28 November 2010

In a country where the percentage of readers is among the lowest in Europe, any initiative that can incite Maltese people to read is more than welcome. Nadia Mifsud Mutschler, Maltese writer living in France for the past eleven years, is definitely a booklover. She came up with this interesting, innovative idea of combining two pleasures: the Mediterranean habit of serenely sipping a coffee with that of reading books, magazines, journals, comics and whatever is readable. The idea is to have shelvefuls of books in cafeterias where people can help themselves to a book, read it there while sipping a drink or simply borrow it, take it home and return it at a later date to any café participating in the project.

Nadia Mifsud started collecting all kinds of books in order to interest everyone, to reach all kinds of possible readers. This was an excellent opportunity for family, friends, friends of friends and extended networks to go through their personal libraries and dig out those books they were ready to give away and make room for new ones. She then started looking for partner cafeterias ready to open their doors and welcome books! Nadia Mifsud ended up with bunches of novels, biographies, short stories, magazines, comics, plays, poetry books, children’s books, fairytales and so on, in different languages: mainly Maltese and English, Malta’s two official languages. The campaign has been very successful!

The “author” of the so-called Kampanja Ktieb Kafè (book café scheme) accepted to answer our questions.

How did you get the idea? 
A couple of years ago I heard about a similar reading scheme going on in a village close to Lyon, where I live. This scheme operated with letterbox-style depositories placed outdoors where people could simply drop off their books and borrow others instead. It instantly set me thinking as to how I could adapt this to the Maltese setting. I opted for cafeterias for two reasons: firstly, to avoid vandalism and secondly, because Malta has a vibrant coffee culture. Compared to other countries, people in Malta go out a lot. They usually meet up with friends in cafés, bars, restaurants etc. I thought that putting books in cafés would have a positive impact on people as a first step in associating reading with leisure time.

® Nadia Mifsud

Why did you choose to start it in Malta and what are the objectives? 
I guess I felt – and still do – that the situation in Malta had reached a critical point. It pains me to read reports and statistics about reading patterns in the EU and see that Malta always figures last on the list. More than 50% of the Maltese never pick up a book, and I simply find that shocking. So the main aim behind this project is to encourage reading by making books available free of charge. What I am trying to do is give people the opportunity to simply grab a book and wind down in a pleasant setting. Most of the book donations I received when I started out consisted of reading material for adults; thanks to the support of the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, I was able to purchase nearly 300 books for children and teenagers. It was really very important to me that young readers be able to benefit from such a project. Unfortunately, story-telling sessions for babies and toddlers are still scarce in Malta. Moreover, public libraries are not very popular with parents as they generally offer only a poor selection of titles for young readers. Bedtime reading is still not a widespread phenomenon. It is therefore hardly surprising that the first contact some children have with books is at school. Of course, teachers and school authorities are aware of this general lack of interest in reading. Over the recent years, a good number of schools adopted a “reading diary” scheme: children from age 6 onwards are given a list of around 30 books to read over the scholastic year and asked to write a short summary of each book in their “diary”. Although the original intention behind this initiative was a noble one – school authorities meant to encourage reading – it is now clear that this practice is having the opposite effect on our teenagers. Youngsters view reading as being yet another compulsory activity imposed upon them by teachers, and therefore they consider it boring. In a way,Kampanja Ktieb Kafè aims to counteract this negative feeling and restore the concept of ‘reading for pleasure’. Also, ever since it started to operate, the book café project has been doing its share to promote local authors writing in Maltese or English. Maltese literature is still very young when compared to other European literatures, and unfortunately is not always taken seriously by the general public. There has been some really good material published in the past decade, but to date only a small percentage of the population is aware of this fact. Consequently, Kampanja Ktieb Kafèaspires to act as a platform for new and established writers alike.

When did the campaign start? What were the reactions? 

The campaign kicked off in December 2009 in Valletta (Malta’s capital city). Back then, we only had about 70 books that had been donated mainly by friends, relatives and acquaintances. By January 2010, the number of books went up to nearly 300, mainly thanks to the financial support of the Malta Arts Fund. Donations have since then been coming in on a regular basis from fellow writers, publishers, printing houses, and the general public. Generally speaking, the reactions to this initiative were very positive.

Did you get any support? 
First and foremost, this project would never have been possible without the financial support of the Malta Arts Fund which to date has approved two grants, thus providing the means to purchase new books – in Maltese and English – for young and adult readers alike. Four fellow writers (Clare Azzopardi, Albert Gatt, Claudia Gauci and Pierre J. Mejlak) are currently taking an active part in the project, choosing new titles that will be made available to the public sometime between February and April 2011. Other writers – and publishers – have time and time again donated books. Well-known Maltese artist and illustrator Marisa Attard volunteered to do the official poster. Carmen Fearne, councillor on education and culture at the Marsaskala local council, simply fell in love with the idea and has been in charge of the Marsaskala book café project (which runs parallel to the Valletta project) since August 2009. Unfortunately, over the past 9 months, I have also had to deal with the scepticism expressed by other local councils as to the feasibility of such a project on a long-term basis.

How do you expect this project to develop in future months/years? 
I would love to see this project roll out to other towns and villages across Malta and Gozo, with local cafeterias becoming literary hubs where people simply meet up and discuss books – of course, this could become a reality if there were more sponsors and volunteers backing the project. Also, because Malta hosts more than a million tourists per year (which is a relatively high figure when you keep in mind that the country’s population does not exceed 400, 000 inhabitants), it would be interesting to consider extending the project to hotel lobbies, air and sea terminals (why not even on board aeroplanes and sea ferries?). What better way of ‘exporting’ Maltese literature in translation to our neighbouring Mediterranean countries or even beyond?