Prof. Rena Balzan was one of the first Maltese women to have a successful career in scientific research, and she has also written novels and poetry volumes during the last fifty years, for which she received the 2021 National Book Prize Lifetime Achievement Award.
Her main psychological books, published in the 1980s and 1990s, are notable for establishing self-assured, autonomous female voices that broke away from past stereotyped portrayals of female protagonists. She studied for an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy at the University of Malta, where she graduated in 1968.
Her scientific career began with specialised studies in Genetics at the State University of Milan, Italy, and continued with a PhD in Biotechnology/Molecular Biology from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. She was an Associate Professor in Genetics and Molecular Biology at the University of Malta’s Faculty of Medicine and Surgery for several years before becoming Senior Research Adviser.
Rena Balzan was born in 1946 in Siġġiewi, where she was reared and went to school. Her interests in literature and science were intertwined from a young age. Despite being an unusual option for young girls at the time, she knew she wanted to study sciences by secondary school, and she chose physics, chemistry, and biology for future study.
By that time, she had also begun dabbling in poetry and was well-versed in Victorian literature, having read many of Charles Dickens’, Thomas Hardy’s, and Emily Bronte’s works. Balzan was in the orbit of the literary movement during the first years following the founding of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju in 1967, while also occupied 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 been featured in the anthologies Turġien (Gulf Publishing Ltd, 1983) and Alfa (Union Print, 2000), with translations in English, French, Italian, and German.
The following decade saw the publication of three novels by Balzan, beginning 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. Balzan’s books provided a diverse range of modern female voices defending feminist perspectives, as well as a new and significant chapter in the Maltese novel’s history.
Fiż-Żifna ta’ l-Ibliet (Buġelli Publications, 1995), her fourth novel, is a coming-of-age storey that explores the stresses of shifting career and personal relationships against the backdrop of several locations. Bonds in the Mirror of Time (Faraxa, 2014), Antoinette Pace’s translation of Balzan’s third novel, has been published in Malta and the United States.
Balzan has been regarded as a prominent exponent of Maltese feminist fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, relying on complex characters and an observing eye reminiscent of her scientific temperament. Peter Serracino Inglott writes about the relationship between scientific and literary sensibilities in Balzan’s novels, “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 statistically improbable results raised by evolution, even before the appearance of man.”
“The expansion of science into literature results in a storey that evaluates, strives to understand why, presents a formula, and arrives to a conclusion,” says Oliver Friggieri of Balzan as a novelist who narrates according to scientific sensibilities. The scientific technique assists [Balzan] in describing and defining a character while also keeping her from allowing the novel to expand in another direction, especially the path of confined, independent episodes.”
She has published numerous scientific works in prestigious peer-reviewed academic journals such as Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Frontiers in Oncology, Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing), Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, and others during her distinguished research career. She was the Chairperson of the Malta Council for Science and Technology from 1997 to 1998. (MCST). Over the years, she has been involved in a number of studies funded by the MCST R&I Technology Development Programme that have focused on the anti-cancer properties of aspirin on yeast cells and the mechanisms that underpin them – research that Balzan hopes will help pave the way for a better understanding of how aspirin prevents cancer in humans and contribute to the development of more effective drugs for cancer prevention and therapy.
Rena Balzan’s life and work will be commemorated in a special event organised by the National Book Council and conducted at the 2022 Malta Book Festival, providing readers and the general public the opportunity to meet the acclaimed novelist and researcher.
- 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.