Maltese poet, playwright and theatre and television director Albert Marshall has cultivated a very close relationship with China over his 50-year career, and says he has developed “aninnate love for the country” over the years.
His latest poetry collection – published trilingually in Maltese, Chinese and English – is called Six Chinese Lanterns, and was the creative fruit borne of a six-week trip to Guangxi province.
The trip was conceived by Mr Yang, from the Chinese Cultural Centre in Malta, who invited a half dozen Maltese artists from different creative fields to visit the Chinese province. For weeks the visitors travelled through mountainous terrain on what Marshall described as “an arduous journey” and one that was “very challenging – physically, spiritually and intellectually.”
Marshall did not write one word of poetry on the six-week trip, but instead “absorbed reflections and absorbed meditations” as they wandered through Guangxi and the surrounding provinces, an area he described as “paradise on earth” and “God’s gift to mankind.”
After returning to Malta, he reflected on the “indelible experience” and put pen to paper. The resulting work, Six Chinese Lanterns, was published by the Chinese Cultural Centre in September.
Adding to his list of publications, last year Marshall published Poeziji (1964–2019), a collection of his best poetry written over five decades that he says “present samples of a stylistic adventure” and illustrates various creative phases on his experimental career trajectory.
In 1980, Marshall emigrated to Australia with this wife and family, in large part out of personal safety concerns at the time. The move came after he had directed a television series that challenged conservative society in Malta and highlighted what he saw as inherent bigotry in the religious establishment. The programme struck a nerve and he received death threats at the time and was a victim of “a witch hunt”.
He moved to Melbourne and spent 15 years working in Australian radio, theatre and television, and during his stay became the first Maltese nationalto direct at the Sydney Opera House.
Looking back on his writing career as Poeziji was being prepared, Marshall realised his time in Australian exile was critical to his development as a writer, and his work had evolved as a result of his expanded horizons.
As a Maltese-Australian he embraced multiculturalism and realised how much stronger he was as a writer when he could intertwine Australian, Maltese and European cultural experiences, rather than drawing from one single identity.
All his life Marshall has been a staunch advocate of Maltese, a minority language that is spoken by about a half million people daily, including in diaspora populations in countries like Australia and Canada.
For years he has joined the movement to fight against the “scandalous” belief forwarded by some in Malta that the youth should be pragmatic and focus on English only, and is proud ofthe fact that so much contemporary and classical literature is available in Maltese today.
The language, with its Semitic roots and Roman alphabet, “encapsulates the mix and match of two very important cultures, which is typical in the Mediterranean region.”
As part of the efforts to protect the Maltese language, Marshall is always on the look out for quality foreign literature to get translated into the local language.
With his eye often on Chinese culture, he is currently working on plans to arrange translations of Chinese poets Ouyang Jianghe, Wang Xiaoni and Zhai Yongming, dramatist Cao Ye, and some of the works of Lu Xun.
“I am very aware of what is being written in China at the moment,” he said, “and I am very fond of some Chinese writers who I am trying to promote here in Maltese.”
MY POETRY IS THEATRE
As Marshall reflects on his multi award-winning writing career to date,he feels his theatre and television directing work is something else that has helped set him apart as a poet.
“My poetry is theatre,” he said, “Essentially, when I write a poem– pure poetry – I cannot escape from my theatrical persona. It is always there… you cannot choose one or the other.”
Over the years, critics who reviewed his work have often commented on the challenges in trying to siphonthe theatrical from the poetic influences, he said.
“To me, that is very true, and I always cultivated this sense of confusion,” he said, “because to me – with modesty – I feel it makes me a different writer than many of my colleagues.”