feel that this is the natural way of life.

Any deviation from the norm would be considered unacceptable by parents, extended family, neighbours, and even the Church itself, which emphasised that women’s role is in the family and deviation from this represents a challenge to the family’s dominance in society.

Because they could not change society in Malta, Drofenik’s characters prefer to leave their country of origin and start afresh. They, therefore, appear ‘progressive’, ‘free’ and better able to escape the conditions that condemned their mothers to a position of social and economic inferiority.

As Drofenik herself says: “From the moment I arrived in Australia I knew I was in a place where I had a hand in forming my future. In this country I would own myself.

“I would have a new identity, an identity which I myself would forge, unshackled by whose daughter or niece or granddaughter I was. Here I would be me. No one would ask me ever again ‘What does your father do?’”

Other issues tackled in her novels deal with women’s right over their body, as evidenced in episodes dealing with sexuality and its repercussions with husbands, boyfriends and even patriarchal fathers.

An in-depth analysis of Lou Drofenik’s works can be found in Adrian Grima: Cultivating complexity: Maltese/Australian women in Lou Drofenik, Acta Scientiarum. ‘Language and Culture’ Maringá, v. 32, n. 1, p83-96, 2010.

Rosanne Dingli

Born in Sliema, Rosanne Dingli was educated and had her most significant youthful experiences in Malta. She was in Malta when it gained its independence from Britain in 1964, and witnessed the country becoming a republic in 1974.

She bases her fiction in various locations, inspired by her travels in the Mediterranean

She has spoken three languages fluently since childhood and the cocktail of these cultures of her early life became inseparable from the way she understood the world.

Dingli arrived in Australia in 1982 and now lives in Perth. She has now lived in Australia for just over half her life, working as teacher, lecturer, workshop coordinator, magazine and corporate editor, travel consultant, cook, manuscript assessor, heraldic artist and business partner.

She bases her fiction in various locations, inspired by her travels in the Mediterranean, (Italy, Turkey, Greece), south-east Asia, the UK, Holland, Belgium as well as most Australian states.

Her first novel, the award-winning Death in Malta (2005), was written quickly, but took years to edit to its present form. According to Luke (2011) was a labour of intensity, love and discovery.

She still cannot get over what hard work writing a novel is, compared to anything else, except perhaps running a family, which is just as incomprehensible and as liable to change as the publishing industry.

In addition to the books, she has several short stories collections, namely, Vision or Delusion and other stories (2011), A Great Intimacy and other stories (2011), Making a Name and other stories (2011), Over and Above (2011), Counting Churches – The Malta Stories (2011) and The Astronomer’s Pig (2011). She has also published a collection of poetry: All the Wrong Places (2011).

Most of her short works were previously published in journals, anthologies, supplements and magazines in Australia and on the internet. She has received more than 20 awards and commendations for fiction and poetry.

Her writings have confounded a number of long-held presumptions about culture, freedom, what it means to be a woman and the whole business of becoming an author.

Her first published piece, in 1985, when she was living in Narrandera, New South Wales, set her on a one-way journey towards life as a writer, which she has tried several times to give up without success.

It led her at different times to jobs that consistently confirmed that the publishing industry can endure swift and sudden changes and is also full of rogues, angels and every other kind of creature in between. She has met the full gamut, from sour scoundrels to sweet spirits.

Georgina Scillio

Georgina Scillio (née Zammit) of Birkirkara, migrated to Australia in 1962. After completing her B.Sc., B.Ed. and M.Ed, at Melbourne University she spent the next 30 years teaching Science and Mathematics in various Australian schools and colleges.

The strongest aspect of A Dandelion on the Roof is Scillio’s ability to convey the unique viewpoints of her characters

Although she was always interested in writing, it was only after she retired from full-time teaching that she started publishing her work.

Scillio’s articles have been published in Quadrant, Arena, The Weekend Australian, as well as in several literary magazines, namely: Readers’ Paradise, Expectations, The NSW Writers’ Centre, The Sunshine Coast Writers’ Group, The Multi-cultural Journal of Australia, Page Seventeen and Culture is...

She received ‘Commended’ and ‘Highly Commended’ certificates for her short stories in the Alan Marshall National competition, the Judah Waten National competition, the Boroondara National competition and the Eastern Regional Libraries competition.

In 2007, her short story The Vase was runner-up in the Darebin Leader Newspaper competition and was published in the anthology Around the Clock.

Scillio was a member of the writers’ group ‘The Cartridge Family’ which won first prize in the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Anthology Competition in 2007, with their anthology A Curiously Reduced Universe.

In 2008, her collection of short stories A Dandelion on the Roof won first prize in the Northern Notes Writers’ Festival competition and the book was published by the competition sponsors Clouds of Magellan and Trojan Press. In 2009, one of her stories was included in the anthology Stamping Ground.

In the February 2010 issue of the Australian Book Review, J.D. Thompson wrote: “The strongest aspect of A Dandelion on the Roof is Scillio’s ability to convey the unique viewpoints of her characters… (for example) a university student living in a dingy inner city Melbourne apartment describing the powerful impact that catching a glimpse of her neighbour’s backyard has on her. The character remarks, ‘I had discovered an island of precious peace in a sea of clamour.’”

Scillio has several more short stories which she hopes to publish either in an anthology or as a collection, as well as manuscripts for three novels which she is re-writing and hopes to submit to a publisher in due course. Some of her stories are now appearing in e-books.

She is married to Reg, a Maltese man from Egypt and they have three sons and six grandchildren.

Her inspiration for writing comes from various sources: listening to people talking, watching people when travelling by public transport and, of course, lots of life experiences. A Dandelion on the Roof was inspired by her own childhood, growing up in the ruins of World War II.

Scillio is also moved by contrasts, for example, by the mother who was very skilled in sewing (like her own mother was) yet who received very little reward for her efforts, or the contrast between the grinding poverty of a war-torn village and the grandeur of the basilica nearby.

In the story Folds of Fat, the anorexic girl who shared her flat was from a wealthy family and could afford any food she fancied, whereas Scillio, who was living on the breadline, longed to be able to cook tasty and rich meals.

Some aspects of these stories are autobiographical, but Scillio insists that overall her work should be read as fiction or ‘faction’.

There are other subjects which intrigue her, for example, the intense reaction to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the personal obsessions some people develop when they live a solitary life (as in The Plate), or the lack of perception by others of their own neighbours (as in Through a Fence Darkly).

The story about a psychiatrist in The Dream was a mixture of a true story and a fictitious set-up: a dream which, in the end, influenced the woman’s decision to accept or reject a marriage proposal.

She hopes those who read her stories find in them some enjoyment and perhaps a reflection of people they have met, lived with or heard about.

Monica Attard

Monica Attard was born in Sydney in 1958 of Maltese parents. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts from Sydney University and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of New South Wales in 2002.

One of the most respected journalists and radio personalities in Australia

Attard is best known as a journalist and radio and television reporter. For several years since 1977 she worked with various television channels, most recently, since 1983, with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where she was a reporter on popular programmes like The World Today, Four Corners and Lateline.

She was the host for the ABC TV programme Media Watch between 2005 and 2007.

She has received several awards, including the Walkley Award for Broadcast Interviewing in 2005, which was given for interviews she conduction for On The Brink that examined lives of various personalities.

In 1991 she received the Gold Walkley Award.

From 1990 to1994 she was a Russian correspondent for which she received three Walkley awards. This resulted in her book: Russia: Which Way Paradise? detailing her Russian experience, which was published in 1997.

She was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1992 for services to the community as a radio correspondent while working in Russia. Attard is one of the most respected journalists and radio personalities in Australia.

Carmel Mary Baretta

Carmel Baretta was born in Australia to parents who originally came from Mosta. She lives in Mackay, Queensland, and has been involved in several activities, including being a pony club instructor and judge in all phases of competition.

From Humble Beginnings ... an outstanding work of Maltese migration history

She is a foundation member of the Maltese Club where she has held several executive positions over the years. She has served as social issues convenor for the State Catholic Women’s League of Queensland, and has been president of Friends Mackay Libraries Inc.

Baretta, an Honorary Consul of Malta, was the first person to be appointed to this position in Central Queensland. She is also co-founder and co-ordinator of the Maltese language school, Skola Maltija Mackay.

In 2001, Baretta, together with Laraine Schembri, published a book, From Humble Beginnings: Mackay Maltese Pioneers 1883 – 1940, which, in the words of the migration historian Mark Caruana, “deserves a well-earned recognition as an outstanding work of Maltese migration history, done with patience and diligence, with great love and dedication”.

It is a collection of short histories of families of migrants over the years. She says: “Our Australian history is impregnated with untold stories of quiet achievers. Sadly though, many history books often fail to give credit to such as these, and the ‘little man’ is forgotten.

“From Humble Beginnings will ensure their achievements and contributions are forever acknowledged.”

Baretta and Schembri have travelled extensively with their historical and photographic exhibitions, including ‘Our Shared Heritage’, ‘Mackay Maltese Pioneering Women’ and ‘Journey to Australia’.

Juliet Sampson

Juliet Sampson, 30, was born in Melbourne, Australia. Her father was born in Malta and his brother, sisters and their families still live in Malta.

Sampson coordinated programmes that helped reduce bullying in schools

Sampson has visited Malta a number of times to appreciate its history and culture. Her most recent trip to Malta was in July.

From a young age, Sampson was enthusiasic and passionate for writing. During her school years, she won a major award with the Science Talent Search for creative writing. She was also an active member of the school magazine committee.

Sampson completed a double degree at Deakin University, Melbourne, obtaining a Bachelor of Teaching (Primary) and a Bachelor of Arts (Psychology).

After finishing university, she spent several years as a primary school teacher. As well as being a classroom teacher, she coordinated programmes that helped reduce bullying in schools.

Her first novel Behind the Mask was published in 2011. It is an account of a young, innocent woman whose idyllic world is slowly torn to pieces when her partner becomes physically and emotionally abusive towards her.

The book deals with many themes such as love, betrayal, abuse and freedom.

In her spare time, Sampson does voluntary work for the Alannah and Madeline Foundation. She supports the ‘Better Buddies’ programme which is designed to create friendly and caring primary school communities where bullying is reduced.

Children in their first and last year of primary school buddy up and learn the value of caring for others, friendliness, respect, valuing difference, including others and responsibility.

It has always been Sampson’s dream to write books and share experiences. Through her writing she wants to help others to learn too. She has her own website and has also developed a range of products under the brand name Inspiration that are aimed at helping and supporting others.

Sampson is a member of the Victorian Writer’s Centre. In future she plans to write a picture book, and after travelling to Europe last July, she has been inspired to write her next novel on travelling.

(To be concluded)

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