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.

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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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Updates | Camilla at Malta Comic Con & Losing [Our] Space on YouTube

My last update was about the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival (MMLF), and this one is sort of about that too. We took a quick trip up to the in-laws soon after the event ended and got something of a breather from this stuffy, overcrowded and practically air-less island. It’s a trip that usually lasts quite a bit longer and is sometimes undertaken in different countries… whatever it takes to escape the July-August swelter of Malta.

The weather is still insufferable, the tourists and AirBnB-ers still crowd us and sometimes bar us from getting a proper night’s sleep, but on the whole — I say this with figurative fingers firmly crossed — it all seems to be thinning out, with the evenings even regaling us with the odd breeze to sleep through every now and then.

It’s a reminder that easier times should be just about ahead, and exciting ones too. It may be the flavour of pumpkin spice latte or crunchy leaves that announces the onset of Autumn pleasures to some… I’m just grateful for a mellowing out of the general atmosphere. But coupled with the fact that yes, Halloween (and horror) is also something I enjoy indulging in quite a bit, there’s very geeky pleasures to be had during autumn on our island too.

But, first things first

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Losing My Space‘ – round-table discussion and MMLF pre-event – now on YouTube

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Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

Taking place on August 19, Losing My Space was a well-attended and well-received discussion on just what writing can possibly do in the face of pervasive environmental devastation and urban/corporate overdevlopment, and in a lot of ways ushered in the Festival itself, because the ensuing discussion — undertaken by poet Roger West and myself and moderated by established Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — reflected both the festival’s artistic sensitivity and political urgency.

But the warmth and wit of the audience is also a bit part of that experience, and I thought it was reflected with an apposite grace here. Either way, you can now see for yourself on YouTube. Be sure to also check out the Festival’s other big — bigger, even — round-table pre-event, ‘Writing Fragile‘. Kudos to Inizjamed for being so efficient with putting these recordings up — it’s a great way to ensure both outreach and posterity as well as, once again, prolonging the wonderful experience at the heart of this event.

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Creating the Maltese Gothic: ‘Camilla’ at Malta Comic Con

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Happily, one of my favourite annual appointments on the island will be just-about coinciding with Halloween this year, as the Malta Comic Con gets bumped up a month ahead of its usual December slot to take place on November 3 and 4 this year at the MFCC in Ta’ Qali.

Apart from sharing a table with my very talented sister-in-law (I’ll be the guy peddling prose books); I’ll also be delivering a talk on ‘Camilla’ with the project’s co-writer and director Stephanie Sant, on November 3 at 15:00.

This would be just a week or so shy of the short film’s official premiere at the Malta Book Festival on November 10. Find out more about the event here; and click here to learn more about the project — a work of Gothic horror that adapts a short story by one of Malta’s leading literary voices by injecting it with a bit of Sheridan Le Fanu.

 

The Virtues of Empathy and Niceness | Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018

When the week of the festival finally comes — and it is a week, it is a full, full week — the climate also decides to give us a breather. There is a palpable sense of the trademark Maltese summer swelter finally lifting to give way to something ever so milder, and this shift appears to coincide directly with the very first “pre-events” that Inizjamed’s most prestigious annual appointment is preceded by this year.

For me, it all starts with a brief trip to Gozo, not too long after yet another ‘culture-work’ related trip to the sister island for both V. and myself. With a presentation on the mechanics of storytelling saved in my laptop and generously driven to a from the island with the help of Keith and Justine — just two of Inizjamed’s many diligent literary elves — I still refuse to face the direct sunlight on the ferry however, and eschew the immediate sights of the brief, familiar but still beautiful trip across the archipelagos in favour of an airconditioned enclosure and mediocre-but-effective coffee.

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Delivering a talk about the ‘scaffolding’ of storytelling at the Ministry for Gozo, Victoria on August 17. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Once there, the presentation goes a lot better than expected — I’m regaled with an attentive, intelligent and fully engaged audience — and though the food at St George’s Square (a smaller, quainter variant of its Valletta namesake) does leave quite a bit to be desired, we depart with a sense of goodwill towards this particular endeavour that awaits us. The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, my subconscious niggles around to tell me, is already striking a welcome nerve.

There is also the far more basic, immediate balm of having the luxury of being able to effectively indulge in the production of literature — or at least, in an active discussion of the parameters that makes this possible across countries and cultures — and this certainly lends a keen buzz to the beginning of the week, something that is only helped along by a dampening of the heat and the welcome breeze which, thankfully, persists all throughout this fateful period.

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Fort Manoel, on the final night of the festival. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

What also looms over the proceedings, however, is the threat of rain. There’s the odd shower during our daily workshop sessions — really the fulcrum of the festival, and where, internally, the most important connections are made among the participating writers — but thankfully, it does not stretch into the festival nights themselves. What the shifty climate does bring in, however, are some shockingly beautiful cloud formations, whose winding textures and rich colours provide yet another layer of beauty to an already ridiculously beautiful venue.

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Fort Manoel, on the final night of the festival. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Fort Manoel is also a politically contested space, the dynamics of which are very curious to our guests. They listen, intrigued, as we tell them of how the access we do have to the space is the result of direct political action, the like of which rarely happens with the same degree of success on our island. The ‘magic’ of the venue is also given a sobering tinge during Claudia Gauci’s interview with participating author Clare Azzopardi, who contrasts the well-meaning awe of our guests in the face of our historical and architectural heritage with the contemporary realities of overdevelopment.

But in some ways, these strands and tensions were always part and parcel of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, which has consistently proven itself to have a political focus that extends beyond some neutered, dewy-eyed appreciation of cultural products in pretty locales.

And it was just as well that a discussion about the (perceived vs actual) effectiveness of literature was also at the root of ‘Losing My Space‘, a round table discussion on how the loss of public space is clearly affecting our consciousness, and whose moderator — the celebrated Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — asked, “how can literature react to this?”.

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Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

The debate, taking place on the Sunday before the festival-proper, was bereft of a friend-to-be, as the soft-spoken poet Arjan Hut from the Netherlands had just experienced what was sadly to be his first train-and-plane mishap out of two. So Roger West and I were left to field Mifsud’s gentle but stern questions and provocations, an exchange sensitively documented by Kurt Borg in a well-written piece for Isles of the Left.

Quick introductions with travel-weary guests were made after the debate at Gugar, right across the street — an appropriate venue for the festival’s political and intellectual make-up, and where I finally got to have a proper chat with Roger West and his partner Kate Rex – poets both, and in many ways the guardian angels of the festival, having attended nearly every edition of the event to help its always-international array of writers with English-language translations of their work.

And the world of translation is where we head to straight after — nevermind the introductory drinks the night before, and never mind the early wake-up calls: we’re heading to the imposingly-named Fortress Builders building to talk about our work at length the next morning, and that’s that.

 

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Nadia Mifsud introducing the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop to the assembled authors at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 20. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

But while it certainly requires focus and comes with no small amount of fatigue at the tail end of the day — particularly when more ‘pre-events’ are in the offing — the sessions are the kind of oasis that contemporary writers yearn for with every fibre of their being. Because contemporary writers face contemporary realities, chief of which being that we’re often forced to write in the margins of life.

With me it’s copy writing that occupies the bulk of it, as it does for our Spanish guest, Laia López Manrique — a realisation that breaks the ice with world-weary gusto during our first ‘official’ meet-and-greet at Studio Solipsis in Rabat.

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Laia Lopez Manrique presenting her work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 21. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

The tacit understanding is that we’ve been expected to work on our selected translations — whittling them down to a performance-friendly few come festival night/s — from beforehand, coming up with a rough draft before finalising them ‘face to face’ with the authors in question. But this only comes later, after we’ve been allowed to introduce ourselves and our work, and field questions about what makes us tick as writers.

And while we may be used to reading about the processes (and pains) of other writers online — with a lot of us even growing used to interacting with them on various digital platforms — being physically present in the same room with them makes all the difference.

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Iraqi poet Ali Thareb (centre) presenting his work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 20. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

There is the sheer variety of experience, for one thing — the first and most obvious benefit of assembling such an internationally diverse group. Ali Thareb let us in on the very real hardships of existing as a poet in Iraq, with limitations giving way to acts of resistance and defiance through poetry. Massimo Barilla spoke with potent focus about the political ramifications of his theatrical work, giving a voice to those felled by the toxic mixture of mafia mechanisms and the pitfalls of a corrupt state.

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Massimo Barilla (right) presenting his work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 21. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Award-winning Icelandic poet, lyricist and novelist Sjón was always going to be a highlight, especially for someone like me, who’s very much attuned to the generic fluidity that informs his novels. But both his introduction to the workshop group and the interview that closed off the first night of the festival proper — where he spoke at length with Albert Gatt about the rich cultural and thematic make-up that informs his work — offered sometimes amusing, sometimes powerful but always achingly humane observations which radiated out of the texts.

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“It may happen in poems / that when the fog lifts / it takes the mountain with it” — Sjón reading at the grand finale of the Malta Mediterranan Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island on August 25. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Both Iceland and Malta are, after all, small islands with a minority language each. But Sjón proudly pointed to a piece of legistlation which discouraged the use of “small languages” to describe those like Icelandic — which, after all, has also housed a translation of Dante’s La Divina Commedia. “And if the language is big enough for Dante, then it’s big enough for anything.”

But something he said during the interview struck an even keener emotional chord. The importance of languages spoken by a few could become of immediate concern once the realities of climate change begin to reach a fever pitch, he reasoned. Because it is the native communities of the world who will be struck down by these temporal changes first. “But they are the people who can speak to nature far better than we can. They may just hold the key to the solutions that we need.”

The true emotional gut-punch was to come during the interview with the Turkish journalist and novelist Aslı Erdoğan, whose recounting of “disappeared” loved ones, and her exiled status from Turkey simply for being critical of the regime left a sobering but necessary pall over the proceedings, and truly pushed the pitch of the Festival into important, urgent territory.

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Asli Erdogan interviewed by Nadia Mifsud on the final night of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

While Erdoğan’s interviewer Nadia Mifsud — a poet and novelist herself, and a high-ranking Inizjamed elf in her own right — had the unenviable task of bringing this powder keg of an interview to something resembling a life-affirming close, it was in fact Erdogan herself who picked up the strand in the end, reasoning that despite everything — that “everything” includes over 70,000 students being locked up in Turkish prisons, I hasten to add — it is down to the resilient activism of a few that Erdogan herself is not currently behind bars, an empathetic thread that is uncoiled, in part, thanks to the power of her literary output.

It is an output allowed to spread thanks to the miracle of translation, which we celebrated daily at our workshops and for which this edition of the festival even had something of a theme song (or ‘mascot poem’). This was Juana Adcock’s ‘The Task of the Translator’, a beautiful evocation of the Platonic ideal of what a translation should “do”.

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Juana Adcock (far right) presenting her work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop on August 20 at the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector building, Valletta. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Juana’s confession that she always feels as though she exists in a “perpetual state of translation” resonated even more deeply with me, however. Juana being Mexican-born but Scotland-based for some years, she straddles two languages at any given time, and proudly pens poems in both the ‘pure’ variants of Spanish and English while also embracing Spanglish from time to time.

It’s an artistic position towards the tools at hand — language, of course — that I’ve not quite reached yet. I’ve always existed between Serbian, Maltese and English, but only ever considered the latter to be adequately accessible to me as the languge of professional and creative endeavour. Some of the place names in Mibdul do hint at this melange, but that’s about it for now. It’s something to think about and build on for future projects and future work.

Because being placed side-by-side with authors and poets of such variety also makes one reconsider what you take for granted. Some choices may be informed by sensible and germane approaches to one’s work and character; others will have gnawed their way up to the brain by spider-shat strands of caution, self-consciousness and fear.

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Jean-Rémi Gandon delivering a multi-media performance of his work on the final night of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

As we’re constantly reminded in this era of excessive stimuli and information overload — a mechanism that also has a moralising corollary, when any protection of our internal coherence is labelled as a retreat into an “echo chamber” — humans will always seek out established patterns. This becomes impossible when you share a room with the lovable mad bard from Toulouse, Jean-Rémi Gandon, on the one hand, and the Maltese poet Caldon Mercieca, whose language experiments with Maltese glisten with a kind of crystalline perfection and are animated by an intellectual rigour that was both humbling and baffling to us workshop participants.

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Caldon Mercieca reading a Maltese translation of a poem by Massimo Barilla at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018, August 24. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

After being asked to close our very first workshop session on Monday, August 20, Caldon was also invited to read at our ‘meet and greet’ that same evening, by way of smashing the champagne bottle on the festival ship as it begins to make its way through the fateful week. Before beginning to read he made a couple of self-deprecating comments to deflate his austere approach to the work. But the poem he read out had a zen-like perfection that was neither distancing nor emotionally bereft. It lay the ground for the creativity that lay ahead.

With no obligation towards any formality and hand clasped firmly on heart, I can say that it was truly an honour to form part of this edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. It is an event that I’ve always looked forward to experiencing, both as a “mere” spectator back when it took place at the Couvre Porte in Birgu, then at the Garden of Rest in Floriana; as well as a reporter on the event for MaltaToday when it moved to Fort St Elmo in Valletta (by then also acting as a tag-along partner as V. became the event’s official photographer).

But participating in it confirmed that one key ingredient of its success is not so much the high-profile nature of its headlining guests, nor the inspiring variety of authors or the geographical melting pot that they represent. It is, quite simply, the niceness of the Inizjamed team. It’s a niceness that is contagious, and that flies in the face of the notion that any worthwhile cultural endeavour is run by divas and stentorian dictators who place their aesthetics over people.

Because without that human impulse, without that edge of empathy, all that would be left would be exercises in vanity — a hollow march of the self. What we witnessed instead was in fact what Inizjamed coordinator Adrian Grima labelled “Mediterranean Humanism” in his introductory note to the festival. Taking a long hard look at the challenges the region faces, but also embracing the opportunities for dialogue, and creation.

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Adrian Grima ripping open a gift from the Inizjamed team, in honour of his 20-year tenure at the literary NGO. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Adrian Grima will be stepping down to make room for both someone new to take the helm, while also giving himself time to focus on his own academic and creative work as of next year. A wise and sensible decision, especially given how Grima’s work as a poet and lecturer must have been a key inspiration for the dedicated team behind Inizjamed to continue doing the work that they do.

That was the 13th edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Long may it continue.

Featured image by Virginia Monteforte

 

Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018 |Literary Intersections at Fort Manoel

To say that I’m deeply honoured to have been invited to participate in the 13th edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival is something of an understatement. While I can’t claim to have attended every single edition of the event, organised by local literary NGO Inizjamed, with the help of a number of crucial satellite bodies and initiatives, I certainly have fond memories of it which go way back.

I’ve covered the festival for MaltaToday back when it was still the “day job”, and you can check out some interviews on that score here and here. As it happens, the festival had also hosted one of my favourite writers, Marina Warner, and her conversation with Prof Gloria Lauri-Lucente during the festival’s 2015 edition was sensitive and illuminating, so much so that I took to Soft Disturbances to muse about it.

It is a festival put together with care, taste and conscientiousness, bringing together as it does local and international writers while boasting an unwavering political commitment that feels particularly urgent at this point in time.

I also get the impression that meeting and hanging out with the eclectic mix of writers who form part of this year’s edition — and which hail from countries as varied as Turkey, Iraq, Iceland and beyond — will be rather fun indeed.

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Press conference announcing the festival – Studio Solipsis, Rabat – July 11

This year’s edition of the festival will be taking place at Fort Manoel in Manoel Island, Gzira on August 23, 24 and 25. I am slated to present my work on the second night, and will also be participating in the following festival pre-events:

August 17 – ‘Building a Story‘ – Gozo (VENUE TBC) – 10:00 to 12:00

This presentation will use the Reljic’s recent work — both already-published and currently in progress — to explore how stories in different media can be constructed. Taking this proposition somewhat literally, Reljic will speak about how locating the right tools and devices for a given story helps to make the narrative more robust and coherent, and keeps writer’s block and other crises at bay.

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August 19 – ‘Losing my Space‘ – Malta Society of Arts, Valletta – 20:00 to 22:00

Moderator: Immanuel Mifsud
Participants: Roger West, Arjan Hut and Teodor Reljic

Nature has always been the focus of literature, a source of renewal, spiritual, pure. The relation of authors with nature has changed because our landscapes and seascapes have changed, but nature remains a source of inspiration and concern, a concern transfixed by agony. How does the lack of natural environment and open spaces translate to literature? How do we write trees and fields when trees and fields are no longer? How do we write the colour of the changing sea? Our space and light are being stolen by buildings that reach for the sky. How does literature deal with this daylight robbery? How does it document our struggle for space?

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The participating writers for this year’s edition of the festival are:

Juana Adcock (Mexico/UK) | Clare Azzopardi (Malta) | Massimo Barilla (Italy) | Asli Erdogan (Turkey) | Jean-Rémi Gandon (France) | Arjan Hut (Ljouwert, Netherlands) | Laia López Manrique (Spain) | Caldon Mercieca (Malta) | Teodor Reljić (Malta) | Philip Sciberras (Malta) | Sjón (Iceland) | Ali Thareb (Babel, Iraq)

For more information and the full programme, click here

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Gozo, July 2018

Streets decked out for the festa, but eerily silent all the while.

Narrow passageways whose rock is a trademark yellow, a yellow made yellower, it seems, by the lamplight at night and the sun during the day; more yellow than the yellow rock in Malta, the flaking yellow of globigerina limestone, the flaking yellow of Twistees (and that’s when you finally figure out why it remains the national snack).

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Streets that are passageways, yes, passageways that lead to even smaller nooks. Some house a pack of cats; an adorable sight for those so inclined. But this pack is skinny, mangy.

You walk past them regardless — because it’s the done thing — but the cuteness radar does not blip this time. In a Disney cartoon, this bunch is the pack of dangerous street urchins. Where anthropomorphism acts as euphemism too — were they human and in an R-rated film, they would be drug dealers and murderers.

The heat is as strong here as it is in Malta — a division, a distinction that will doubtlessly sound absurd to many outsiders — but the quiet reigns supreme. Memories of the smaller villages in the mother isle during the nineties. When you’d peek outside only to be blinded by the yellow stone of the opposite building. When (the nostalgic haze suggests) people took the siesta seriously.

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But maybe the distinction is not so absurd after all. We meet foreign visitors — Italians, Germans; smiley, homey, bohemian but polished — who proudly claim to never have set foot in Malta, apart from the trip to the airport. “We’ve been coming here for 25 years,” they’d say, save for perhaps a ten-year break somewhere in between. But they’ll stick to Gozo, thank you very much. Malta is far too chaotic.

It makes you think. About how we fetishise smallness and isolation. How tourism makes us look at places as mere service providers. In this case, a glorified massage parlour for the mind and soul.

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I fell under the spell at Ggantija, though. You worry about the packs of tourists filing in, at the beginning. You wonder what compels people to book trips on package tours, where any individual experience is washed away by the rank-and-file schedule of cramming in sights on deadline and budget.

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But they dissipate, soon enough. They get lost somewhere between the museum, the (tasteful, non-intrusive) new passageway and the temples themselves.

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Stones arranged in their precise but mysterious alignments. Pock-marked with holes (some strategic, some natural, most baffling), which make plenty of room for the vegetation to seep back in.

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There’s graffiti too, some of it dating back to the 1800s, and most of it French. When we visited, it was a cloudier, windier day than most. I was filled with gratitude. To be able to see and feel that place, under those conditions. To stop time for a while, in a place that demands very little else of you.

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The trip back

No Sleeping Beauties | Steve Hili on The Adult Panto

Anyone interested in the general direction of the Maltese ‘arts and culture’ scene is bound to have formed an opinion about Valletta 2018 — better known colloquially as “V18”, though its overstaffed PR machine has been keen to quash that tag of late, deeming it off-brand.

I’m writing this at the tail end of a balmy pre-summer’s day, after having actually enjoyed a V18-supported event, so I’ll keep both the ranting and mild hypocrisy down to a minimum here. But I will say that the focus on branding is starting to grate a little on me, along with the feeling that somehow, the whole initiative seems to be characterised by an insistent tendency to miss the wood for the trees.

This, along with the fact that consistency and sleek branding seems to run counter to the behaviour and reputation of V18’s Chairman Jason Micallef.

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Valletta, when it’s allowed to just do its thing.

No doubt already slotted in as a gaffe-prone, politically-appointed chair-warmer by a large chunk of those with an eye on the island’s cultural scene, the man is clearly a political animal, with a crude but nonetheless effective ability to tap into ready-to-burst emotional veins among the supporters of his political-ideological home base.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and, as the above-linked example involving Mario Vella suggests, something of an ingrate. Add a dash of that peculiarly Maltese brand of “If you don’t agree with what I’m doing it means you’re just a stooge of the other political party” into the mix – et voila!

But like I said, I’m amenable to take all of this philosophically, and even to wring out some positives from an equation whose results seem to be either a churn of deafening quietism (a large percentage of artists in Malta and Gozo are somehow tied to V18, and therefore contracted to remain silent on any shortcomings), or a pile of broken promises.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and even, perhaps, something of an ingrate

Because at the very least, V18 appears to have created something resembling a ‘mainstream’ under and against which other more independent-minded initiatives can emerge. It may all sound like scraping the bottom of the barrel of hope, but I think it’s a matter of focus and perspective that feels important.

It certainly had an impact on our devising of Apocalesque!, a comeback show for our little burlesque/cabaret troupe after a four-year hiatus. Somewhere down the line of devising scripts and planning rehearsals with our resident director Nicole, I was struck by the realisation of how most of our shows — having been performed during a time when the centre-right, ‘Catholic-Democrat’ Nationalist Party was still in power — would previously be concerned with issues of ‘public decency’ and censorship.

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Backstage at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

We knew we were pushing an envelope that had more to do with matters of morality and antiquated laws — which have thankfully now gone the way of the dodo.

This time, however, the motivating factors had less to do with easily-understandable cries for freedom, and more about puncturing a zeitgeist based around gentrification and the grandstanding so eagerly offered up by Micallef and his ilk. With V18 swallowing up so much of the cultural oxygen, we felt compelled to blow some of our own air out.

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Undine LaVerve at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

And I’m glad to see that we weren’t the only ones. Fresh off our show — and sharing one of our own performers, the inimitable Undine LaVerve — this year’s edition of Steve Hili’s Adult Panto puts the tale of Sleeping Beauty through its crude-and-rude wringer, and the go-for-broke approach was actually born out of a desire to swerve away from mainstream practices and do something loud and fun instead.

Throwing some insights my way, Hili recounts how the ‘Adult Panto’ series — now five editions old — in fact started off while he and other cast members would be goofing off backstage while taking part in the traditional Christmas pantos.

“I had been in a couple of traditional pantos and there always seemed to reach a point in rehearsals — when everyone was tired because we were in the middle of production week — that we would be messing about and coming up with our own jokes. A lot of these jokes were very very naughty, and we would always lament the fact that we could never actually use them in to what to all intents and purposes is a kiddies show!”

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The cast of Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto. Photo by Sergio Morana

That simple prompt led to a series of raunchy shows existing at the periphery of the local theatrical scene, but performed with what I suspect is the same devil-may-care gusto of our our burlesque acts.

Being largely based in the UK these days, Hili — previously an energetic fixture of local radio — extols the “DIY” approach to comedy, and believes this to be, ultimately, the most liberating approach to the material that one can adopt.

“I have found that creating my own work and shows really works for the type of comedy I enjoy doing and I am good at. You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to adopt a DIY spirit. As part of V18 or as a response to it. That would be quite a legacy.”

In fact, turning his guns on V18 in particular, Hili laments how the Foundation and everything associated with it has not been successful in fostering the kind of freewheeling atmosphere of creativity that he describes.

“The way I had hoped that V18 would work was like the Edinburgh International Festival works,” Hili says.

You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to do adopt a DIY spirit

“I had hoped that there would be lots of high-brow culture but that this would breed fringe events… I would hope that V18 was (and still is) a great opportunity for artists to take the bull by the horns and to create fringe events that offer alternatives including perhaps a way of dissecting the current political scene in a way that is free of the toxic environment that seems to have taken over the islands.”

Ultimately, however, Hili zones in on what will always motivate him to keep creating rough-diamond shows like this.

“We feel like we are thumbing our noses at authority. And I love it.”

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Photo by Sergio Morana

Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto will be staged at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta until June 15. For more information, click here

Organised Chaos and Disinfectant Tang| Apocalesque

Burlesque, where you’re often left wondering just what you’ve gotten yourself into (again).

Burlesque, where (yes, it’s a place)… where a 3am Messenger missive calling for “unicorns and ceremonial knives” is entirely in line with established procedure.

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Kevin Canter. Photo by Jacob Sammut

Burlesque, where the same established procedures established themselves c. 2009, and, barring an odd hiatus here and there that’s also in line with the shambolic nature of this beast anyway, remain very much in force.

Burlesque, where ‘organised chaos’ is not the perfect method, but it’s the only one we know.

 

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Run-through wind-down, 14.05.18

Burlesque, which in our case isn’t even technically burlesque but kind of is and the vibe is there so we just go with it.

Burlesque, which is more of a fringe theatre event set up to provide some breathing room and colour in an island stifled by so many things, so often.

Burlesque, which we’ve run through yesterday against the antiseptic tang of a freshly-washed “alternative” cinema — whose slippery cleanliness a high-heeled centaur was very much apprehensive about.

Burlesque, which starts up again in three days (And runs for three days.)

Apocalesque, our latest iteration, needs you.

Book your tickets

Find out more here and here

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’

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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!

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)