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

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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…

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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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Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies | Short Fiction as Angry Pop Anthem

Still another warm Italian night, still not quite recovered from that woozy post-Worldcon feeling, but I had to jot down a few words about Brooke Bolander’s Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies; the Hugo-nominated short story which this year lost to Amal El-Mohtar’s beautiful Seasons of Glass and Iron but which remains a highly recommended — and recommendable — reference point for me.

It’s a story that’s better experienced than explained, so any analysis on my part will just be enthusiastic gloss. But I will say that the one thing that strikes me about it — and, crucially, keeps me returning to the story for sloppy seconds, thirds, fourths, etc — is that it actually feels like a pop song.

A really, really good one. (More Grimes than Britney.)

I’m a child of Barthes so I don’t want to get into whether this was intentional or not, but the feeling it transmits is the same. There is an instant emotional hook — the rape of a celestial being — which then proceeds in literal ‘beats’ (the bullet-pointed, inexorable march of delicious revenge) and then offers up the ultimate, redemptive kicker: in the many times that I’ve re-read it, the appearance of the title line in the story has resulted in joyful tears.

Above all, this is a sign of well-constructed fiction, and the self-consciously bite-sized nature of Bolader’s story only makes it all the more amenable to the pop song metaphor.

That’s certainly how I will experience it, over and over again.

Fluke or not, I’m happy we have it out there in the world. Do give it a whirl

Chatting is the thing | Worldcon 75

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Being overwhelmed is part and parcel of going to any convention. I would argue that it’s actually baked into the experience from the word go — the idea that you shove yourself into a large space — usually one with inordinately high ceilings — to experience specialised events and ‘network’ incessantly is not a recipe for being chill, exactly.

Worldcon 75, having taken place at the Messukeskus in Helsinki from August 9 to 13, was certainly one such experience for me, and judging by the exhaustion of many other science fiction, fantasy (etc.) writers and fans who I came into contact with over this intensive batch of days, I wasn’t the only one.

But neither would I say that it was all draining, or particularly difficult to grasp.

Part of this is down to just how much better a time I had at the Worldcon this year than I did back in 2014 — the so-called ‘Loncon’ in the — you guessed it — still-not-blighted by Brexit UK capital. Perhaps the event itself is not entirely to blame for my awkwardness (and I had my good friend Alistair Rennie guiding me through the worst of it anyway) but learning the ropes and pacing yourself is what the convention should be all about.

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Day One!

There’s also the fact that Helsinki seems to have attracted a batch of people whom I knew online but hadn’t yet had the pleasure to meet ‘IRL’ — largely thanks to the fact that I had lured them to participate in Schlock Magazine in some capacity, which now being more than ably run by my little sister. There was an especially nice symmetry to the fact that the lovely trio of Gregory Norman BossertKali Wallace and John Chu served as both a welcoming and a farewell committee for myself and my new bride (who was bemused by the whole affair but, I’m sure, enjoyed the company and is bound to have taken some lovely (film) photos of our various gatherings).

In what was to become another through-line for the trip, that trio are alumni of the celebrated Clarion workshops — just like two other friends I was lucky enough to chat with on more than one occasion during the Con; Haralambi Markov and Karin Tidbeck. The latter, whose novel Amatka you should definitely check out and who was among the many people kind enough to write me a recommendation letter as I applied for — and won! — the Malta Arts Council grant that allowed me to come to the Con in the first place, openly recommended that Clarion should be the next step forward for me.

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We shall see what the future holds in this regard… actually, let me rephrase that: I will have to see just how I can manage to rustle up the necessary funds to attend the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, since its benefits were made empirically evident for me throughout the Con.

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On a panel about European Myths and History (ambitious, much?)

Standing — or as was more often the case, sitting — shoulder to shoulder with the Clarionites for the best part of a week could easily have made me feel out of place, were it not for the fact that they were, for the most part, really nice and accommodating every step of the way. Perhaps the knee-jerk clubiness of Maltese culture is what leads me to assume that everyone ends up that way. When in fact, it’s certainly not the case; and going to events like this Con is a clear reminder that pretentiousness and ‘attitude’ of any kind is never helpful if you want to get ahead in any creative industry — be it based on writing or otherwise.

Indeed, I will remain forever humbled by some of the writers I’ve met and who, despite their success guaranteeing them a certain degree of autonomy, still found enough time to speak to me one-on-one and offer their professional advice in a candid and expansive manner. Part of that, I think, is borne out of a desire to ‘pay it forward’ after your own creative trajectory has been so tough (even if the rewards came, in the end).

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Sith Happens

It could be a dispiriting fact to remember, but I also find it inspiring. It’s a reminder this word-wrangling business isn’t just a ghostly pursuit, but a field whose steps you can climb.

***

There’s a lot more that could be said about the Con; or at least, a lot more that I could say from my perspective of it, which — owing to the overwhelming-by-proxy nature of the thing I detailed above — would necessarily be subjective to a fault. Starting with my own discomfort with certain performances of ‘fandom’ — hence my unsurprising focus on the dynamics between writers — and ending with my own perceptions of Helsinki itself — a beautiful, calming place that will hopefully get its own separate blog post — but I’d much rather leave things as they are: an airy but fresh perception typed out during a balmy Mediterranean night (so different to the cutting freshness of its bright, Finnish counterparts).

Because the fruit of the many conversations that happened at Worldcon 75 — and, should it not be obvious enough by now, the conversations are what I valued the most out of the entire experience — will be made evident later. When I actually have the time and energy to write out the ideas sparked off by these chats, and to follow up on the networking possibilities that they suggest.

Let this be a promise, to myself above all.

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***

Thanks to Gregory Norman Bossert, Karin Tidbeck, Jeff VanderMeer, T.E. Grau, Jon Courtney Grimwood, KJ Bishop, Chris Gruppetta and the organising team behind Worldcon 75 for helping me get to the con. My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 was supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund. 

The education of animals | Okja and Spoor

In the Polish-Czech co-production Spoor (Pokot), released earlier this year and directed by the acclaimed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (who also serves as co-writer), Janina (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) an animal-loving former engineer living on the Czech-Polish border starts to see her dreadful poacher neighbours disappear one by one, soon after she loses her beloved dogs.

In Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho and released by Netflix earlier this year, a young girl from the Korean wilderness, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), has her GMO-enhanced ‘superpig’ Okja taken away from her by the corporation that made it in the first place (the ‘Mirando Corporation’, fronted by the creepily upbeat and aching-to-be-hip Lucy Mirando, played with typical aplomb by Tilda Swinton). Being the biggest and most beautiful of its lot, Okja will be paraded around in New York before being sliced up into sausages and other treats.

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A girl and her pig: Ahn Seo-hyun in Okja (2017)

Both films are inspired genre mashups operating to varying degrees of success — with Okja’s maddened but heartfelt modern fable coming up tops by a wide margin — and both have female protagonists on the opposite side of the age spectrum who are made to struggle with the brittle fault-line between the ‘animal’ and the ‘human’.

In Mija’s case, the girl forces herself out of her comfort zone in a foolhardy mission to America — where she is helped along by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of rag-tag animal rights activists who make Okja’s cause their mission… only to later reveal their true mission is to use Mija’s best friend as a mole to help them reveal the extent of the Mirando Corporation’s callous exploitation of the natural world.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Janina, on the other hand, is the village eccentric — the loony or idiot, if you want to be less generous, and the poachers who ring her existence and make her life a living hell — all the more because they’re aided and abetted by the legal, commercial and clerical strands of her community — are certainly happy to view her as a pitiable nuisance, at best.

Holland’s film — co-written by the source novel’s writer Olga Tokarczuk — muddles some of its narrative and thematic targets along the way, but its most interesting strand is the positioning of Janina herself. Hiding the main secret of the film in plain sight for a long stretch of its running time — it is finally revealed that Janina herself is the mysterious hunter-killer — she is presented as the ultimate unhinged ‘do-gooder’. Lacking perspective and a convincing way to make her case — her unquestioning belief in astrology is likely to alienate her from the bulk of the audience’s sympathies — her questionable mission only gains a truly humane backbone when she lets in some ‘allies’ into it.

Indeed, both Mija and Janina gain their small environmental victories by finally leveraging their ambitions with the realities of the world. There are crucial differences between the two, however. While Mija starts off as naive, learning that Okja is only one small part of a wider ‘family’ of superpigs, and whose very origin — and, sadly, fate — is a deeply disturbing matter, Janina’s starting point — and main psychological obstacle throughout — is a generally ‘cracked’ view of the world.

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

In some ways, it’s easy to imagine that Mija could easily have become Janina in a future iteration. Somebody whose love of a seemingly innocent natural creature — a love that, crucially, blossoms in an idyllic rural environment — is eventually corrupted into a resentment that gives way to a form of insanity. But it’s also worth noting that both films end on similar beats: with both ‘families’ — Mija, Okja and her grandfather; Janina and her allies in a secluded farmhouse commune — finding some form of solace after having accomplished their respective ‘missions’, to varying degrees of success.

Once again, Okja proves itself the more elegant film. The ending is not a pat reward for both the audience and Mija herself. While an inner peace may just radiate from the scene — the oblique benefits of Mija gaining wisdom from the experience, her slowly-curling smile as Okja conspiratorially whispers into her ear — it is also unquestionably dripping with melancholy. She is “sadder and wiser” for having undergone the ordeal of getting Okja back, and of learning that it was all just a tip of a very nasty iceberg. It is a fitting end for a true hero’s journey: a coming-of-age story where the sudden onset of ‘age’ is actually felt in Mija’s muted enthusiasm in those final scenes.

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Okja (2017)

Spoor is, true to form, clumsier in this regard; rewarding Janina with a commune for her vigilante efforts (and it’s a full-blown commune indeed, as Dyzio and Dobra are shown to have had kids so as to ensure the little society’s propagation). But in both films, what shines through is the necessity of searching for communal solutions to problems caused by individualism. The do-gooders of both films — Janina, and the Animal Liberation Front — are both shown as deeply flawed. But their efforts yield results precisely because they veer away from the individualistic approach to life we’re all encouraged to participate in.

We are trained to believe that the inherent problems of a set up like the Animal Liberation Front are enough to nip such an effort in the bud. And while it’s impossible to condone Janina’s murderous rampage — save for the emotional catharsis it provides to the viewer in the immediate term — it is the oppressive and fully sanctioned logic of murder for sport that the poachers engage in which have in fact pusher her over the edge. It is then up to her cluster of support — similarly sidelined kindred spirits — to rehabilitate her into a society that offers a better alternative.

A society — a commune — whose presentation may come off as being a tad contrived, but which remains a testament to how fiction can be useful in helping us lay down a blueprint for something better.

***

Human hypocrisy and short-sightedness should never be the last word on any phenomenon that exists on this world — be it natural or social. We will always make mistakes and blunders along the way; and we’ll tend to either forget some of the more vaunted commitments we may make in our quest to create the conditions for a better, more equal and overall ‘healthier’ world.

But while this does not mean letting the most egregious offenders of the hook, as both of these films show, the ambiguities of the situation should not be ignored, or brushed off as weaknesses or irredeemable shortcomings.

Success is a totem often built of smaller, chipped and cracking versions of the same, and we can only really achieve true progress by not giving these smaller bits a hard time along the way.

Worldcon 75 (draft!) schedule

They keep insisting that it’s a DRAFT schedule and that it’s subject to cataclysmic upheavals at any given moment, but it gave me something of a pleasant rush to discover that a progamme for Worldcon 75 is now out.

I’ll be on two panels, which are the following:

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The ‘European myths’ one should be fun, while the latter is bound to be informative and somewhat cathartic (at least for me).

My own fractured European identity has provided me with plenty of subconscious fodder for fiction — the most significant of which is still forthcoming, I suspect — while my more direct use of Maltese folktales in Two is actually folded into the story in a way that obscures rather than illuminates the original work… which will be fun to reconsider, and potentially discuss with others.

With regards to ‘Coping Strategies’… I’m actually hoping to learn more from the others present, as I feel that the discussion has been somewhat exhausted in the Maltese sphere. Much like the geographical limits of the island, it tends to run in a churn of “Our audiences are small –> Translation options are limited –> As are international publishing networks –> Repeat.”

Having hovered over my co-panelist’s bios, it seems as though this year’s Worldcon is already living up to its promise to connect participants to a wide, international network of writers. Also, I must admit that sharing desk-space with the great Hal Duncan is something of a fanboy thrill.

Hope to see a lot of you there!

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My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 is supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund