At the launch of the book in Parkville, Victoria in March, the feminist author and researcher Dr Robin Burns described the novel Birds of Passage as an account that is “frank and warmly human.” Through her characters Lou Drofenik “interweaves the vexed issues of female servitude in a strongly male dominated world, the dominance of tradition and the tragedy of female oppressions.” However, there are also “some wonderfully independent women” who lead “self-determining lives.”
Birds of Passage is a rare novel about Maltese migration to Australia, but it is also an equally rare account that celebrates, as Lou told me recently, “the resilience of Maltese and Gozitan women.”
Born in Malta, Dr Lou Drofenik (nee Zammit) migrated to Australia at the age of 20 in the early 1960s as part of the Single Women Migrants Scheme. At university in Australia she read for a Masters degree in Education and eventually she wrote a doctoral thesis where she researched the effects of migration on the moral identity of Maltese migrant women in Australia. This research inspired her fictional characters in Birds of Passage. When she was doing research at university she realized that there was little or nothing about Maltese women who migrated to Australia and that “Maltese women lacked a voice.”
Lou Drofenik has been researching Maltese women’s migration for the past twelve years. In an interview on SBS Radio in Australia, she said that it took her more than four years to write Birds of Passage, because she rewrote whole parts of it and edited others a number of times before she was finally satisfied that it was ready for publication.
In her research, and clearly even in her novel, Lou Drofenik focuses on the differences between Maltese women living in Malta and those living in Australia. Those Maltese women who like Lou herself emigrated in the 60s found themselves in an Australia where feminist ideology was being aired in the public domain, an Australia in which women were finally discussing subjects such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality and divorce, that until then had been considered taboo subjects. In another interview on SBS radio, Lou Drofenik explained that these Maltese women had to take positions on these moral issues that were being discussed openly around them without ignoring the values that they had brought with them from Malta. She suggests that what really differentiates Maltese women in Australia from those in Malta is that Maltese-Australian women have had more choices. In the interview she suggests that because they are not bombarded, and therefore perhaps alienated, by religion, Maltese women in Australia needed to use the values they brought with them from Malta as reference points whenever they had to make decisions about morality.
When Lou Drofenik interviewed Maltese-Australian women in their 50s and 60s, she found that for them the family had become a strong moral value in itself. They formed very strong bonds with their children, and with their children’s children, and were ready to do everything for them. “When they left Malta, these migrant women lost the moral community that told them what was right and what was wrong,” and so “they turned to their family in Australia and that became their new “community.”
At the launch of Birds of Passage, the first speaker, Dr Keith Simkin, a lecturer in the School of Educational Studies at the University of La Trobe in Melbourne who has taught in universities and colleges in Australia and Asia, gave an overview of the main themes that Dr. Drofenik dealt with in her doctoral thesis which he supervized. The first theme looked into the reasons why the Maltese went to Australia and “what were the characteristics of Maltese society, culture and life” that influenced the Maltese to leave Gozo and Malta to go to Australia. Dr. Simkin said that in her academic work, Lou Drofenik was “very blunt” about this and that one “could summarize the reasons in probably two words, “exploitation” and “exploiters.”
“Lou was very critical of the exploitation that derived from European colonialism and in her academic work she actually traces the historical antecedents or beginnings of this imperialism and the way it shaped Maltese society.” She was also very critical of “that aspect of the Maltese church which was fossilized, living in the dark ages, and more focussed on ritual than on good human relationships. She was also extremely critical of men,” something which is also very much present in Birds of Passage.
The main part of Lou Drofenik’s research dealt with what life was like in Malta, how it affected people, and “how they struggled to either accommodate to life in Malta or to find a way out of the predicament by migrating somewhere in the New World.”
The second theme was the adaptation of the Maltese to life in Australia. Lou Drofenik “documented the struggles that the Maltese communities faced (because there were very different and varied groups coming from Gozo and Malta) to get a job, to get housing, accommodation, to save up to buy or build a house, to establish communities that would provide them with health, welfare, spiritual guidance, food and sustenance, and to develop community relationships, to recreate if you like, the relationships that they had left behind in Malta. She doesn’t say that life was easy in Australia, far from it.”
Lou Drofenik’s research also tackled the issues of multiculturalism and multilingualism in Australia from a Maltese perspective. Dr Simkin argued that in her thesis she went beyond what a lot of people write in theses about multiculturalism because she started off with the assumption that the Maltese, with their connections with the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Knights, Italians, French, and British “have always been multilingual and multicultural.”
Dr Simkin said that Lou’s academic and creative writing “contributed to my understanding, not only of Malta and the Maltese in Australia, but also to the understanding of human beings in general.” He went on to say, ‘When I read a book I look for a number of things: How clever is the author, in other words, can the author instruct me, can the author teach me; how amusing and entertaining is the author; what do I learn about the author as a person and then what do I learn about all of us by reading the book. Now I think that Lou does all of these things [...] I learned heaps from the book: about Maltese society, about history, about birds, about nature, about fish, about women...”
I met Dr. Lou Drofenik in Malta over a typically overpriced cappuccino in a coffee shop at the Ferries in Sliema. It was one of the most engaging conversations I’d had for some time because she introduced me to a vibrant and different kind of Maltese world that I had always equated exclusively with arguments about whether Maltese emigrants still speak Maltese or whether they celebrate Maltese feasts or make pastizzi in Australia. I was too absorbed to take notes so we agreed we would carry on with our conversation via email.
How right you are! This is the tension that exists in every migrant’s heart. This ambivalent desire that comes from the deep love that we have for our country of origin, this place of our memory and the new country where we have formed new roots and that we have learnt to love and respect. “A migrant always has one foot firmly placed in the country of birth and another in the country of settlement,” I heard someone say and how many times I’ve heard migrants saying that their Malteseness increases with ageing!
Absolutely! And for this I have to thank the wonderful Maltese teachers who gave me a love of literature which opened a vast world for me. Thanks to their encouragement by the time I finished Secondary school I had read extensively, and this opened my eyes not only to other landscapes but also to other lives – other experiences which at that time, I felt could never be my own if I stayed in Malta.
Isn’t that just what the English did? As I was growing up in Malta I always felt that there was a definite apartheid – a sense of them and us, we the servants, they the masters. I well remember when I was little and my dad took me fishing near what used to be the barracks at St. Andrews and we were told to get out by an Englishman. How furious dad was to be told that he couldn’t get to a good fishing spot by someone who saw that part of his beloved beach as belonging to Her Majesty!
The Gange experience is a prime example of institutionalised racism that migrants had to face, racism hidden under different guises. Early Maltese migrants faced this institutionalised racism and they suffered many hardships as a result. The story of racism is well documented by Dr. Barry York in his book Empire and Race: The Maltese in Australia 1881-1949 (1990).
In Australia where I’m writing from, many of the issues are very much of the present. It was quite uncanny that while I was writing the Gange chapter the Australian Government was repeating the very same process with a group of refugees who had been picked up by the Norwegian vessel Tampa because their boat was sinking. They were shuttled backwards and forwards from one island to another till they were sent to Nauru. This happened during a Federal Election campaign and the Liberal Government’s action helped it gain another term of office. Their excuse this time was terrorism, I couldn’t resist the parallels and the fact that history hasn’t taught us much.
I’m glad you brought this up, for the inclusion of those romantic passages was a deliberate attempt to bring different kinds of voices into the narrative. I wanted the passage you speak about to be a celebration of all that is female, the body shape, the gift of reproduction, motherhood, a woman’s sexuality. As I was writing I had a clear picture in my head of the voluptuous, headless statue that was found in Mnajdra and to me this figure was an embodiment of what it is to be a Maltese woman, definitely not the thin almost anorexic figure we aspire to be, but the shape of the women who came before us, our mothers, our aunts and grandmothers.
In Susanna’s time (who was born around 1900) a girl’s upbringing in Malta was quite different to what it is today. Physical punishment was common and mothers were not loathe to use it to keep their daughters submissive. Young women’s lives were monitored and regulated not only by their parents, but by culture and community. Oh the many stories the migrant women tell of their upbringing in the small villages they came from. How they were terrified of what their parents would do if they were caught doing something that was unseemly! And how bold and daring their escapades seemed to them!
Yes, I agree with you. First of all in regards to the second and third generations of Australian / Maltese I feel that our discourse needs to shift towards celebrating and acknowledging their successes and achievements, listening to their voices which believe me, resonate with a wonderful energy in all areas of life, be it in the creative arts, the sciences, in sport or in business. The question of language retention is a dilemma since fewer and fewer of our children and grandchildren are interested in picking up Maltese as they see it to be irrelevant in their lives.
Lou Drofenik’s Birds of Passage is distributed in Malta by Miller and is available from Agenda Bookshops.
|This article was published on The Sunday Times (Malta) on 14 August 2005 and Babelmed|