A Nostalgia Trigger From the Grotty Floating Hovel: Slipknot’s We Are Not Your Kind

So Slipknot have released a new album and it’s a winner, beating even Ed Sheeran in the charts and delivering a slice of post-nu-metal that satisfies this nostalgic punter on so, so many levels.

But beyond the simple enjoyment of tucking into the fresh material of a band with whom you’ve intermittently come of age, is the refreshingly optimistic realisation that something previously thought irrelevant can be good again; that the adage of ‘has-been’ is something our culture has been getting wrong all these years.

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Neither is it an entirely alien feeling, either: I’ve personally been very glad to fall in love with The Pale Emperor, another latter-day release by a supposed has-been who was a musical guiding star for me even before Slipknot took over in the late nineties.

I still remember popping in a bootleg cassette of Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals and thrilling to the wash of immersive-yet-subversive sounds; the photocopied wrap-around cover not being cut entirely right, so that the album read ‘Mechanical Anima’ in what felt like an apposite error: the pained screams of a mechanised soul, the ghost in the machine aching to express itself in mournful, trickster anger.

But we’ve seen this elsewhere too. The Cure, by all accounts, knocking it out of the park at Glastonbury (wish I’d been there for that one). Actors we thought washed up at the movies returning to shine on the smaller screen, reaping the benefits of the kind of long-form storytelling afforded by the TV Renaissance to character actors whose creases accommodate stories of nuance and depth.

stranger things

Weaponised nostalgia: Netflix’s Stranger Things

I’m convinced that this isn’t just the Stranger Things impulse: it’s not just about the indulgence in nostalgia for its own sake. For one, this surely the historical time-frames we’re dealing with here are too compressed, too recent to offer the kind of generational time-hop necessitated by the kind of the thing the Stranger Things does?

Granted, twenty years is a sizeable amount of time. It used to be a lifetime, not all that long ago. But just like we’re getting re-assessments of The Matrix and American Beauty (Brian Raftery’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever. offers an excellent analysis of the cinematic mainstream in that low-key magical year of 1999), this is more about taking stock than sinking in the warm bath of cultural nostalgia.

Maybe it has something to do with the way distribution models have changed. Both American Beauty’s Alan Ball and The Matrix’s Wachowski siblings, with varying degrees of success, have managed to find a foothold in the realm of TV. And with MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity.

Yes, social media is hardly ever a good thing. It’s too image-obsessed. It’s too fragmented and fickle. Far too easily beholden to manipulating and manipulateable algorithms to ease our minds into believing that our enjoyment of pop culture is not an expression of some folksy universality. Instead, it’s just us bending the knee to our corporate overlords yet again.

And yet, and yet. Being part of an ever-shifting stream means the ‘has-been’ is an obsolete term. When the hegemonic order is dispersed — again, when MTV is no longer the arbiter — age really does become just a number.

With MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity

A number, much like Slipknot’s own members styled themselves, at first. Now of course, their masks and costumes have evolved into something eminently Instagrammable, but that’s a rich discussion to be had on another day.

I’m no music critic and I actually can’t claim to have heard Slipknot all that much beyond their blistering sophomore effort Iowa (2001), but there’s certainly something to be said about how We Are Not Your Kind has burrowed its hooks in me pretty deep.

It comes down to that well-calculated blend of the familiar and the new. In this case, experience doesn’t communicate exhaustion, but depth and maturity. Like a friend you haven’t seen for a while returning from an exciting year of adventuring across countries, continents and galaxies, eager to recount their experience over refreshments in safe and comfortable surroundings.

slipknot iowa

The nine Iowans comprising Slipknot’s classic line-up wouldn’t be all that familiar with dingy arcades on Mediterranean beaches, but We Are Not Your Kind’s opener ‘Insert Coin’ certainly evokes that for me: these oil-caked, fry-up-stinking hovels are the kind of places we’d get some shade in while dipping in and out of the sea during those carefree summers.

One of these summers was that of 1999, where we’d scratch together pocket-money to get our hands on the band’s scene-changing, self-titled debut album. In a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world this would be a talisman of contemporary metal soon to be joined by the likes of Soulfly’s ‘Back to the Primitive’ and Fear Factory’s ‘Digimortal’, whose cuts we would still get to enjoy in grotty one-room nightclub venues, now closed, and whose single-row metallic pissoirs I remember with markedly diminished affection.

As an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own

Because while the angst inherent in Slipknot’s repertoire has something of the universal about it, neither should it be all that surprising that the sun-kissed Mediterranean isle I hail from is partial to a bit of metal.

Many of the bands that serve as mainstays of this scene rehearse in badly-lit, terribly under-oxygenated garages located in the depressed industrial town of Marsa and the mushrooming suburb of Birkirkara… as an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own.

It’s an angst that certainly finds cathartic release in We Are Not Your Kind’s hit single ‘Unsainted’, whose blasphemous undertones speak to Malta’s only-recent de facto liberation from Catholic theocracy while admittedly also existing as tropey metal mainstays. The song is a distillation of just the kind of anthemic perfection that launched Slipknot into the mainstream; boasting a killer chorus limned by jagged but thumping surrounding verses, like an speed-injected Cadbury Creme Egg framed by a Marmite-marinated crown of thorns.

For me, it’s a reminder of the energetic core that’s the true appeal of metal music. The magnetic pull that can’t be denied; that others will find in other genres, but that nothing else really replaces for me even now, when my own tastes have evolved beyond what I’d used to listen to twenty years ago. Yes, I’ll tell myself that I only really listen to the likes of Opeth and Tool anymore, but when songs Korn’s ‘Blind’, or Fear Factory’s ‘Replica’, or Slipknot’s ‘Wait and Bleed’ and indeed ‘Unsainted’ pop back up on the horizon I can’t help but run towards them.

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But neither should we diminish the importance of evolution and maturity; the adding of something new to the mix. The washed-up actor whose career finds a new lease of life on Netflix or HBO should use their hard-won scars and creases to their advantage, not cover them up. Otherwise, that’s how we end up in Stranger Things territory (please accept by continued and non-flattering references to this show as mere shorthand, I actually enjoy it quite a bit).

Thankfully, We Are Not Your Kind does manage to achieve that elusive blend of the old and new. It distills Slipknot back into their essence, but like truly seasoned artists, they still manage to slide in a reminder that they’re aging gracefully.

‘Spiders’ is a kooky Mike Patton-like number that still manages to be true to the ‘Knot’s Halloween-horror roots, while ‘My Pain’ cranks up both the atmospherics and melancholy. But this isn’t a mellowing out so much as a deepening of the musical landscape they’ve created. More than anything, Slipknot feel even more ‘cinematic’ now, wedded to their inspired imagery in more ways than one. More John Carpenter than Cannibal Corpse, and all the better for it.

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And perhaps this is why We Are Not Your Kind resonates with me so much right at this moment. While it’s hard to resist the nostalgia and romance that their debut evokes for me (see above), and I’m in a place where I’d rather fight for the hovel that is Malta to become a little bit less so; to salvage what is left of its green spaces, and for local bands to be able to practice in more than just grotty garages.

More than anything, though, the sonic architecture makes for a perfect writing accompanyment. It pummels at me to write and create works with uncompromising verve and energy, while offering that break of atmospheric concentration that’s also necessary to the process.

In short, it is a perfect soundscape of horror, which can take many forms, and whose protean variety I am continuing to find utterly thrilling.

Plus, “Horror will never die” says John Carpenter himself… another supposed has-been whose musical career offers a dignified middle-finger to that very notion.

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Central Link Project: A Quick and Dirty Resistance Guide

The Central Link Project is only the latest assault on Malta’s natural environment, heritage and collective memory. Animated by a destructive populist zeal, its main aim is to further entrench the idea that private cars are the only way to get around in this tiny, overbuilt and over-polluted island.

The salt in the wound is the attitude of a government which, instead of at least acknowledging people’s concerns about the project, mocks them in tones that can only be described as ‘passive aggressive Kim Jong-Un’.

Thankfully, a steady momentum of resistance is building up in opposition to this additional bulldozing blow to the few pockets of greenery we have left. As ever, success is never a guarantee. It may not even be a possibility. But at the very least, those who care a smidge for how future generations will perceive us can at least take comfort in the knowledge that something WAS done when push came to shove.

Direct action

‘For Our Trees’ Protest – July 28th

I’ve expressed my reservations about some of the strategic choices proposed for this particular protest, but that certainly doesn’t mean I won’t be attending, nor that I’m not glad that something is actually happening to demonstrate on-the-ground resistance. Exact time and venue to be announced.

Fundraiser for Court Appeal

Together with the Bicycle Advocacy Group and a number of other environmental NGOs, Moviment Graffitti have come through with a sensitive, pin-sharp and serious approach to the matter. They aim to raise €20,000 to cover the necessary legal costs. Click here for donation options.

Further Reading

First, the sober stuff…

‘Will Malta End Up With More of Fewer Trees?’

Tim Diacono (Lovin Malta) cuts through government spin (never more vile than what appeared on ONE.com.mt) and the understandable-but-sometimes-deafening outrage to get at the ominous truth behind the promises of the Central Link Project.

‘A recipe for traffic induced disaster’

The MaltaToday editorial leader from last Sunday is sober but unequivocal in its condemnation for the project:

“Meanwhile, road-widening in various areas of Malta has already resulted in the permanent loss of around 40,000sq.m of agricultural land in various areas. But in this case, a staggering 19,000sq.m will be taken up by the new bypass, and other roads feeding it.”

[…]

“And yet, the new infrastructure is not primarily meant to accommodate bus lanes, but only cars. Even bike lanes have come as an afterthought, with the proposed lanes failing short of a real network which makes it possible for cyclists to travel uninterruptedly along the new route.”

[…]

“Clearly, the regulatory authorities are not doing their job properly. Equally clearly, the Transport Ministry is motivated by short-term strategies that will only exacerbate existing problems in the near future. This is a recipe for disaster.”

‘Cutting down trees to widen roads is not just wrong. It is evil’

With characteristic verve, wit and a dependably healthy dollop of righteous anger, Raphael Vassallo also steps in to condemn the project in no uncertain terms:

“I rather suspect that they will look back at us today, and conclude that we must truly have been an evil bunch of criminally delinquent monsters, to have wilfully embarked on a course of action that we knew would make their own lives hell.”

Then, some satirical respite…

Finally, The satirical pen of Karl Stennienibarra of Bis-Serjeta’ is also worth noting here since, like the best satire often does, his perspective lifts the lid on the underlying absurdities of the thing in a way that rational discourse never could.

Morbidly obese Maltese man expands stomach to allow more food to pass through

…I wonder what this article could possibly be allegorising about?

“Dr Grixti stressed that for every burger, pizza and cake that Mr Cutajar will shove down his newly widened oesophagus, he will also eat one piece of broccoli.

“Before the operation, concerned friends of Mr Cutajar pointed that 549 hairs would need to be shaved as part of the procedure. However, Dr Grixti dismissed their worries in an emoji-filled Facebook post.”

People in Malta must evolve to breathe dust & fumes, says Muscat

“Muscat said the government had considered the possibility of subsidising oxygen masks, but had deemed the idea too unrealistic.”

“Instead, we need people to be self-sufficient and evolve lungs that can filter out excess progress powder. In the words of Charles Darwin: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, boutique hotels, directly follows.”

The quality of my lies is improving, says Muscat

“For example, instead of telling you all the truth – that Malta can’t be a one-car-per-person country anymore and that we desperately need to reduce car use, which would lose me both votes and corporate donors – I feed you a load of bullshit about road widening, while impressing you with big numbers, half-truths and far-off hypotheticals that may or may not become reality,” [Muscat] said to applause.

Easter Gothic | BILA, Camilla, Inheritance

Easter is approaching on this once-aggressively Catholic island, which is only marginally less so nowadays, as this snap I took a couple of days back gloriously, dramatically illustrates:

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Easter of course also means spring in full swing, and the twisty turny weather that it brings with it has left me feeling a bit ‘off’ on a few days here and there, where drowsiness becomes the order of the day and where you feel abandoned to the mercy of the uncontrollable climate-gods and their whims — they are in you, controlling your moods and there’s not much you can do about it. Both humbling and annoying in equal measure, but I also know it’s nowhere near the deluge that is the summer-swelter juggernaut, for which I am subconsciously preparing with no small amount of trepidation.

But come rain on shine, my penchant for the cooling moods of Gothic melodrama will remain unquelled, and it’s not just the above photo that stands as proof of this. Recently, the punk-metal band BILA (no, they’re not all that sure about their genre-configuration either — I asked) got me on board to participate in the music video for their song ‘Belliegha’, in which I was tasked to play a folk monster by the video’s director, Franco Rizzo.

The no-budget, three-day shoot ended up blossoming into a glorious display of pulpy goodness, and it was about as fun to shoot as it is to look at, I reckon. You can check out the whole thing here. For those of you on the island and keen to hear more, BILA will be performing at Rock the South on April 14.

The Belliegha’s aesthetic certainly lies on the (deliberately) crummier side of what I’ve just been talking about, but we also had a chance to once again showcase our more elegant attempt at the Mediterranean Gothic during past couple of weeks, as the National Book Council invited co-writer/director, producer Martin Bonnici and myself to speak about our short film ‘Camilla’ at the Campus Book Festival.

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Flanked by Martin Bonnici (left) and Stephanie Sant (right) at the Campus Book Festival, University of Malta, March 29, 2019. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

The event was focused on adaptation, translation and subtitling, and to this end we were thankfully joined by Dr Giselle Spiteri Miggiani from the translation department, and someone with tangible experience of subtitling for television and cinema.

Despite having premiered back in November, it feels as though ‘Camilla’s journey into the world is only just beginning. Some encouraging feedback and an overall sense of enduring satisfaction with the work as a whole — bolstered by the memory of just how smooth a project it was to put together — leaves me with a decidedly un-Gothy optimism about its future.

But true to the spirit of fertility, resurrection and renewal that also characterises this season and its many associated festivals, there’s another bun in the oven that appears to be just about ready for consumption.

inheritance

After some five-odd years of rumination, regurgitation and tinkering, the fifth draft of a horror feature I’ve been working on under the auspices of the aforementioned Martin Bonnici appears to be production-ready.

Of course any number of things can happen in the run up to finally getting this thing filmed, but I can’t help but let out an extended sigh of relief at finally finishing a draft of ‘Inheritance’ that’s about as smooth as I’d like it to be — with the required suspension of disbelief being dialed down to a minimum, the dialogue as lived-in as it’s ever been, and the narrative beats aligned to both character motivation and the story’s thematic underbelly.

I’ll have to keep mum on details for the time being, not least because a jinx at this stage of the film’s evolution would be particularly heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that the project marks the fulfilment of a vow made back in 2014, on national media. A vow to make the Maltese cinematic space just that little bit punkier and weirder.

This all feels like good juju, since summer is approaching. And carving out a pretty alcove of darkness feels like just the thing. Take it away, Banshees…

banshees

ENCORE – Issue 16 | Editorial

So, the sixteenth issue of ENCORE Magazine, which I have been editing since it’s eleventh edition, should soon be out and about in its designated pigeon-boxes across Malta and Gozo, after having debuted last Sunday – nestled as it was in between the pages of the Malta Independent during a particularly torrential day.

Below is the text for my editorial for this issue, which covers the period of March-May 2019. Being a quarterly magazine, the trope of the seasons is difficult to wriggle out of when writing these things, I’ve realised. But then again, why even bother? In the end, what is more enveloping than the climate? We Maltese Islands-dwellers learnt this the hard way last weekend, and the world will have to lean into its realities even harder once climate change truly hits a stride…

But in the meantime! 

Here’s the editorial.

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An apposite atmosphere of fresh beginnings wafts over this edition of Encore Magazine, and I for one could not be more glad at the aura of promise that this brings about for the Maltese cultural scene at large. We delve into not one, but two, art spaces in Valletta: MUZA and Valletta Contemporary — showcases of the visual arts whose legacy, angling and approach may be different, but which nonetheless stand as a testament of both an active visual arts scene with no small modicum of both public support and enthusiastic private patronage.
The two entities, both in their early stages, could also be seen as craning up (chin held firmly up) as the smoke of Valletta’s tenure as European Capital of Culture begins to clear.
But it is not just cultural initiatives that are rising from the ashes of the busy and hectic year that was 2018. Even the island’s most prominent public cultural body looks forward to some refreshing changes, as is evident from our interview with Mary-Ann Cauchi, the new Director of Strategy at Arts Council Malta, who outlines her vision of a holistic and democratic approach to public funding and support for local artists.
But neither are we forgetting about the roots of the matter — that is, the education of budding artists, now given a boost thanks to the additional availability of so-called VET subjects. A student fills us in on the revealing progress of pursuing an educational path less taken, and that allows for flexibility and uncertainty: such a necessary component of any honestly-undertaken creative endeavour.
Speaking of generational developments and creative flexibility, we also delve into the perception of nudity and sexuality in the Maltese visual and theatrical arts; in what can serve as an addendum to our consideration on the evolving attitude towards censorship in a previous issue. And in another further gentle jolt to preconceptions, the latest edition of our Encounter running feature pits a tattooist against a filigree artist, in a conversation that shines an interesting light on the blurry fault lines between ‘art’ and ‘cosmetics’.
This is, of course, all counterbalanced by insights into the exciting events that lie ahead during the Spring of 2019, reminding us once again of the truly refreshing pleasures of new beginnings.

Enjoy.

Teodor Reljić

As ever, I would like to thank Encore Magazine director Ruben Zahra, proofreader Tricia Dawn Williams and the team at Kuluri (Reuben Spiteri and Daniel Borg) for helping put together this challenging (read: post-Christmas) edition of the magazine. Thanks also go to our many contributors. The magazine can also be viewed online

Capital of Culture Fallout | The legacy of the Valletta 2018 Foundation

I’m currently snuggled up the sofabed nursing the remnants of a hangover following yet another spectacular edition of the Reljic NYE house party, as well as the beginnings of a cold which I’m thankful appear to have hit me later than most — late enough, at least, to allow me to enjoy said party virtually unimpeded.

With that in mind — and with Issue One of the latest Conan the Barbarian series from Marvel seductively calling to me on the Comixology tab — I am in no real condition to do a coherent round up of 2018’s professional highlights — though it was certainly an eventful, satisfying and exhausting year in equal measure.

I will, however, leave you with my latest and most substantial journalistic contribution: my article on the legacy of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and all of its works, according to some of the most relevant players in the local cultural industry.

READ: ‘After Valletta 2018, we will never be the same again’ 

It was a satisfying piece to put together — not least because I had a comparatively leisurely amount of time to work on it, giving me a taste of the ‘slow journalism’ I so desperately crave and want to do more of in the future, though it doesn’t look like the realities of the industry will be able to allow for that any time soon.

But I’m also glad to be able to tackle such a contentious topic with a varied array of voices to serve as a buttress; though a large clutch of diplomatic replies were expected, I was very grateful to receive the kind of honest — and sometime searing — responses from people who either bore the brunt of the Foundation’s more questionable practices, or felt shoved to the wayside as it continued its colourful, gentrifying churn across the capital city (and by extension, island as a whole).

Click here to read the full article

Wishing all of my readers an excellent 2019. 

[WATCH] Literature in the Diaspora & Interview with Nikola Petković

The National Book Council of Malta has uploaded two events that I was happy to be involved in during the National Book Festival, which this year took place — as ever — at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta between November 7 and 11.

First, there’s the recording of ‘Literature in the Diaspora’ — a conference on the subject that I chaired and which included an eclectic selection of speakers, among them Lou Drofenik (Malta/Australia), Nikola Petković (Croatia), Vera Duarte (Cape Verde) and Philip Ò Ceallaigh (Ireland). 

It is of course a huge subject to have to tackle, a fact that becomes even more challenging once you consider your time limit and the desire to accommodate the various viewpoints on offer. But the main take-away from it all, I think, is an embrace of the inherent variety that lies in the diaspora, and a need to resist cut-and-dried ideas of what narratives about nationality should be about, and how we should respond to them.

Next, I was happy to get a chance to ‘zoom in’ on one of the speakers at the conference — the Croatian author and academic Nikola Petković, during a chat about his novel ‘How to Tie Your Shoes’ — which was significantly translated into English by the author himself.

The dynamics of self-translation were one of the many subjects we touched upon, in a conversation which I’d like to think ran as wide a thematic gamut as the prickly, bitter and wrenching ‘confessional’ novel itself, which uses a heavily autobiographical story to touch upon the patriarchy, national identity and the fallout of the Yugoslav Wars.

When you’re done with those, do check out the remaining videos from this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, uploaded on the National Book Council’s YouTube channel — an interview with special guest Naomi Klein conducted by my colleague Matthew Vella being among them.

Of course, it’s hard to deny that the highlight of the festival for me, however, was the premiere of Camilla, the short film that I co-wrote with director Stephanie Sant and adapted from the short story of the same name by Clare Azzopardi, with a dash of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ thrown in to help the shift from page to screen and indulge our vampiric tendencies further.

Brought to sumptuous life by producer Martin Bonnici and his team at Shadeena Entertainment — a process aided in no small part by the National Book Council’s funds — it was a pleasure to finally debut the film to an enthusiastic audience on November 10, and I look forward to the next stages of its distribution. Watch this space.

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A representative sample of the team behind ‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant, centre)

 

 

Palermo & Other Pulp

Haven’t updated here for a while (he says, as if we’re still in Livejournal-world, as if our ‘updates’ aren’t energetically diffuse and many across various platforms now), though I’ve been wanting to for quite some time.

It hasn’t happened for the usual reasons — as ever, time and energy — though a meditative pit stop over at the blog would have been just what the head-doctor ordered (if I still visited one, that is, so this is all speculation).

Hectic times require a time-out, but sometimes a time-out is not possible because hectic time leaves very little time for anything else. As the current leader of our supposedly “free” world might say, “Sad!”.

***

So while my nerves are in a slightly calmer state at this point in time, as I sit back at home freshly showered and returned from a long weekend in Palermo, the mind remains scattered, and this blog post will be scattered too. In fact, I will use it in an attempt to un-scatter the mind as much as possible. It will be bitty. It will be chaotic. But it will also be, I think and hope, true. 

***

Speaking of scattered, ramshackle, shambolic and words of that type — pejoratives designating ‘chaos’, as the Pedant Mind would perhaps put it — I have thoughts on the Tom Hardy-starring Venom. Though this is mostly because I’ve been paid to have them, and the result of all that can be read through here at your leisure should one be so inclined.

But beyond what I thought about this uneven and certainly messy corporate love child between Sony and Marvel, the reaction to the film also gave me feelings.

A big fuss was made on how audiences and critics were divided on this one — with the punter giving the thumbs up while the boffins gave it a thumbs down — this isn’t really the talking point that impressed me the most. Though it’s certainly interesting that the divide was so great this time around, what got to me is how critics in fact kept bringing up the issue of ‘tonal consistency’ as the main problem with a film like this.

Colour me unconvinced, because tonal consistency is the last thing I’d expect from a film like this, and if that really is a sore point for you in a film about a gloopy black alien ‘symbiote’ looking for a human host to get psycho with (on? through?) then, you know, priorities.

If anything, tonal consistency is really something we could do with far less of in mainstream cinema. The Marvel Studios film may hit the mark way more often than when they miss, but it’s hard to deny that their over-curated approach hampers style and invention.

A recent example of the opposite approach worming its way into the mainstream is Gareth Evans’ Netflix Original feature Apostle. Sure, it’s a mess that outdoes Venom on the ‘grace and coherence’ front — feeling more like a mini-series cut down to feature length size (while remaining lumberingly sizeable all the same) and whose sudden shifts and escalations will have one believe Evans way maybe — just maybe — taking a teensy bit of a piss as he hammered out the script for his own feature.

But it’s also a delightfully bonkers ride that plays with your feeling with the same intensity it juggles genres. Anything can happen in the manic micro-climate that Evans has created, and very often it actually does.

It strikes me that ‘tonally uneven’ stories are actually the best suited format for popular narratives. Are the folk tales we told ourselves by the campfire for centuries ‘tonally consistent’, for example? (They may be formally rigid – but that’s another thing entirely.)

I want my mainstream blockbusters messy. Because anything the alternative appears to be a deliberate flattening of nuance and the random energy that seeps into a work and makes it its own.

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Hope does show up in strange places, though. Just as we were about to board the flight to Palermo, I decided to go against my usual habits and actually pick up those collated Panini UK editions Marvel appear to have designed specifically for airports.

One of these anthologised and slapped-together storied featured a Ghost Rider-Venom hybrid. Now that’s the kind of pulpy chaos that I wanna see in these things.

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***

Speaking of things that are best left messy, Palermo was an utter delight. One does not want to romanticise decay and deprivation too much, of course, but coming off from our own Capital of Culture year — an initiative that actually extols the opening of over 40 boutique hotels in Valletta as something positive — witnessing the crumbly decadence of Sicily’s capital city, especially during their own run at an international contemporary arts festival (Manifesta 12) was nothing short of inspiring.

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While similarities to Sicily and Italy certainly abound — though the climate is ever milder and the Arabic influence is very much felt in the architecture too, sliding into the Maltese language instead over here — my impression this weekend is that where Malta is over-curated, Palermo runs on a kind of studied neglect.

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I couldn’t imagine the Maltese artistic establishment to ever work up the nerve to display artworks in an exhibition commanding international renown with as casual and lax an approach that we found at Manifesta 12; weaving through palaces long past their hey-day, and — one assumes — walking a precarious tip-toe across health and safety regulations.

In Malta, we are perhaps a little bit too afraid to fail. But that fear clamps down any nooks and crannies of possibility that may open up.

***

Back in Malta now though, and a crazy week of deadlines will hopefully give way to a long-awaited month to geeky opportunity and plenty. First out of the gate is a talk my dear friend and collaborator Stephanie Sant and myself will be giving at Malta Comic Con, concerning out short film ‘Camilla’, which you can read more about here.

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‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant) stars Irene Christ (left) and Steffi Thake, and premieres at the Malta Book Fair on November 10

But wait! The real hook here is that the event will also serve as the trailer premiere for our short! So should you be at Malta Comic Con this weekend — and you definitely should be, given that it’s the 10th anniversary edition of one of the most enthusiastically put together and consistently strong celebrations of comics and pop culture on the island — do stop by on November 3 at 15:00 to watch the trailer and hear us speak about the evolution of the project.

I will also have a table at the Con all weekend, and would very much appreciate chatting to whoever passes by (I mean it — despite my lowkey misanthropy still going strong after all these years, these things can get dull for long stretches, to the point where human interaction suddenly becomes a welcome prospect).

***

More stuff! 

I will be chairing the Literature in the Diaspora conference at the Malta Book Festival on November 7 at 19:00. I will then be having a one-to-one live interview with one of the conference’s participants; the fiercely intelligent Croatian writer Nikola Petkovic, on November 8 at 17:30.

‘Camilla’ will then premiere on November 10 at the MA Grima Hall of the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. The show starts at 20:30, and also forms part of the Malta Book Festival.

And after that’s done, I jet off to Glasgow to see Slayer and a bunch of other nutcase-loud bands. But that’s a story for another day — should I survive it, and whichever shambolic shape I’ll be in at the time.

 

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.

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