What I’ve Squeezed Out of 2017

Though in some ways it’s become little more than a social media habit at this point, I think good habits which have some value become rituals, and I like rituals very much.

So despite the fact of it all being something of a knee-jerk thing that “everybody’s doing”, I’d like to do my own take on some of the most significant things that happened to me and around me in 2017.

Got married

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This may be the logical “big one”, if only because others may expect you to elevate it into a ‘Life Event’, perhaps one of the very few Ultimate Life Events that you get to savour and be honoured by.

Needless to say — for the sake of those who know us quite well, at least — neither V. nor I hold all that much earnest faith in the Institution of marriage per se, and would, to mention just one example, count our respective writing-based milestones (novel in my case, PhD in hers) as being the more important moments worth truly celebrating.

Nonetheless, it does feel great to be “tied” to someone like V., whose values and way of life not only match but also enrich my own with each passing day. Plus, both of our wedding parties — the official ceremony held at a distinctly unofficial venue, and the more full-blown party at the idyllic family vineyard in Monterotondo — made for truly memorable funtimes for all involved, so that has to be worth something, surely.

Got to WorldCon

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The gods of both speculative fiction and state financing smiled upon me this year too, and my new wife and I jetted off to Helsinki soon after that latter celebration in Monterotondo to experience both the city itself and WorldCon 75.

I got there in large part thanks to a grant from Arts Council Malta which aims to help out local “creative practitioners” to travel to relevant places to attend relevant events that could, ostensibly, help them sharpen the tools of their trade and/or aid them in their careers.

20746102_10159509694275019_520479762851342923_oWhile the organisers were also kind enough to put me on a couple of panels, the real upshot of all this was being able to meet some people I truly admire face-to-face. Talking shop is one thing though, and that’s all good stuff, but the best thing about it all was to discover just how generous and pleasant to be around they all were.

Then there was Helsinki itself. It’s the furthest north I’ve ever been, and the perfect August weather, coupled with the more socio-aesthetic balm of the city’s clever architecture, wide open spaces and efficient transport system felt like a break in more ways than one.

Got to deal with disappointment 

Having aspirations of pursuing a creative writing career also means fielding disappointment and dealing with rejection on a regular basis.

This year has also been something of a whammy in this regard; as a short film we hoped to get made didn’t get through to the desired funding stream, an enthusiastic-at-first literary agent didn’t bite once they processed a full manuscript, and the comic book series I’m currently working on with a pair of kick-ass visual artists — MIBDUL — didn’t make it to our desired deadline (for very legitimate reasons, I hasten to add).

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Pictured: Kick-ass collaborators

While I won’t deny that some of this has hit hard initially, with mild aftershocks coming back to haunt me every now and then, I’ve also accepted that this is par for the course for the path that I’ve chosen.

And in addition to all of that, it must also be said that each rejection came with its own caveats. We are re-applying for that short film because it’s a project we truly believe in. The literary agent’s rejection letter was actually a beautiful — even poetic — personalised missive that extolled the intrinsic value of the work, and I’m far from discouraged in continuing to pursue not only other agents, but the project in question (expanding an earlier work into something larger). And MIBDUL remains on track, with the added edge that it’s do or die at this point. And we have absolutely every intention to “do”.

Got to freelance for another year 

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We’re constantly being bombarded with the notion that ours is a time of endemic instability and chaos; so much so that choosing a freelance lifestyle may seem counter-intuitive, if not outright self-destructive.

But another way to look at it would be to celebrate the fact that, despite everything, one can survive without being tied of a larger organisation for an inordinate amount of time, and that you can in fact face the turbulent economic waters armed with just your skills and come out of it all, if not all-out-triumphant, at least only mildly scraped.

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Pictured: The real freelance perks

Over the past year — my first official one as a freelancer — I’ve learned to calibrate both my rates and my time, learning from my mistakes and hoping not to get burned again, as has tended to happen. All of this while acknowledging that the opportunities given to me during this period would not have been possible had I not “apprenticed” myself in a more stable working environment for long years beforehand.

And perhaps the two biggest freelance coups of the past year were taking on the role of editor for Encore Magazine, as well as being given the privilege to teach a bit of Creative Writing at my alma mater. These feel like ‘vertical’ achievements (as opposed to the more ‘horizontal’ accumulation of same-ish jobs that one sometimes has to take on) and I hope they lead to good stuff in the future.

Got to ditch nihilism

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Because devaluing the best things in life is stupid

A sort of pre-resolution resolution, this one. Owing to a number of things, 2017 could also be marked as the year during which I’ve entirely separated myself from anything remotely to do with the fetishisation of nihlism. This counts double for the New Atheists and all that they “inspired”.

While it’s unlikely that I’ll ever fall in line with any established world religion (monotheism feels entirely separate from the way I view things, for one thing), I value my wellbeing too much to submit entirely to total existential relativism.

Some kind of internal coherence is important — to remind yourself of what you need at a deeper level, to remind yourself of your ‘values’ and to build up necessary defences against the very same chaotic world that appears to be pushing you to believe in nothing but your basest needs.

Featured image by Paolo Scippo

Have an excellent new year, all. 

 

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End of Year Favourite Things | Horror, Revisionism, Punishment and Thor(s)

As I’ve mentioned in my last post, December took it upon itself to welcome me with a nasty sucker-punch of the flu: a freelancer’s nightmare in a season when all the clients want things done in bulk so that everyone can rest up during the holidays.

But one upside of it all is being able to soak in all the stuff I would have soaked in otherwise, but with an added single-mindedness… partly owing to the fact that I could do little else and so was justified in spending days on end just reading and watching things.

So here are some recent things I’ve consumed and enjoyed during that period… though some of them were either consumed or begun before the illness hit. Either way, feel free to allow them to double-up as gift ideas. Am sure the indie creators on the list would appreciate that especially.

Tanzer_CREATURES_OF_WILL_AND_TEMPER_finalCreatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer (novel)

I was never too keen on the ‘& Zombies’ sub-genre of literature, if we can call it that. It just seems like such a one-trick-pony gimmick that to spread it out over an entire book — much less an entire unofficial series of them — just struck me as a bit redundant and silly.

Having said that, I did enjoy the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film, in large part because director Burr Steers deftly shot all of it as a Jane Austen pastiche first and foremost, with the zombies having to blend in with the established ‘heritage film’ mise-en-scene, rather than overpowering everything into pulp madness once they do show up.

Rest assured that Tanzer’s novel — a meticulously put together gender-swapped take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray — owes very little to the ‘& Zombies’ trend, save for perhaps this last element. When the supernatural element does rear its ugly head, it does so in world with firm period rules already established, and in a story about sibling angst that stands front-and-centre for the bulk of the running time.

The result is an experience that is both immersive and captivating; a Victorian pastiche and tribute to the legacy of Wilde that very much scratches those familiar itches, while also offering a fun, pulpy comeuppance in the end.

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The-Man-Who-Laughs-CoverThe Man Who Laughs by David Hine & Mark Stafford (graphic novel)

The last thing I did before getting sick was attend Malta Comic Con 2017, and a fun time that was indeed. Meeting old friends and new under the spell of our geeky obsessions is an experience that’s tough to beat. I also spent an inordinate amount of money on comics and artwork and no, I regret nothing.

Particularly when it concerns undeniable gems such as these — a work that once again draws on a literary classic, though one certainly not as universally lauded as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As writer David Hine writes in an afterword to this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s L’ Homme qui rit — perhaps more famous for a silent film adaptation starring Conrad Veidt which in turn inspired look of Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker — the original novel, a late-period Hugo miles away from the populist charm of a Les Miserables, is something of a convoluted, knotted beast whose socio-political digressions he’s had to cut down to ensure the story flows as well as it can.

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Mark Stafford, ladies and gentlemen

Stripped down as such, and aided by tremendous illustration work from artist Mark Stafford, the volcanic melodrama at the centre of the story — and it is a melodrama, though perhaps in the best possible sense of the word — is allowed to come to the fore, and I practically tore through the pages as my heart raced, yearning to discover the fate of poor perma-rictus-infested Gwynplaine and his fragile adoptive family.

Stafford’s work really is tremendous, though. His grasp of the grotesque idiom works to highlight both the social horror and sublime tragedy that frames the whole story, and the chalk-like colouring technique adds that something special to the feel of each page.

The assured lines and deliberate exaggerations brought to mind the work of Lynd Ward, and in any case — here’s a story that definitely shares some genetic make-up with God’s Man, dealing as it does with the venal, compromising nature of the world.

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winnebagoWinnebago Graveyard by Steve Niles and Alison Sampson (comics)

Collecting all the single issues of the titular series, this is another gorgeous artefact I managed to pick up at Malta Comic Con, this time from its affable and keenly intelligent artist, Alison Sampson, who was kind enough to sign my copy over a chat about the comic’s intertextual DNA of ‘Satanic panic’ and folk horror.

It’s a lovely-to-the-touch, velvety volume that comes with generous backmatter expounding on the same DNA, but what’s in between isn’t half bad either.

A simple story about a family being shoved into a deeply unpleasant situation — i.e., an amusement park that dovetails into a Satanic human-sacrifice ritual — is elevated away from cliche by Sampson’s art, which flows from one panel to another — often letting rigid panel divisions hang in the process, actually — in a grimy-and-gooey symphony.

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god butcherThor: The God Of Thunder (Vols. 1 & 2) by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic (comics)

More comics now, though this one only confirms that I’m as much of a lemming to the machinations of popular culture as anyone else. To wit: when Comixology announced a discount-deal on a bunch of Thor comics in the wake of the brilliant and hilarious Thor: Ragnarok, I bit like the hungriest fish of the Asgardian oceans.

I’m glad I succumbed to this obvious gimmick, though, because it gave me the chance to catch up with this gem of a story arc, which gives us three Thors for the price of one, all of them trying to stop not just their own Ragnarok but the ‘Ragnarok’ of all the gods of the known universe, as the vengeful Gorr vows to unleash genocide on every single divine creature out there.

The two storylines out of the run that I’ve read so far — ‘The God Butcher’ and ‘Godbomb’ — felt like such a perfect distillation of everything that makes superhero comics work. A grandiose, epic story of ludicrously huge stakes, sprinkled with a necessary indulgence in pulp craziness (Thor on a space-shark, anyone?) which is in turn deflated by the strategic deployment of self-deprecating humour (the sarcastic back-and-forth between the Thors is a pure delight).

Ribic’s art seals the deal though. His gods certainly look the part — they may as well have been carved out of marble — helped along by the clean, gleaming shimmer that is Dean White’s colouring work.

While I eagerly look forward to devouring the latter half of the series, this rounds off a great year in Norse-related literature for me, during which I’ve enjoyed Christine Morgan’s across-the-board excellent The Raven’s Table from Word Horde, while I’m currently devouring Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology — a book that so far displays the popular myth-maker’s slinky and pleasant way with words, if nothing else.

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The Punisher (TV)

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Another Marvel product that needs no signal-boosting for me, but which I found gripping enough through its 13-episode run, for some obvious and less-obvious reasons. Yes, updated as it is to insert a too-easy critique of the American military-industrial complex (though really, only of its “bad apples”), Frank Castle’s adventures offer an easy cathartic kick.

As the title character of another show I love dearly — far, far more dearly than The Punisher or anything else for that matter — would have it, “Doing bad things to bad people makes us feel good“.

But that wasn’t what stayed with me. What stayed with me was Frank’s very nature as a “revenant” — he’s even referred to as such by another character at one point — and how that’s hammered home by the fact that he’s made to operate from an underground lair as his true self, but that when he returns temporarily to the surface, it is as if he were alive again, but only when he wears his new disguise.

A mythic touch in a story that revels in its supposed grittiness, and a welcome one too.

Happy holidays to all!

Writing and Rebuilding | Motivational Roundup

I’m just emerging from a nasty tussle with the flu, so I write this with a paradoxical mix of mental battle-weariness and an eagerness to Get Things Done, given the powerlessness that I’ve been forced to operate under for the past week.

It often shocks me just how much we underestimate the mental defenses we have or don’t have; how quick we are to forget that the intellectual constitution we build up is important to our day-to-day. Getting sick, even with something mundane as the flu, will remind you of all that real quick. At a certain point during the worst of the fever-dream deluge, I was actually facing a demon tempting me into oblivion — the oblivion of giving up whatever I was doing and going into a 9-to-5 kind of setup, that is — while a terrifying pool of black ink just unspooled around its horizontal, muscular form that continued to dwarf and dwarf me further. Yeah.

So now that all that’s more or less (thankfully) over, it feels apt — even, that derided and often ill-used word, “natural” — to take stock of some of the stuff I’ve been up to over the past few months.

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One of the main steps forward I’ve undergone professionally since October is accepting to return to a feature-writing gig at the olde homestead of MaltaToday. Well, I say “step forward”, when it actually constitutes something of a return to the stuff I used to do for them while full-time. But doing it at a freelance basis changes the dynamic somewhat, and actually reminds me why this particular facet of the job was always so satisfying.

That’s because it’s great to be given wider berth to explore topics that lie just outside my immediate comfort zone of the local arts and culture scene, given how a bulk of the features I’ve been writing concern issues like immigration, education, public transport and gentrification. Here are a few of my favourites from that batch.

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‘My father was embraced with open arms by the Maltese – if that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t exist’

Omar Rababah

Omar Rababah. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

Syrian-Maltese social worker Omar Rababah sat down for a chat about the double-standards that enable Maltese racism to thrive. As someone with foreign blood but who was also raised — if not, like Omar, born — in Malta, I found a lot with which to identify in his story, something that certainly comes out in the article itself.

Click here to read the article

How neoliberal capitalism shaped Tigné Point to sell the Valletta view

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Another piece that ended up being quite close to home, in more ways than one. A precis of an academic paper about the geo-economic dynamics of my old neighbourhood of Tigné in Sliema, the article details how the area gradually shifted from being primarily a place of, you know, basic human habitation, into a place that exists primarily to cater to the needs of economically steroid-pumped neoliberal capitalism.

Click here to read the article

Homophobic hate speech in Malta has decreased. Why are foreigners still a problem?

A recent report has shown that while homophobic tendencies have thankfully been on the decline in recent years — in large part, no doubt, to the LGBTIQ-friendly measures implemented into government policy — xenophobia remains rife as ever. The reasons for this are both predictable and revealing.

Click here to read the article

Can social media launch the revolution against our national dependence on cars?

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Out of the box, into the box: Parking Space Events

As a non-driver myself, I’ve experienced the ins-and-outs of the local public transport system through its many permutations over the years. It’s been challenging, but still not challenging enough to convince me to take up driving, particularly in as densely populated and heavily-motorised island like Malta. However, I’m in the vast minority on this one… a problem that this article addresses by speaking to a few individuals who are thinking outside the box in an attempt to circumvent the traffic problem.

Click here to read the article 

The view from the other side: Arnold Cassola on the Magnificent Süleyman

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Arnold Cassola. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

It always gives me great pleasure to puncture through any instances of jingoism, and in Malta’s case The Great Siege stands as just about the loudest of that genre of political rhetoric. I’ve done it in the past, and the latest publication by historian and politician Arnold Cassola gave me a chance to do it once again — albeit in a reduced, more subtle capacity. It’s a history from the perspective of the person that the kitsch-populist narrative will have you believe was the “villain” of the piece, and it makes for a great and necessary insight.

Click here to read the article

‘It’s bizarre how some people in funding bodies perceive critique as an affront’

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Karsten Xuereb

I’ve flagged up this chat with Karsten Xuereb — former Executive Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation — not too long ago on this very venue, and it remains one of my favourite of this bunch so far. Namely because it’s so refreshing to hear someone speak openly about the systemic failures and own-goals of a project that was meant to deliver long-term success to the local cultural scene, only to be degraded into what looks to be — for the most part — a shallow display of crowdpleasing.

Click here to read the article

Turning ourselves into human capital

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Wayne Flask. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

And now for something a lot closer to my usual wheelhouse. I spoke to my good friend Wayne Flask right before the launch of his debut novel, Kapitali, published by Merlin and launched during last month’s Malta Book Festival. Though I have some reservations about the novel’s narrative structure — reservations that I’ve openly voiced to its author when prompted, I hasten to add — there’s no mistaking the urgency of its satirical ‘mission’, and I’m truly glad that it seems to have found an audience.

Click here to read the article

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There’s been some other stuff along the way too, and there will — of course — be more of it coming each week. Sickness or holidays, ours is a profession that never sleeps. But beyond all this, I’m also — as ever — eager to get back to a horror movie screenplay, whose on-the-page writing has finally kicked into earnest gear after years of treatments and synopses.

And in the wake of the very successful Malta Comic Con 2017, I’m only more eager to finish off MIBDUL — which, despite the many delays that dogged it, remains a beacon for me and, I’m sure, my collaborators. But another idea also hatched while chatting to some Greek creators over coffee and minced pie on that first comic con morning, so that needs seeing to as well…

Hey, we need to keep that black demonic pool at bay somehow, right?

More later!

The kids of the demon haunted night | Starr Creek by Nathan Carson

We’re getting to see a lot of phenomena unspool over the pop culture sphere in recent years, months, even perhaps days — their frequency is a direct consequence of the kind of internet-related chatter that I wanna discuss here — partly because we’re now quick to label things as all-out phenomena, or at least consider them as such privately, even subconsciously.

We can attribute at least some of this tendency to gush about things to stratospheric profusion to the ease with which geeky enthusiasm can spread online — encouraged by the producers and promoters of the ‘art’ in question, the rudiments of Web 2.0 (are we past even that now?) are weaponised to make sacred fetishes out of even, frankly, the flimsiest of materials.

Stranger Things Eleven

Phenomenon: Millie Bobbie Brown as ‘Eleven’ in Stranger Things (2016, Duffer Brothers)

But although a lot of this may have just a temporary effect — a film, TV show, book or comic book series could arrive in an explosive flurry of online enthusiasm which turns to mere embers just a couple of days later — it’s an effect that imminently repeatable and desirable for those at the top of the food chain the Meat Factory of Story that can still — despite our aggressively materialist times — churn out big business for those who play their cards right.

And one sure-fire way of making big business in a world where semiotic signifiers are an important stepping stone to success (read: where a healthy-enough accumulation of hashtags and social media shares can actually alchemise into cold, hard cash) is to tap into a rich stash of references.

There’s a fine line between the kind of recognition and familiarity that can result in something feeling boring, repetitive and ultimately unnecessary… and the kind that evokes feelings of comfort, kinship and a desire for connection. Pull the latter off, and you’ve tapped into that strong fount of subconscious desire called nostalgia which, as anyone alive would tell you, means seriously big bucks.

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Who you gonna call? Nos-tal-gia! (Stranger Things 2, 2017, Duffer Brothers)

One phenomenon to tap into that same fount is the Duffer Brothers’ television series Stranger Things, first appearing on the Netflix streaming service last summer and definitively declaring itself as a bricolage of 1980s nostalgia for all of us to shamelessly enjoy. And enjoy it we did, en masse and with reckless abandon, even aided and abetted (for the most part) by an enthusiastic critical mass of professional reviewers that helped to validate our love for a show that pushes just the right nostalgia-buttons.

So brazen is its soup of references and Easter eggs — though the Duffers also make sure to craft a catchy-enough story and direct their child actors to perfection, to ensure that it does not just, in fact, become some detached postmodern experiment — that the show could almost be described in tones of pure ritual.

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In the two seasons of it we’ve had so far, the running time has constantly dredged up one association after another, each of which — for those of a Certain Generation, at least — has recalled at least one touchstone from the movies of Steven Spielberg or the books-made-into-movies by Stephen King and an entire raft-load of others (though I would argue that, for all its busy panoply of references, ET and The Body/Stand by Me give us the strongest and most consistent associative threads here).

Starr Creek Book Cover

Yeah, we’ll be getting to this in a second. Promise.

With everything calibrated to create a perfect snap of recall in our minds, it becomes nothing short of a huge-scale communal exercise of shared mental experience across the hashtagosphere.

The show, whose seasons arrive to us in bulk — all the better to be binge-watched, all together — is a manifestation of Pure Archetype; but archetypes that are recent-enough to strike a real emotional chord, while also being just distant enough to feel as if they’re emanating from a subconscious place of buried, chthonic connections. (To wit: the 1980s is not Ancient Greece, even if Stranger Things’s Demogorgon evokes associations old-enough to pertain to the latter.)

Stranger Things demogorgon

This is certainly one layer of the ‘kids in ’80s getting into world-saving antics’ that a recent short novel emphatically does not partake in, even if it may embody the Stranger Things vibe in other aspects of its make-up.

I’m talking here about Starr Creek by Nathan Carson, a fun book written before Stranger Things was first aired, but which is also set in a rural American milieu during the 80s — specifically, a small town in Oregon in 1986 — and which also pits a band of kids against a supernatural threat that has chosen to make its nesting ground in their otherwise unremarkable suburban backyard.

Starr Creek Map

Starr Creek Rd, Oregon. Real place.

But unlike the fictional town of Hawkins in Stranger Things — which fittingly joins a tradition also espoused by Stephen King himself with the fake ‘Derry’ in Maine — the eponymous road of Carson’s Starr Creek is a real place, around which Carson himself grew up.

And while the main trio of kids that make up Carson’s cast of characters — Kira, Allen and Bron — share the same predilection for Dungeons and Dragons as their Stranger Things counterparts, they’re not exactly the eminently plucky and largely squeaky-clean lite-weirdos of the Duffer Brothers. These kids trip on LSD to enhance their D&D games, though when they start chasing around extra-dimensional entities in the woods, that enhancement gains an edge of sublime horror.

And the trio soon comes head to head with another couple of outsiders looking for kicks — in this case, a shameless though understandable quest for nudie magazines — but who end up poking a particularly dangerous avatar of said extra-dimensional creatures, in a way that may just threaten the very fabric of existence if the kids don’t band together to do something about it.

That synopsis makes Carson’s book feel no different than just the kind of phenomena I was describing earlier but as ever, the devil is in the details. Drawing on lived-in experience rather than a desire to exploit the collective unconscious by cherry picking, and stringing together, nostalgic genre touchstones, Carson draws on convention to create a fun framing narrative, while stuffing the rest with memorable, hard-won texture.

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Starr Creek Review Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson in the book trailer for Starr Creek

The character of ‘Puppy’ who pushes us into the dark corners of this narrative from the word go quickly forces us to watch him eat dog food for money, and the kids’ interactions and overarching milieu is described with affection, yes, but never the kind of mawkish sentimentality that often threatens to tip Stranger Things over into something less than its potential demands. And the pop culture references that do feature in Carson’s book are made in-story, not meta-textually to score audience-engagement points… the kids lament the suddenly and unfairly jacked-up prices of comic books (75c!), they enthuse about The Last Starfighter and listen to Metallica…

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

And when it comes to the crunch, the Elder Ones are invoked in earnest. While the Duffer Brothers paid lip service to the legacy of controversial Weird Fiction behemoth HP Lovecraft by claiming that the super-demogorgon features in the second season of the show is inspired by the author’s infamous reason-shattering tentacular beasts, Carson’s more sanguine approach throughout ensures that the nihilistic core of Lovecraft’s work is also paid tribute to… for better or worse.

While the likes of Stranger Things will continue to massage us into pleasant nostalgic oblivion — appreciating the more horror-tinged second season despite the mis-step that was Episode Seven, I’m certainly looking forward to Season 3 — Carson’s slim, weird and vicious little novella offers a more ‘genuine’ take on the same sub-genre (come on, this kind of thing has surely solidified into a sub-genre by now).

A howl of partly-autobiographical mad fun by a doom metal drummer (Carson is a member of Witch Mountain), Starr Creek takes one glance at the archetypal melting pot before going on to its own thing… grabbing you by the collar and stringing you along the eponymous road on a demon-haunted night.

Capital of Culture blues | Sebastian Olma & Karsten Xuereb on Valletta 2018

Running a Capital of Culture is bound to be something of a handful, particularly in the case of a small island like Malta, for whom the opportunity — to be seized by Valletta in 2018 — also comes with an added pressure of expectation.

Many believe that being pushed to be European Capital of Culture gives us no excuse but to “upgrade” our cultural product (in all its forms)… not least because it all means a healthy injection of funds all-round.

But, as tends to happen with any initiative in which the long arm of centralised government tends to have a large stake in, the exigencies of ego, propaganda and the natural cycle of a capitalist system that needs to reduce even the most outwardly ephemeral and transcendent things into tangible free-market puzzle pieces will ensure that a particular kind of rot sets in and muddies the enterprise.

And over the past couple of weeks, two interviews I’ve conducted and written up for ‘the day job’ go some way towards addressing the matter; coming at it from varied angles of specificity and intention.

Karsten Xuereb: “Taking people for a ride”

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Karsten Xuereb

Suddenly and somewhat mysteriously removed from his post as Executive Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, Karsten Xuereb — otherwise a researcher into cultural policy — had a frank chat with me about how the Foundation’s efforts appear from the outside, looking in.

He had particularly salient things to say about how the Valletta 2018 project appears to be playing it safe — and pandering to the lowest-common-denominator — by pitching the entire endeavour in the key of ‘celebration’, or festa… somewhat redundant given how Malta’s stuffed with them already. But the systemic drive to reduce everything to what is the most “popular” is an even more grave concern.

“I think it’s taking people for a ride. It just dumbs down the idea of excellence with the excuse of making cultural events more accessible. The line of thinking seems to be, ‘Yes, excellence is important, but we also need to reflect society’. To me, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Read the full interview

Sebastian Olma: “Market value has become the overriding factor”

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Sebastian Olma speaking during the launch of his latest book, In Defense of Seredipity, at the V2_Lab for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam (Photography by Gustav Velho)

And in the very same edition of the paper (i.e., last Sunday’s) I got a chance to interview the writer and academic Sebastian Olma, whose interest in the evolution of urban spaces resulted in wonderfully expansive replies that, perhaps unwittingly but most certainly ironically, ended up “pointing the finger where it hurts” when it came to how initiatives like the Capital of Culture impact their communities.

(Ironic, because the interview was conducted ahead of him speaking at a Valletta 2018 organised conference — Living Cities, Livable Spaces Placemaking)

“At the core of the Creative City paradigm is the notion of intercity competition, which means that the success or failure of a city depends on how attractive it is for investors and tourists. This has led to an incredible homogenisation of our urban environments because market value has become the overwriting factor for urban policy making.

It has made our cities less creative and innovative as the habitat for cultural difference – what traditionally we refer to as public space – is quickly shrinking. This is what happens when culture and the arts have to dance to the tune of the market because the market is by its very nature a force of homogenisation: it makes differences disappear by expressing diverse phenomena in the only language it understands, i.e., money.”

Read the full interview

Lullabies to Paralyse

I didn’t want there to be such a radio silence up here for such a long time. As October got underway, I hit upon the idea of leading up to Halloween with a fun little round-up of mini-reviews of season-appropriate stuff I’ve been reading – and to be fair, I did manage to roll out a first-and-only installment with my review of Kali Wallace’s deliciously autumnal sophomore effort, the Young-Adult-but-don’t-let-that-stop-you novel The Memory Trees.

But then, life happened, as it tends to. The freelancer cup did overrun this month, and I suppose I should be grateful for that; stress and lack of time to update one’s blog and continue pottering away at ‘passion projects’ notwithstanding. The good news is that I did manage to keep up with the reading schedule – I devoured John Langan’s The Fisherman, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, and enjoyed all of them – but apart from brief Facebook missives, that’s all there was to show for it.

(I also owe the great gents who are Neil Willamson and Nathan Carson some reviews for their juicy and memorable takes on various genres, and I promise that’s upcoming very soon). 

It could have simply been a matter of scheduling. But it could also have been down to that other thing. The thing that once again thrust Malta into the international spotlight. The thing that put a lot of the hyper-local controversies, paradoxes and scandals into far sharper relief, now.

Because the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was one of those events you can’t run away from. You can’t shake them off from your mind and get back to your things with a business-as-usual attitude. Because, unlike the many petty grievances (that nonetheless still betray something of a rotten core) which I talked about in a previous blog post, a murder hits a far more direct note than the rote examples of corruption and complacency that gnaw away at us otherwise.

I was of course not alone in reacting to the numbing effect of such an event with, well, a pervasive, deep-seated sense of numbness. And after it had all just about started to subside, then came the reactions in earnest; some knee-jerk, some more considered and others, quite wide-ranging in scope, such as the rapid-fire succession of protest and ‘civil society’ actions, most of which were well-attended enough to possibly break local records, but all of which soon became mired in the kind of controversy that is unavoidable in a country where the partisan divide is so stark as to be almost physically tangible.

But neither am I too comfortable in suggesting that Daphne’s murder made me stop thinking and reading and writing – first of all, that would simply have been false because I have continued to read and write all the while, the only difference being that it’s been happening at a far slower pace than I’d hoped it would, now that the climate has cooled down and I could have, theoretically, begun to power through some work that would make me proud and remind me there’s tons left to do, and tons to live for.

No, I will not inject this event with an unsavoury jolt of facile, narcissistic tragic romance. And much as I strongly believe that the mythological idiom is an underused device in today’s age of bitty, rolling info-nuggets which more often than not, offer stimuli disguised as truth, I don’t think that mythologising Daphne or reducing her murder into some kind of commemorative meme would help to make the best out of a terrible situation.

The effect is disorienting. Before the murder, I had my issues with Malta, but I still felt as though I had the tool to process them and make something drinkable out of what are still essentially rancid lemons. Now, that suspect juice produces only poison, and I’m not sure what to do with it.

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Of course, it all changes on a day-to-day basis. One mantra that I’m trying to maintain is one that’s similar to “Don’t let the terrorists win” – which is facile and shallow in its own way, but it can be the kind of ‘fake it till you make it’ device to get some coherence back up in your brain.

I intend to not let this lull continue, and will be back with a quick report of some of the stuff I’ve written for ‘day-job’ purposes, and some ideas I’ve had swirling around regarding books, authors, film and TV. Because what else can you do?

(Featured image: Ruth Borg in the upcoming, Malta-shot ‘Bahar Zmien’ — Of Land and Sea, directed by Peter Sant. Photo by Michael Galea)

Halloween Reads | The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

“A memory was a thing with no shape, no mass, but indescribable weight. Words spoken in cold winter air, secrets shared, a sprint, a chase, a favor, these things had their own gravity, distorting everything around them like the heaviest star, shaping time and space even when the heart remained hidden.” – Kali Wallace

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These lines open the fourteenth chapter of Kali Wallace’s second novel, The Memory Trees, and they perfectly encapsulate the melancholy but deeply immersive nature of the author’s follow-up to Shallow Graves. Both novels are squarely targeted the ‘Young Adult’ crowd, but, happily, what the successor shares with its predecessor is also an appealing way of crafting characters who are sympathetic and beleaguered but never annoying, and whose ‘young adult’ parameters don’t stop its author from delving into some perennial themes.

The sixteen-year-old Sorrow Lovegood decides to take a trip back to her estranged mother’s rural home in Vermont from Miami, where she’s living with her dad and where, crucially, she is undergoing therapy — in large part due to the tragic (and still mysterious) death of her sister, Patience, eight years prior.

Hoping to find some much-needed emotional closure — and, even, to address some disquieting gaps in her memory pertaining to her sister’s untimely demise — Sorrow’s trip to Vermont ends up tumbling her into a fresh barrel of anxieties. While the (now mute) grandmother appears determined to serve as something of a gentle guiding hand throughout, her mother, Verity, only appears to have grown more neurotic as the years went by. A neurosis that manifests itself most potently whenever the subject of the dreaded Abramses is brought up.

For as we learn early on in this narrative in which the distant past is interlaced with the present, the feud between the Abramses and the Lovegoods stretches deep. And Sorrow’s family legacy is known to have something peculiarly ‘witchy’ about it…

kali wallace

Kali Wallace

The great thing, possibly the greatest thing, about The Memory Trees is that it remains a sensitive coming-of-age story despite the complex, time-hopping weave it’s dropped into. Even if we were to strip off the peculiarities of Sorrow’s situation — though why would we do that? — Wallace’s story would remain a valid exploration of growing up with both a tragedy and a secret hanging over your head, all the while trying to make heads or tails out of everything as your supposed adult superiors are of zero help.

A consistent characteristic of Sorrow’s relationship with her mother is the girl’s fear of saying the wrong thing, her aching need to walk on eggshells as she speaks to her. Apart from helping to form an image of Verity as a nerve-wracking Gothic matron in our minds, this quirk in their relationship is easy to relate to, and as Sorrow struggles to negotiate this psychological minefield, we’re with her all the way.

She even characterizes it as such at one point.

“Verity would ask her about the festival, and Sorrow would have to decide how to answer. She didn’t want to lie. She didn’t want to tell the truth. She hated the feeling that every possible thing she could say to her mother was a potential land mine, and she was navigating a path so narrow she could barely keep her balance.”

But the setting is also a character in and of itself, and Wallace certainly gets plenty of mileage out of it all being set on one farm, with the action and stakes calibrated on a long-drawn out ‘showdown’ between the two families: a showdown that is, perhaps, currently dormant, but which is rearing to bubble back up to the surface at the slightest provocation.

This palpable dread is masterfully turned into a creepy, autumnal vibe throughout the novel, which not only keeps the pages turning, but allows for moments of real beauty, too. Anyone with even a slight predilection for whatever we’re celebrating during Halloween will find something to love in Wallace’s evocations of the landscape; the valleys groaning with horror and promise, the huge, gnarly trees acting as ominous edges to the scene.

Because this is, after all, a book about memory. And memory has plenty of room for both trauma and nostalgia.

This review was based on an uncorrected proof of The Memory Trees, which is out on October 10.

Late Summer Update | National Book Prize & Encore

A couple of updates while I hack away at yet more deadlines while trying to squeeze in creative work, as per this, earlier, mini-essay on the travails of cramming in too much work out of necessity, but against the interests of what we can very loosely call ‘the soul’.

While the summer continues its sweaty churn without wanting to give us any respite — though thankfully, our sojourn in Helsinki seems to have spared us the worst of it — a couple of happy developments have snuck their way into the pigeon-hole of life, much like the rare but welcome evening breeze that sometimes visits us during these meterologically trying times.

Here they are.

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello is up for the National Book Prize!

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For all its deadline-based hardship, this past year has also come with a number of fun commissions. Perhaps chief of them was being asked to contribute to Awguri, Giovanni Bonello — a festschrift in honour of Judge Giovanni Bonello turning eighty, and which was made up of a collection of historical fiction inspired by Bonello’s own forays into micro-history.

It was a sandbox I got lucky with, as my corner turned out to be a delightfully sordid and sensational one. Caterina Vitale was my subject — an ‘industrial prostitute’ who took over her husband’s pharmaceutical business soon after his death, and who is said to have used her erotic advances as a way to extract handy information from well-placed Knights of the Order of St John.

So of course, I went to town with it and turned it into a vampire story. ‘Bellicam machinam vulgo petart appellatam’ — not the snappiest of titles, I must admit — was great fun to write, especially since the subject matter gave me license to employ a highfalutin’ literary style that apes the Gothic tradition in more ways than one.

Complemented by sharp-and-pretty illustrations from Marisa Attard, the bilingual collection is a solid representation of where Maltese writing is right now. The eclectic roll-call of writers, summoned to respond to intriguing prompts, also suggests that more of such anthologies may be a good way forward for the local publishing scene.

I think we just may have a shot at this prize.

Editing Encore Magazine!

Encore

Another exciting development is the news that, as of its 11th issue, I will be serving as editor for Encore Magazine — a quarterly publication dealing with arts and culture on the Maltese Islands.

While having served as the Culture Editor for MaltaToday for some years now — a post that I will continue to occupy week-in, week-out, I hasted to add — I also look forward to building on what Encore’s previous editor — my dear friend Veronica Stivala — established with the previous ten issues of the beautifully designed and put together magazine.

One of the main things I’m looking forward to with this particular project is being able to get out of the weekly grind when planning and writing articles. I’ve already been contributing to Encore for a few months now, and already the one-month deadline to pen a piece which, partly by dint of its quarterly publishing schedule, does not require one to be limited by micro-topical happenings, was something of a relief.

Coupled with always maintaining an international perspective on things — while always using the Maltese scene as a starting point — I hope we can continue to give the local cultural scene a good dose of ‘slow journalism’.

Because acceleration is the last thing we need right now.

 

Oh, the humanity | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer | Book Review

One of the many ‘uses’ of fiction is its ability to zoom in on and then pick apart some aspect of our experience as self-conscious creatures thrust into a world that cares very little for our life’s trajectories – be they emotional, economical or philosophical.

From the primordial power of the earliest myths and religious narratives down to the most kitchen-sink realism, that thing we can broadly define as fictional narrative can serve to give us some form of solace – be it through simple escapism or by allowing us the focus of meditation.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne goes some way towards literalising these ‘uses of fiction’ by presenting a post-apocalyptic fable narrated with a world-weary eye by Rachel, a scavenger in this ravaged landscape who finds a piece of sentient biotech which she nicknames ‘Borne’ and begins to raise as an erstwhile child, much to the chagrin of her partner and survival companion, Wick.

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In line with VanderMeer’s most recent work, Borne does not default to stock tropes when painting its picture of the natural world, and our relationship to it. And this also counts for VanderMeer’s take on the post-apocalyptic scenario. There is no sweeping, omniscient voice explaining away How We Live Now (and as if it’s a deliberate gag, the final section of the novel riffs on that exact phrase — crucially, however, replacing ‘We’ with the more modest ‘I’). Instead, we are thrust into it from the point of view of a strange new family… stranger still, from the point of view of its troubled formation.

VanderMeer’s ecological focus was made apparent thanks to the trilogy of Southern Reach novels – all of which were released in a seasonal stagger back in 2014, and which have endeared him to a new batch of readers who may cleave more closely to the literary mainstream than the fans of his earlier, weirder work.

Running the gamut from science-fiction thriller to explorations of bureaucratic entropy and surreal fever dream punctuated by melancholy for a fading natural world, the trilogy – comprised of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance – only pays tribute to speculative fiction tropes when it needs to, with VanderMeer employing them to tell a story of an encroaching environmental catastrophe which only brings into focus our diminished understanding, and relevance, in an ecosystem that we’re helping to destroy through a mixture of avarice and willful ignorance.

Borne picks up after the destruction is more or less complete, though as alluded to earlier, there are no explanatory prologues detailing exactly what happened, with no fingers pointed at unambiguous culprits. Instead, it finds Rachel and Wick simply surviving, and VanderMeer gets a lot of dramatic mileage from this sharpened worldview.

Courtyard of Dead Astronauts Kyla Harren

The Courtyard of Dead Astronauts (from ‘Bourne’). Art by Kayla Harren

However, it is clear that Rachel is narrating all of this to us from a retrospective standpoint. Dramatically, this does rob the story of some immediacy in an wider sense. Though the grime and graft of surviving in such a world is very much evident throughout, Rachel’s digressive and analytical lapses into what all of this means for her and her relationships – with Wick, with Borne and the rest of this unsettling, Not-So-Brave New World – signal to the reader that the novel will not be about the payoffs of suspense implied by the ‘survival narrative’ genre. But this is also what makes the book so distinctive, so sensitive.

Once again, VanderMeer swerves away from generic constraints to focus on larger themes that deserve to be digested thoroughly. As was the case with the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer once again shows he’s not interested in a cliched representations of the natural world, and avoids indulging any ‘human-splaining’ tendencies for natural phenomena in favour of depicting the environment – now rendered even stranger by the complete fallout of civilsational collapse and its toxic discontents – in granular detail which builds to a sense of true wonder.

The same could not be said for the overarching political realities that frame Rachel’s existence. We are told that the main opposing forces in this world are the ‘Company’, which asserts its dominance through the biomechanical giant bear, Mord, and his many proxies, and the ‘Magician’, who runs a resistance force that Rachel and Wick find suspect.

Seeing the map revealed so nakedly made naked, too, the thought of a growing conflict – to rule the city – and what choices! We were so lucky, after such strife, to be able to choose between a homegrown tyrant in the Magician, who strove to win by any means, and a Company-grown tyrant in Mord, who held the city in stasis, us unable to do more than react to his whims. Neither imagined as rules could long be tolerated. Yet we could not imagine what lay beyond them except, with a shudder, the specter of the Company itself rising once again from its own ashes.”

In some ways, this is an affront to the kind of laboured ‘world-building’ that’s encouraged by the conventional hegemony of speculative fiction. But it works all the better to transmit the kind of ‘mythic’ clarity mentioned earlier. By not drowning himself in the details of how both the Company and the resistance works, VanderMeer gives Rachel wider berth to expand upon the day-to-day implications of this ongoing social friction.

Mord by Theo

Mord, woodcut by Theo Ellsworth

Then, of course, there’s Borne itself. The creature is another act of mythic distillation on VanderMeer’s part; both heartwarming and unsettling, his growth is, on the one hand, an expression of the ins-and-outs of the raising of children and on the other, our inability to fully comprehend the jolting permutations of a natural world thrown into crisis.

Is Borne a miniature – even, in certain ways, ‘cutesy’ – iteration of the Area X of the Southern Reach novels (an encroaching blot on the landscape that signals danger and absolute bafflement)?

Perhaps, but Rachel’s emotional processing of the creature she takes under her wing is rife with an understandable (but always, inevitably) reductive anthropomorphism, much to Wick’s chagrin, but in a way that creates a pleasing affect for the reader. Yes, this is VanderMeer doing his take on the ‘talking beast’ fable – from Aesop to Disney – but it’s when the more unsettling implication of what Rachel had been ignoring come to the fore that things truly get interesting.

Also because VanderMeer doesn’t skate over that other layer of the trajectory of parenthood – the realisation that the adults in your life are as broken and insecure as you are.

And indeed, when Borne temporarily exits stage left to assert his newfound independence, VanderMeer expands upon another favourite theme – the fragmented nature of human memory and identity, explored so hauntingly through the fractured figure of ‘Ghost Bird’ in the Southern Reach trilogy.

“Wick never believed he was a person, was continually being undone by that. Borne was always trying to be a person because I wanted him to be one, because he thought he was right. We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.”

By turns harsh and delicate, immediate and removed, Borne is as strange and oblique a beast as the creature of its title. Not so much of a ‘tour de force’ of genres and styles – not as much as the Southern Reach trilogy was, anyway – it feels more like a digression into similar themes, with VanderMeer using the opportunity afforded to him by the success of that trilogy – the first installment of which is being adapted into a feature film by Alex Garland – to wade into more exploratory waters.

It truly succeeds in “finding life in the broken places…”

Coming Home | The battles to be fought

We’re finally packing for our trip back down to Malta, which will cap off a hugely eventful summer that was stressful and ecstatic in equal measure, for reasons that should be more or less obvious to anyone who has graciously inhabited the orbit of Virginia and myself during this heady time.

Though many of my new friends and family — yes, that includes V. and my in-laws — will view Malta through their own subjective lens, the place remains a home for me.

A home, with some complications.

I grew up there, but I was not born there. There’s an “arm’s length” quality to both my own perceptions of Malta and also, perhaps, how its other, “more native” inhabitants — including those closest and dearest to me — view my positioning as a latter-day Maltese citizen.

It’s a place that’s defined by waves of foreigners. It’s a place defined by its ability to serve, to coddle, to indulge fantasies. These fantasies could be fey and harmless — the dreams of spending time on a sun-kissed, sea-rimmed and historically layered island are an appeal in and of themselves — and also quite literally concrete.

 

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It’s the latter that’s dirtying my impressions of the island like a splotch of expanding ink as I think about heading back after a month’s absence. And it’s come to a point when resisting the concertisation of the island by developers needs to become part and parcel of one’s daily routine if any change to the malignant status quo is going to occur. And even if such resistance leads to nothing in the long run, I still want to put myself out there in whatever way I can — as luck would have it, a mix of absurdism and stoicism has become my MO since my late teens, so I can just about stomach the thought of my actions leading to nothing much in the long game as long as I feel their conviction in the short term.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

Because for better or worse, I am marked by this island, and being of a nostalgic disposition anyway, I feel the wedges of these marks press all the deeper once we’re abroad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that thinking about the streets of Valletta and Rabat, about my routine walks along the Sliema coastline, and even far less idyllic walks around this overdeveloped rock, are images that drop like lead in my heart and mind — that remind me of just how indelible my connection to this island is.

I’ve spent this summer around Rome and Helsinki — two cities whose beauty is far more varied, expansive, even more efficient if such an adjective is appropriate — but neither of them have the cruel power Malta has over me (at least, not yet). The environs of Rome are becoming like a second home to me — a ‘new family’ connection that I’m grateful for — and the rugged beauty of the city-proper and the (often verdant) variety of the surrounding parts are like a tonic to me, after the scrunched, yellow and small — and shrinking — stretch of Malta.

And in some ways, Helsinki, with its geometric lines, its traffic-free streets and its efficient public transport system felt almost like a parody of all that I thirst for in Malta: so refreshing was it to be in a place where you’re not gutted by heat and humidity, and where public spaces were just that. (V., in fact, describes it as utterly science-fictional).

But Malta is where the significant experiences of my life happened, and this is something that cannot be replicated even in the places that would otherwise fit far more comfortably with my ‘lifestyle’. Perhaps it was growing up in Malta as an immigrant that made me appreciate its contours even more — and I’ve detailed some of the psychological ins and outs of what having/not having a Maltese passport really means in an article last year — so that I’ve never taken my connection to Malta for granted.

Chernobyl Barbeque

And ironically, it’s the ability to travel more that has cemented this connection, not dampened it. Perhaps carelessly, when I was actually growing up in Malta I’d assumed that I would move away eventually. Applying the same crass-economic logic that many of those who actually settle into Malta operate under — the relative low cost of living, good climate, tax breaks, etc — I’d instinctively assumed that living in Malta would mean selling myself short, and that the real opportunities lay elsewhere.

In other words, I was letting the specifics of the island slip by in favour of abstract notions of what constitutes happiness: a larger place where you’re more likely to meet like-minded people and secure jobs and other opportunities that would not have been possible in Malta.

But as the years went by, and as life events continued to teach me to appreciate the granularity of life over any broad brush strokes, I began to cherish the specifics of Malta. I began to appreciate how all those streets I’ve walked up and down are actually inside of me, in a way that I couldn’t possibly say about any other country I’ve visited (even my native Serbia… but that’s a whole other blog post right there).

Now, I want to head back home to our flat in Marsaskala, release the cat from her carrier bag and take in the sea view. Maybe even go out for an ice-cream by the promenade (it won’t be as good as the one in Rome, but…). Now, I actually appreciate the memory of walking down from the utterly nondescript suburb of San Gwann to what is now my father’s apartment in Sliema after a long shift at the paper. Now, those dingy, potholed streets — which morph from industrial estate to government housing to beautiful 18th century follies in the blink of an eye — are no longer bitter images of fatigue and routine. They’re memories of a real life’s trajectory — valuable because, not despite of the fact that they’re routine.

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

Now, I look forward to visiting my father at the same Sliema apartment, sipping his trademark Turkish coffee (the one true family tradition whose baton I’ve grasped firmly with both hands) and chatting. To the noise of construction outside, no doubt. But also to the healthy bustle of the various photographers and other helpers that populate (and animate) his studio.

This is why I don’t want the specifics of Malta to be washed out by an overdevelopment drive. This is why I want us to be able to breathe in the little of the island that’s still left. Developers will always speak of doing their utmost to strike a ‘balance’ — as if this is already a concession, an act of charity on their part. But what they don’t understand is that things have been thrown off balance already, for a very long time. Building ‘sustainably’ is no longer possible. The island is too small, and too much of it has been eaten up.

It is with an always-complex cocktail of emotions swirling in my head that I will land back in Malta tonight; to the air that I’ve described as “milkshake thick” in TWO. What I know for certain is that I will make a concerted effort to meet the people I love more often than I have over the past few months. And that, hopefully, they will all join me in the fight to preserve what’s left… in whatever way each of us deems fit.

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