Sufficient evidence of a cultural complex(1)

Jekk ma tafx l-istorja ta ‘pajjiżek stess, liema storja tkun taf? (2)

1790       amongst the invaders
Place of birth and cultural identifications were not recorded, yet it remains likely that John Pace was the first Maltese sent to Botany Bay. Additional Maltese convicts arrived in 1810, transported for deserting British regiments.(3)

1916       off-shore detention
It is rather remarkable that such a number should arrive on one ship at a time when the plebiscite on conscription was being debated. Should the vote be carried the irruption (3) of Maltese labour would not be exempt. Hitherto the education test has not been applied to the natives of Malta. The British Government were notified by Mr Hughes that this ship’s men would not be admitted. They had travelled on a French vessel, so for a period of about three months, and at a cost of 2234 pounds, the SS Gange housed the 214 in Noumea’s harbour. When the government there objected they waited two more weeks on a hulk on Neutral Bay. Mr Hughes hoped that they might still be sent away. (4)

1926       God save
Upon leaving the military Guiseppe Mifsud signed on the Relion as a cook. When the vessel sank off the Irish coast its crew spent three nights in open boats before making land. With his English wife and daughter he then sailed for Australia. It was rumoured that he had refused to stand for ‘God Save…’ He was accused of spreading Bolshevik propaganda. After he failed his dictation test the family was deported.(5)

1938       Item 7302(6)
a pair of scissors
belonging originally to Teresa Xerri
brought with her that year from Malta
passed on to her daughter Georgina
donated to our museum
by grand-daughter Rita

used in Malta then Australia
to patch and mend
rework and not discard

taqta cut out
aqta ‘barra cut off
aqta’ cut up

1949        live cargo
The proposal that Landing Vessels be employed was rejected as flat-bottomed craft were deemed too uncomfortable for the journey.(7) On November 21, 1949, The Columbia collected 1075 Maltese from Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Three babies died at sea. The Asturias made 15 trips from Malta, the Sydney 39. There were however some complaints in the Maltese press about the seaworthiness of vessels, the type of accommodation on board.(8)

1955        Għana(9)
Duelling guitars, tuned to the key of G
accompany slam poets of the ‘50s.

This pair keen to show
they’re better than the next.

Labourers from St Albans,
with Musical scales from Arabic maqams,

laced with Sicilian folksong.
Tales of Ġaħan slaying giants(10)

so the little guy gets a fair go.
Maltese proverbs with impromptu lines.

A bass reverberating historic sieges,
while some riffs evoke longing

for home.
The voice, sounding like a wail,

the signature of this regular competition
about who can best express pain.

Living relics
of our post-war pop culture

that came to be viewed on YouTube in Malta
as some strange Australian throwback. (11)

50’s to 60’s       child migration
The federal government promoted child migration, claiming it was the best way to populate white Australia. 259 boys and 51 girls travelled alone from Malta so that they could create new lives for themselves in Australia. Some were sent by their parents who believed the Church would liberate their offspring from poverty. The children came to live in Catholic institutions in South and West Australia where they were denied contact with families and made to work on Christian Brothers projects.(12)

1979       Freedom day
British forces leave Malta. The Independent Labour government breaks off relations with NATO and seeks links with the Arab world. After 900 years of being linked to Europe, Malta begins to look southward. (13)

1997       Terra Nullius
when my car broke down
I didn’t understand

why the publican refused to let me use his landline
pointing me to the phone box just 3 km up the road

or why the RACV guy
just grunted and wasn’t much help

or why the boys in the diner
looking for a fight said

you can never tell
but his skin’s so dark

later that night
removing my

first nation T-shirt
the penny dropped

2005       going back
My accent, my clothes
conceal a Maltese birthmark.
I walk the Sliema promenade
as I do every evening.

meet neighbours, friends, where I
know only my otherness.

They don’t understand
how I spend the year living here,
assuming I’m some felon
on the run.

Because here you only make it
if you claw
& claw & claw.

No green spaces, desert air,
or ocean breakers.
Swallowing Pastizzi with Kinnie

only ruins. Stone forms my belly
the Hal-Saflieni temple
of the fat Sleeping Lady

mocked by a row of
dwarf eucalyptus
that just serves to strangle

the concrete path
my father left before.

2020       sufficient evidence
We fail to find sufficient evidence that the treatment you provide is evidence based. I’m not saying that it lacks an evidence base, only that in reading your submission, despite our best efforts, and we do our work thoroughly, we have struggled to identify it.(14)

(1)     By definition, a cultural complex involves a pattern that is unconscious, repetitive, and persistent. It operates at both the group and individual levels. https://www.routledge.com/The-Cultural-Complex-Contemporary-Jungian-Perspectives-on-Psyche-and-Society/Singer-Kimbles/p/book/9781583919149

(2)     if you don’t know the story of your country, what story would you know? (Maltese proverb)

(3)      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltese_Australians

(4)     M. Caruana https://maltamigration.com/history/newcaledonia.html

(5)     https://www.moadoph.gov.au/blog/conscription-1916-who-were-the-maltese-children-of-billy-hughes/

(6)      B. York https://maltamigration.com/history/maltese-australian/prohibited6.html

(7)     Museums Victoria https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/1067281

(8)     L. Attard https://maltamigration.com/history/valve/chapter2a.html

(9)     L. Attard   https://maltamigration.com/history/valve/chapter2b.html

(10)   Traditional Maltese impromptu poetry with accompanying folk guitar known a Għana is still found in the Maltese diaspora but now rarely heard in  Malta.

(11)   This section of of writing was previously published in Walking Home, a chapbook produced by MPU.

(12)    Ġaħan is a wise working-class hero in Maltese folktales, his character initially seems that of a young fool.

(13)    https://www2.umbc.edu/MA/index/number5/ciantar/cia_1/htm

(14)    https://www.naa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/fs-124-child-migration-to-australia.pdf;

The 2020 text is reconstructed from phone call in which a recently appointed senior psychologist from a Victorian government service outlines her rationale to not renew services successfully delivered by a Maltese Psychologist for over a decade.

The rift within :

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric,
but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.
— WB Yeats


in their tongue pa-ma formed a unit
one day           they shifted             an ocean            apart

pa    cold      fixed     logical           ma gesticulating tearfully
dying for  il-mobli          like when I want lollies
(something    perhaps       only  a four-year old      can grasp)
I felt I understood           he was dumb        discordant
but I lacked that word      in their language
or I’d have satisfied her        quick smart
dad said he understood        but that
they’d  be      out of place         here

some years later        our shipping firm delivered
her inlay table         wedding gift from her parents
a portrait by Cali        of her great-grandma
her great-aunt’s  music cabinet           harpist’s initials carved


let’s shed the husks of names     pretend
there’s no such thing as     an inlay table
a portrait     a music cabinet     only
the visible accumulation
of customs and rituals—
solidified symbols, if you like      transported
a distance absurd (to some)     to end up (perhaps) in among

shiny pale minimalist pieces—but I suspect that you, like
me, don’t go in for these     I admit I’m writing
on my parents’ antique table
where the initials M & D
lie like a flourish—a history poached
and kept so long it became our history too     the present
flakes away     but the past is a land that keeps reclaiming me


an elixir  an evocation      a prayer      transporting me
to a state within     turning towards     that Other   engraved in me     who portrays
to be     not of this nation
embodies a language     a way of thinking
that was once the source of  my shame       ’cos
I so wanted to fit in      to settle here
wipe the table clean of
my history      my family      anglicise my name
suppress the melanin in my skin
to chant that I’m an Aussie
tabula rasa    terra nullius   to echo the voice of my father  to declare       poetry
would be out place          here
so I  confess that I once colonised melamine     my telly sits proudly on its Ikea


The knowledge  that  you’re trying to ‘fit in’  can split asunder the very kernel of
you.  There are days I feel adept  at fraudulence  or a coarsely hewn patchwork
through whom                     slivers of light find their way, and I realise                 that
I reside more in these luminous spaces                 than in flimsy solidity.  There is
a territory for the likes of you and I, and it is here in this cursed-blessed space
reserved for the eternal immigrant, urging                us to weave an answer from
the ashes of a                      question. When my mother              insisted on quoting
Petrarch on my father’s                                        grave,     I      hesitated—wouldn’t     it
be out of                        place here?—but when it came her turn, I understood:   we
carve our place in words.

[The second poem is a collaboration with Denise O’Hagan]

Henry Briffa was born in Malta and runs a psychotherapy practice in Naarm (Melbourne). He was shortlisted for the ACU poetry prize and his chapbook Walking Home was published by the Melbourne Poetry Union. His poems have been published in local journals, anthologies and online.

Denise O’Hagan is an editor and poet, born and raised in Italy and living in Sydney. Recipient of the Dalkey Poetry Prize, she has had work shortlisted in the ACU Poetry Prize, Robert Graves Poetry Prize and the Plough Writing Prize. Her second poetry collection is Anamnesis (Recent Work Press 2022).