Asking for permission

The island and the island

You need to ask permission before doing anything, anything at all.

This remains one of the most persistent take-aways from growing up as an immigrant — or as the official lingo would have it, a “third country national” who in the estimation of the host country’s powers-that-be, is kind-of-like-us, but not quite.

When lining up in special queues for the airport becomes a matter of standard procedure, even familial habit. When even securing permission to take that same trip requires its own previous bout of queuing and rubber-stamping and waiting, waiting, waiting.

When the limbo state becomes your true home, so that you develop habits like taking long, rambling walks alone, even when the surroundings are inadequate or ugly, rather than committing to hanging out with friends, to going somewhere outside your prescribed orbit. A headless chicken.

When anything is perceived as a risk because you quickly learn that you’re always under surveillance — turning 18 is all it takes, and suddenly your home country is calling you for military service (grandpa shoos them away by telling them you’re studying abroad) and suddenly your friends are doing light drugs they could get busted for but you getting busted would mean something far more serious. These are things you cannot ask permission for, anyway.

When getting expelled from school — your official “excuse” for being here — could also mean getting expelled from the country wholesale.

When you develop a skill at writing in a language that isn’t your ‘native tongue’, but which, luckily for you, remains the lingua franca. When you then have to deal with the niggling brain-worm telling you that you will always be second-rate, that these things are determined beforehand and that ‘learning’ to write with the requisite depth and intimacy in a language “not your own” is a delusion.

(I imagine the worm to be black and luminescent, shorter but somehow more industrious than its numerous, pale and lazy peers — all the stacked insecurities that would plague anyone else — on whom it lies like a bed, drawing in their energy before its tip turns into a sharpened drill that pokes and pokes until it draws blood. Blood which turns into scabs that you cannot help picking at, again and again.)

When you look back on these years with strange gratitude. To be clear, these are the years of supposed youthful abandon, which were robbed of any breeziness by the weight you were made to carry. But you sail past them, as in a solitary boat. Your friends are partying on a large yacht nearby, and they’re imploring you to join them. But you need to ask permission, and there’s no officials in sight.

So you sail past it all, and you reach a small rock made just for you. It’s been festering for quite some time — you’ve paid countless visits there, and planted the strange mushrooms you’ve been growing in your room for years. These are the mushrooms that expand, that can even harden into something resembling rock.

By the time you’re halfway through college, the mushrooms have grown into a spongy, stringy mass that can hold you like a hammock. You still hear the blaring music of the yacht as you hop in, proud of your construction though sad that your friends can’t join you. Not just yet.

But the hammock brings you calm, and from this calm comes gratitude. It swells in your breast with the knotted, unexpected and freakish deliberation of your mushrooms. Because, as they grow tired of yelling at you to join them on the yacht, one by one your friends borrow the yacht’s lifeboats and pay you a visit themselves.

They groan, they complain. I was so free, and now life it taking over. When I was a kid, I felt so innocent, I didn’t have a care in the world. Now, I can only care for the world itself.

And you feel grateful. You feel grateful for being spared this pain, at least. Because you don’t ever remember childhood to have been carefree. You don’t ever remember having the luxury of forgetting about the world and its machinations. As your friends begin to groan about leaving bliss behind, you start to settle, you start to experience hints of bliss yourself. You know that finally, you can build something. And that you no longer have to ask for permission.

***

Otherness, exile, the diaspora.

It is of course a heady theme, and one that will haunt me till the end of my days, I suspect. I will get a chance to expound on some of the strands expressed above, thankfully in the company of a group of accomplished authors, when I chair the conference on Literature in Diaspora at this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, as well as during my conversation with the Croatian author Nikola Petkovic.

But it is also at the heart of the upcoming exhibition to be [defined]; the culminating event for this year of the RIMA project, which opens at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on October 5 and some of which I’ve had a chance to sample, owing to the fact that V. is its curator.

With a generous geographical sweep and an open-ended approach to the question of exile, to be [defined] short-circuits hackneyed assumptions about migration and displacement, opening up a crucial space for some oxygen to get in.

These are the events that can truly serve as a reminder of how art can be a balm at times like these. How, far from being a simple distraction, it articulates something deep and true. Something that would otherwise have been little more than a worm. Difficult to articulate, impossible to communicate to others, but burrowing with great force into your mind nonetheless.

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February Updates #2 | iBOy, RIMA, You Are What You Buy & the latest in Mibdul (again)

Some updates from my ‘day job’ desk-adventures. Happy to report that February is turning out to be quite the productive and creatively satisfying month. Click here to read the previous update. 

Questioning consumption | You Are What You Buy

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It was interesting to hear what Kristina Borg had to say about her project You Are What You Buy, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to assessing the implications of shopping at the supermarket.

“One of the principal themes of this project is consumption – what and how we consume. This does not solely refer to food consumption; one can also consume movies, literature and more. However, in order to reach and engage with a wider audience I felt it was necessary to work in, with and around a place of consumption that is more universal and common for all. Let’s face it, whether it’s done weekly or monthly, whether we like it or not, the supermarket remains one of the places we visit the most because […] it caters for our concerns about sustenance and comfort.”

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Kristina Borg

“An interdisciplinary approach definitely brings together different perspectives and different experiences and […] it could be a way forward for the local art scene to show and prove its relevance to one’s wellbeing. I think it is useless to complain that the arts and culture are not given their due importance if as artists we are not ready to open up to dialogue, exchange and distance ourselves from the luxury that one might associate with the arts. Talking about experience instead of a product might be what the local art scene needs. 

Click here to read the full interview

Fixing the moment | Mohamed Keita and Mario Badagliacca 

The migrants living at the Belgrade Waterfront are using the beams of abandoned tracks (or tires or rubbish) against the temperatures below zero degrees and to produce hot water. Photo by Mario Badagliacca

The migrants living at the Belgrade Waterfront are using the beams of abandoned tracks (or tires or rubbish) against the temperatures below zero degrees and to produce hot water. Photo by Mario Badagliacca

Ahead of their participation at the RIMA Photography Workshops, I got a chance to delve into the dynamics of migration — particularly the problematic way in which migratory flows are portrayed through mainstream political discourse and the media — with Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca, who tapped into his experience of documenting the realities of migration — most recently in my own native Belgrade — as well as Ivorian photographer Mohamed Keita, who took a self-taught route to photography after traversing Africa to reach Italy.

The power of photography is to fix the moment. Psychologically speaking, there’s a difference between perceiving a ‘fixed’ image and a ‘moving’ image (as in a video, for example). The ‘fixed’ image constrains us to reflect on it in a different way. In my case, I want the images to serve as a spur for further questions – to be curious about the stories I’m telling. I don’t want to give answers, but raise more questions. – Mario Badagliacca

Photography by Mohamed Keita

Photography by Mohamed Keita

Click here to read the full interview

Film Review | iBoy — Netflix takes the info wars to the gritty streets

Screams of the city: Tom (Bill Milner) finds himself plugged into London’s mobile network after being attacked by thugs in this formulaic but serviceable offering from Netflix

Screams of the city: Tom (Bill Milner) finds himself plugged into London’s mobile network after being attacked by thugs in this formulaic but serviceable offering from Netflix

I had fun watching the ‘Netflix Original’ iBoy — not a groundbreaking movie by any means, but certainly a fun way to spend an evening in the company of Young Adult urban sci-fi that slots into formula with a satisfying click.

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Love interest: Maisie Williams

“iBoy is yet another example of British cinema being able to strip down genre stories to their essentials and deliver up a product that, while hardly brimming with originality, still manages to create a satisfying piece of escapist entertainment. From Get Carter (1971) down to Kingsman (2014), the Brits sometimes manage to upend their Stateside counterparts by just cutting to the chase of what works without the need to inflate their budgets with unnecessary star power and special effects, while also toning down on any sentimentality and drama at script stage.”

Click here to read the full review

Patreon essay | MIBDUL & ‘that uncomfortable swerve’

MIBDUL & that uncomfortable swerve

Not exactly a ‘day job’ entry — though I wish it were — this month’s Patreon essay for our MIBDUL crowdfunding platform was all about me panicking over not having enough space to write out the story as I was planning it, and needing to make some drastic changes to accommodate this new reality.

“The thing about the detailed outlining of issues – and the rough thumbnailing of the pages in particular – is that, unlike the planning stage [in my journal], I approach them largely by instinct. This is the time when you have to feel your story in your gut, because you need to put yourself in the position of the reader, who will be feeling out the story in direct beats instead of painstakingly – and digressively – planned out notebook excursions. (To say nothing, of course, of the fact that the story needs to look good on the page – that the artwork needs the necessary room to breathe).”

Please consider donating to our Patreon page to access this essay and more

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #4 | Remy Nakamura

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Dan no Uchi Horror by Remy Nakamura

Much to the chagrin — though more likely the disinterested bemusement — of the bulk of my geeky friends growing up, I was never quite taken with anime and manga in the same way as the zeitgeist appeared to demand.

And it was further alienating by the fact that Malta, where I was based-and-raised, got a healthy dose of the stuff funnelled into the brains of unsuspecting kids through the easily accessible Italian channels.

(The legacy of this broadcasting arrangement yielded wonderful fruit in Italian cinemas earlier this year.)

I’m not entirely sure why I never felt attracted to Japanese animation — though I ‘appreciate’ some of its classics from a distance — and it’s even more baffling because the sheer variety within the stories, and their ‘outre’ style, otherwise jibes very nicely with my tastes.

But with all this in mind, a visit to an exhibition in Paris last December gave me a more immediate appreciation of the genre’s appeal — through the work of one of its precursors.

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger Utagawa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Observing the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi up close — yes, I made sure to exit through the gift shop and buy the coffee table book along the way — made me appreciate a clear and timeless dynamism of the style. This will of course speak to my wider ignorance of the woodcut tradition — to say nothing of my inadvertent but real western bias — but apart from anime, the thick outlines and sensitivity to what squeezes the most ‘action’ out of a still image reminded me of the likes of Jack Kirby.

Remy Nakamura’s story, I think, moves with the same scintillating immediacy. Packed with high drama, higher degrees of violence and a rhapsodic prose style, it also has its tongue firmly in cheek; checking off ‘Honor’ early on as a knee-jerk cultural expectation so as to highjack any inherent melodrama and cliche.

I was hooked from the first sentence, and the family saga that’s at the core of the story was wended into the kinetic narrative, instead of being a baggy burden. There’s hacking and slashing, there’s faith and inevitability. There’s sentences like: ‘The devils stank like a battlefield in the sun’.

This is Cthulhu in oozing, living colour, and it moves like the quickest of rapids.

Read previous: L. Lark

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #3 | L. Lark

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls by L. Lark

One of those words we’re not allowed to use for fear of sounding pretentious or whatever is, apparently, ‘fecund’. I can see the logic in effectively banning the word — it’s a fancy way of saying ‘growth’ and outside of the context of the discussion of population demographics, it can come across as a tad too highfalutin for most.

(Just check out how ‘James Joyce’ is framed saying ‘fecund in its nuttiness for laughs, in this clip.)

But fecund is the first word that came to mind as I was reading St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls by L. Lark.

“Young monkeys watch from low branches, cheeks stuffed with fruit” is an image from its first paragraph, and it could easily reflect the tone of the entire piece – exotic but not ornamental, and evocative of the growth and appetite of the natural world come spring time.

With this coming-of-age story embedded in a secondary world in which nature is a source of both truth and terror, Lark manages to paint a vivid picture of a world in constant — and sometimes dangerous — flux, building to a confrontation between Nalendi, who “grows too quickly for her skin”, and the titular St Baboloki: a deity in Lark’s ramshackle invented religion, and a figure that Nalendi is warned not to take too lightly.

Hieronymus Bosch was the first association to spark in my head: the teeming world constantly at the risk of altering itself in ways that may not be to your benefit or expectation isn’t only a decorous and inspired way to approach the coming-of-age trope. It’s also a reminder that we’re ultimately the mercy of the natural cycle and whatever it decides to churn out.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1503-1515) (Detail)

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1503-1515) (Detail)

But, the appearance of Baboloki itself brought to mind more immediate pop culture precursors — namely, its shifting skin, made up of a hive-mind mosaic of flies. Sure, Constantine (2005) is not the most beloved example ever, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this particular scene — for the monster, if nothing else.

Beyond just flies though, the image is very satisfying for me because it presents the body as a liquid, pliable shape that can change at a moment’s notice. Coupled with a long-standing love and admiration for Ovid’s Metamorphoses and what I deem to be its most cogent modern response — the ‘body horror’ films of David Cronenberg — I was happy to find that in Lark’s story, this thread runs wide and deep.

But I think that my first encounter with such an entity was far less grandiose than all that. Mr Todd McFarlane, take a bow.

Eddie Brock/Venom by Todd McFarlane

Eddie Brock/Venom by Todd McFarlane

It’s a shame that the cinematic adaptations of Venom haven’t exactly been all that fecund after all.

Read previous: Carrie Vaughn

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #2 | Carrie Vaughn

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Lady of Shalott by Carrie Vaughn

For obvious reasons, this particular story folds in very nicely with my approach to Tanzer and Bullington’s anthology, what with it singnaling a literary antecedent in its very title.

The Lady of Shalott was always something of a frustrating poem to me, for the reasons those of you familiar with it might imagine; namely, Lancelot’s shockingly dismissive final glance at the titular — and cursed — protagonist:

She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy gave her grace,

The Lady of Shalott

But like a lot of Tennyson’s work, the poem holds an irresistible charm, and I don’t think it’s accidental that genre writers and genre fans in particular continue to latch onto his brand of grandiose aestheticism.

Inflected as it is with the same Victorian mores and neuroses that continue to foment shows like Penny Dreadful, the finely sculpted drama of a lot of his work speaks to an archetypal space that – being Victorian and not, say, from Ancient Greece – also feels strangely close to our own world in its anxiety about ‘modernity’ and its desire to find pure, cloistered spaces where precious and beautiful things can flourish.

"I Am Half-Sick of Shadows", Said The Lady of Shalott by John Willam Waterhouse

“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows”, Said The Lady of Shalott by John Willam Waterhouse

Well, what Vaughn does is lift a giant, eldritch and bloody middle finger to all of that, and in ways that are entirely justified — and also, it must be said, all the more entertaining for it — she makes us feel ashamed for indulging in the kind of unreconstructed misogyny and jingoism that unfortunately forms the backbone of a lot of the work of the Victorian era.

But first, she immerses us into the world of the doomed Lady of Shalott with a thorough care for the artificial universe she is encased in. Her enclosure is her curse, but there is a great dignity in her work too. She weaves her loom with the kind of dedication that any self-respecting artist would apply to their life’s work. This is a silent, private dignity that the vainglorious Lancelots of this world cannot begin to understand.

As Vaughn moves to deliver the story to its conclusion, we dread the activation of the curse, but we also know it to be inevitable. Only… this time around, it won’t be just the Lady of Shalott that pays the price for Lancelot’s pursuit of spoils and glory.

In a Lovecraftian universe, that’s about as comforting as things get.

Read previous: Michael Cisco

The Joker Is Wild: Celebrating 75 Years of the Clown Prince of Crime

The Joker by Brian Bolland

The Joker by Brian Bolland

We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Joker with a small conference dedicated to the Clown Prince of Crime’s ‘life and works’ last Saturday, and it served as a good reminder of how refreshing academic inquiry could be when placed actually outside an academic context.

Organised by Euro Media Forum and chaired by my good friend Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone  – who also gave an lucid an insightful paper on the Joker and Batman as a comedy double-act  – the event may not have been terribly well attended, but it did inspire an convivial atmosphere of open discussion and debate which wasn’t about intellectual one-upmanship but genuine passion for the subject matter, and a desire to get at it – him – from as many angles as possible.

 Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Running the gamut from conversational ‘geeky’ presentations and more scholarly insights into the Joker as a key character of Batman lore across various media (comics, film, animation and video game), we heard presentations which delved into Joker’s design history, evil clowns in pop culture, and how the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger film-Jokers compare to each other; as well as the idea of the Joker as a demiurge, the Joker’s smile as a traumatic ‘wound’ (with all the symbolic weight that the image implies) and the socio-political imagery of both the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger Jokers (that would be me).

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

It was an unabashedly geeky way to spend a Saturday, of course, but a part of me felt very proud of the fact that we got together to pay tribute to the Joker – one of my favourite characters in fiction – in such a concerted and dedicated way. The main take-away insight from it all – if we could reduce it to just one – is that the Joker’s familiar-but-amorphous nature is what makes him such an enduring – and enduringly scary – villain. He is equal parts prankster, psychopath, terrorist and trickster – sometimes embodying just one of those characteristics at a given time, other times (more often than not, it seems) amalgamating all of those things in garish and dangerous brew.

Illustration by Greg Capullo

Illustration by Greg Capullo

In short, I think he’s secured himself the role of an archetype worth remembering, celebrating and returning to.

Fuschiaing

'Fuschia' by Mervyn Peake

Fuschia by Mervyn Peake

“The fuschia is shallow-rooting and hence requires frequent watering, so drainage must be fast enough to carry away all excess. A mulch of peat or sawdust will keep roots cool and supply moist air when watered frequently. You cannot overwater fuschias if the drainage is good … Growing fuschias in bush form is easy. You control shape of the plant by regular pinching or pruning. Shortening of the main branches and pinching back of shoots produces a busy, stocky plant. Leave the branches fairly long if you want a plant with a loose open habit of growth” – Joseph Buttigieg

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Read previous: HUMANING

Humaning

Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymous Bosch (Detail)

Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymous Bosch (Detail; c. 1515-1516)

“…recent studies suggest that people behave with more charity if they’ve just gone upstairs and less if they’ve just gone down – if studies like that weren’t just an enormous pile of crap. There’s science and there’s science, is all I’m saying. When humans are the subjects, it’s mostly not science.” – Karen Joy Fowler

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Read previous: MESSAGING

Messaging

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

“At best, anyway, his ministry had been an odd assortment, attracting hippies and the straitlaced alike, because he’d pulled from the Old Testament and from deism, and the esoteric books available to him in his father’s house. Something his father hadn’t planned on: the bookshelves leading Saul to places the old man would rather he’d never gone. His father’s library had been more liberal than the man himself.

“The shock of going from being the centre of attention to being out of it entirely – that still pulled at Saul at unexpected times. But there had been no drama to his collapsed ministry in the north, no shocking revelation, beyond the way he would be preaching one thing and thinking another, mistaking that conflict, for the longest time, as a manifestation of his guilt for sins both real and imagined. And one awful day he’d realized that he was becoming the message.” – Jeff VanderMeer

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Read previous: HOUSING

Read more about Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy in this month’s edition of Pop Culture Destruction on Schlock Magazine

Exploding

The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Briullov (1830-33)

The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Briullov (1830-33)

“When there’s a big explosion, it doesn’t really have a visceral impact on the audience if it’s just flinging people through the air. They know that’s just stunts. But if you fly people through the air and they then they hit something, it’s a lot better. And then if they hit something really hard — like, you know, a brick wall — it’s even better. And if they hit a kind of rough edge on that brick wall, then you’re getting to the good stuff. And then if what they hit breaks, then that’s the best.” – Paul W.S. Anderson

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Read previous: KHANING