Prof. Rena Balzan is one of the first Maltese women to lead a successful career in scientific research and over the past fifty years she has also authored novels and poetry collections for which she’s been recognised with the 2021 National Book Prize Lifetime Achievement Award. Her major psychological novels, published during the eighties and nineties, are known for introducing self-confident, independent female voices that parted ways with earlier stereotypical characterisations of female characters. At the University of Malta she read for an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from which she graduated in 1968. Her research career kicked off with specialised studies in Genetics at the State University of Milan, Italy, followed by a PhD in Biotechnology/Molecular Biology from Cranfield University, U.K. For several years, she was Associate Professor in Genetics and Molecular Biology at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the University of Malta where, at present, she is Senior Research Adviser.
Rena Balzan was born in 1946 in Siġġiewi where she was also raised and attended primary school. Her interest in literature and science coexisted from an early age. Despite an unpopular choice for teenage girls at the time, by secondary school she knew she wanted to study sciences choosing physics, chemistry and biology for further study. By that time she had also started dabbling in writing poetry and had been deeply immersed in Victorian literature having read many of the novels by Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte.
During the first years following the founding of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju in 1967 Balzan was in the orbit of the literary movement while also taken up by her university studies – she published her first work, the Maltese-language poetry and short-story collection Ilwien Moħbija (Veritas Press), a few years later in 1973. Her poems have also appeared in the anthologies Turġien (Gulf Publishing Ltd, 1983) and Alfa (Union Print, 2000) and selections have been translated in English, French, Italian and German.
The following decade Balzan published three novels starting with Fil-Firda l-Għażla (Gulf Publishing, 1981) dealing with the opacity of young love, Il-Ħolma Mibjugħa (Gulf Publishing, 1982), and later Ilkoll ta’ Nisel Wieħed (PEG, 1st ed. 1987, 2nd ed. 1998), a psychological study of its female protagonist, Nada, as she fights off unnecessary constraints imposed by her family and discovers the kind of life she wants to lead and the person she wants to become (Grima, 2010). With these novels Balzan introduced an array of modern female voices advocating feminist viewpoints and a new and important chapter in the history of the Maltese novel (Briffa, 1998). Her fourth novel, Fiż-Żifna ta’ l-Ibliet (Buġelli Publications, 1995), is a coming of age novel exploring the pressures of changing professional and personal relationships against the backdrop of different cities. A translation of Balzan’s third novel by Antoinette Pace, Bonds in the Mirror of Time (Faraxa, 2014), has been published in Malta and the US.
Critical appreciation of the novels in particular have seen Balzan as a major exponent of Maltese feminist literature in the eighties and nineties, relying on complex characters and an observational eye recalling her scientific disposition. While reflecting about the relationship between scientific and literary sensibilities in Balzan’s novels, Peter Serracino Inglott writes that, “the relationships among the characters are woven like the chemical elements that make up a biological cell, with the addition of mysterious factors that heighten the intensity of the questions about chance and the statistically improbable results raised by evolution, even before the appearance of man” (1989). Oliver Friggieri also comments on Balzan as a novelist that narrates according to scientific sensibilities, “The extension of science into literature results in a narrative that analyses, seeks to understand why, offers a formula, comes to a conclusion. The scientific method helps [Balzan] to describe and define a character, and concurrently keeps her away from the possibility of allowing the novel to develop in another direction, including in the direction of contained, autonomous incidents” (1995).
Throughout a distinguished research career she has published numerous scientific works in prestigious peer-reviewed academic journals including Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Frontiers in Oncology, Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing), Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications and others. Between 1997 and 1998 she served as Chairperson to the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST). Over the past decades she has been involved in numerous studies funded by the MCST R&I Technology Development Programme focusing on the anti-cancer properties of aspirin on yeast cells and the mechanisms behind it – research that Balzan hopes will help pave the way towards a better understanding of how aspirin prevents cancer in humans and contribute to the development of more effective drugs for cancer prevention and therapy (Farrugia, 2015).
The life and work of Rena Balzan will be celebrated during a dedicated special event organised by the National Book Council and held at the 2022 Malta Book Festival, giving an opportunity to readers and the general public to meet the distinguished author and researcher.
Literary works by Rena Balzan
- Ilwien Moħbija. Veritas Press, Malta, 1973.
- Fil-Firda l-Għażla. Gulf Publishing Ltd., Malta, 1981.
- Il-Ħolma Mibjugħa. Gulf Publishing Ltd., Malta, 1982.
- Turġien (anthology). Gulf Publishing Ltd., Malta, 1983.
- Ilkoll ta’ Nisel Wieħed. Publishers Enterprises Group (PEG) Ltd., Malta, l-ewwel edizzjoni, 1987; it-tieni edizzjoni, 1998.
- Bonds in the Mirror of Time. FARAXA Publishing, Malta/USA, 2014.
- Fiż-Żifna ta’ l-Ibliet. Buġelli Publications, Malta, 1995.
- Alfa (anthology). Union Print Co. Ltd., Malta, 2000.
- Il-Maltin Kontemporanji. Les Dauphins 2, iusEAed., Paris-Lecce, 1985.
- Europa in Versi. La poesia femminile del ‘900 a cura di Luce d’Eramo e Gabriella Sobrino. Cooperative Editrice il Ventaglio, Roma, 1989.
- Malet. Literatur aus Malta. Verlag Ute Schiller und Das Arabische Buch, Berlin, 1989.
- Souffles No. 184. Publication Subventionnée par le Conseil Régional Languedoc-Roussillon, France, 1998.
- Le Jardin d’Essai – Écritures contemporaines. No. 21/22, France, 2001.
- Briffa, Charles. Il-Proża tal-Femminiżmu: Studju kritiku dwar ‘Ilkoll ta’ Nisel Wieħed’, Publishers Enterprises Group (PEG) Ltd., Malta, 1998.
- Farrugia Gianluca, ‘Of Science and Literature’, Think Magazine, 2015.
- Friggieri, Oliver., ‘Rena Balzan: Il-Kriżi skond Verżjoni Femminili’, daħla kritika għal Fiż-Żifna ta’ l-Ibliet, Pubblikazzjoni Bugelli, Malta, 1995, p. xv-xvi.
- Grima, Adrian. ‘Cultivating complexity: Maltese/Australian women in Lou Drofenik’, Acta Scientiarum. Language and Culture, vol. 32, no. 1, 2010, pp. 83-96, Universidade Estadual de Maringá, Brasil.
- Serracino Inglott, Peter., ed., Ilħna Mkissra, Pubblikazzjoni Bugelli, Malta, 1989, p.113.