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

 

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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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The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love | Antonio Piazza on Sicilian Ghost Story

One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.

With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.

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Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna

If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.

So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.

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Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story

We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”

Check out the interview on MaltaToday by clicking here

Savouring the Action | Mission Impossible: Fallout

It’s been a while since a summer blockbuster has impressed me as much as Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Fallout has, and this speaks to both my own fatigue with the Hollywood mainstream as well as the very evident mechanics which foment that fatigue.

I’m writing this literally minutes after having also enjoyed Ant Man & The Wasp, but that enjoyment was tellingly less pronounced when compared to the exhilaration I felt during particularly the latter act of the Tom Cruise-starring superspy epic, the poster for which I was left to gaze on longingly during our intermission for the latest Marvel Studios installment — yes, intermissions are still a thing here — and wishing that I was back in there with Ethan Hunt.

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I’m tempted to assume that a heady confluence of factors led to the Mission Impossible franchise being the primary rallying point for action cinema this season. One of them is Tom Cruise’s sheer determination to cement his status as a still-viable action hero, as he sets out on a warpath to run, climb, punch and kick his way out of an uncomfortable whirlwind of tabloid-friendly personal eccentricity.

The other is the simple existence of the John Wick franchise, which reminded all and sundry — but most significantly, studio heads — that shaky cam should no longer be the way to make action movies, and that if you do it properly, all the money you spend on thorough choreography and lucid camerawork will be recouped by an appreciative audience.

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It’s also a reminder that action is a balletic feature of any narrative, that should be taken in slowly and savoured. Unlike the Michael Bays of this world, McQuarrie seems to understand that action is not a condiment to be assaulted with. It should be an integral part of the meal — a showcase piece, to be sure, but not a murderously spicy dish that brings tears to your eyes before coming to life to punch you in the face, leaving you black-eyed and confused.

Another thing that also made Fallout so endearing is that it tapped into the vein of espionage-pulp that the Bond franchise has gone weird on, and that Bourne has reduced to a gritty sludge that nobody is biting on anymore. It comes down to a pact with the audience – an understanding that these are superhero stories where the heroes have no powers but do superheroics regardless, and where technology is effectively magic.

So yeah. Mission Impossible: Fallout. I liked it a bunch. Read my ‘official’ review of it on MaltaToday by clicking here

 

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

Camilla Interview on the Times of Malta

Something really nice has happened this year. We get to make a stylish and LGBTIQ-friendly Maltese vampire film and screen it at one of the most long-standing and generously attended events of the local cultural calendar.

What I’m talking about is ‘Camilla‘, a project that just got some fresh media attention in the Times of Malta. It is also a project that blends one of the most exciting voices of Maltese literature with the legacy of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s foundational text of vampire fiction, Carmilla.

‘Camilla’ is a short story written by Clare Azzopardi and forming part of her anthology Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh — an award-winning collection released by Merlin Publishers in 2014.

It is the story of the enigmatic titular character, who has made a home in the bustling Maltese village of Naxxar — an Italian aristocrat of sorts (we suspect), spurned by a lover and left to write beautiful epitaphs for the local dead.

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Stephanie Sant (right, in case you were wondering) and myself chat to the Times of Malta about ‘Camilla’ — along with our producer Martin Bonnici. Click here to read the interview.

My good friend and collaborator Martin Bonnici first approached me about adapting a short story for the purposes of entering into an annual contest put up by the National Book Council. Co-writer Stephanie Sant came on board soon enough, along with the rest of the team at Shadeena and a number of cool collaborators. Actresses Irene Christ and Steffi Thake got on board too, and we managed to score the funds on our second try.

Filming starts in a couple of weeks’ time, and I can’t be more excited to see the outcome, while wishing Stephanie and co. the best of luck as they amble around the locations for a rapid-fire shoot under the scorching early-August sun.

Meanwhile, Stephanie, Martin and myself have been interviewed by Stephanie Fsadni over at the Times of Malta on the project, so hop on over there to get the full lowdown on how it all happened and how we’re approaching it.

‘Camilla’ is made possible with the help of the National Book Council (Malta), and is produced by Shadeena Entertainment. It will be screened on November 10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta as part of this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival

On The Tee-Vee | Two & Some Favourite Books | Wicc imb Wicc

It’s been a bit of a strange month; something I’ll be delving into with cautionary coyness in a subsequent blog post. So much so that I’ve missed out on both writing some proper entries over here, and even simply putting up updates on cool stuff I’ve been involved in and invited to.

And one of these actually happened on exactly the day of the premiere of our last burlesque show — the latest thing I spoke about here in some detail before the hiatus. This was an interview for the television programme Wicc Imb Wicc (‘Face to Face’), put together by the National Book Council of Malta, recorded on the very morning of the premiere of Apocalesque. (In fact, beady-eyed viewers might just spot the remnants of hastily-removed cropse-paint eyeliner post-dress rehearsal the night before).

wicc imb wiccThe interview is now up online for all of you to check out, should you be up for hearing an extract from my novel Two — read out by the show’s host, the actress Antonella Axisa — and/or hearing me be interviewed by the same Antonella about some of the key themes and plot dynamics of the book itself. That’s all before my favourite segment of the show kicks in, however: talking about some of my favourite and most energising books.

Among them are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, and Moebius’ hallucinatory classic of a graphic novel, Arzach.

Find out more about Wiċċ imb Wiċċ here, and log on to the National Book Counci’s YouTube channel to watch previous episodes.

 

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

Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.

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.

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