Asking for permission

The island and the island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Otherness, exile, the diaspora.

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

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

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

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

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Never mind the rain: Malta Comic Con 2013

Comic Con haul (and that’s just Day One)

An inspiring weekend can make all the difference to your creative biorhythms, and I’m pleased to report that last weekend was one of them.

Maybe it’s the psychological glut caused by competitions like Nanowrimo (to say nothing of Movember) and its awkward position as the penultimate month of the year, but this November in particular felt a bit strange to me.

I was less and less keen to go out – preferring to stay indoors and – supposedly – tinker away at various creative projects (being human beings yourselves, I’m pretty sure you can tell how this ended up most of the time).

So I began to hope that the end of November would prove to be something of a release, and that December would make for a nice fresh start.

With the Malta Comic Con in town over November 30 and December 1, it seemed like a fair enough assumption to make, and I’m glad I was proven right.

The ‘Con, having been around since 2009, has been growing in reputation and quality with each passing year, and I certainly felt this year’s edition was an ‘upgrade’. Not just because big-name creators were once again in attendance – The Walking Dead’s Charlie Adlard, Game of Thrones storyboard artist William Simpson and ‘Lucifer’ writer Mike Carey being just a small fraction of them – but also because the attendees appeared to be as enthusiastic about the experience as the organisers.

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It’s a motley gathering, as any ‘Con should be, I think: there’s those who come to tastefully sample the wares on display and those who make a beeline to the venue, foaming at the mouth because they’ll get to share breathing space with some of their favourite creators.

(All despite the rain: an important caveat considering the Maltese’s often hysterial attitude to the falling-water-from-the-skies phenomenon.)

Also, rain in Malta often means… rainbow!

Cosplay, previously something of a halting sight at this particular ‘Con, was very well represented this year: I was often intimidated by stampeding groups of anime-inspired characters, while other costumes were so well-crafted that they came close to resembling the ‘real thing’ (be that Batman antagonist Bane or Jack Sparrow… and yes, I realise that ‘real thing’ may be a poor choice of words here).

There was a healthy mixture of ages and social groups among the attendees too – a polar opposite to the cliqueish exhibition culture that often asserts itself at other art events – often at the very same venue where the ‘Con itself was held (Valletta’s St James Cavalier). But the difference is not just down to the attendees.

Crazy artists (Widdershins, left) and their editors (myself, right) were also present.

Comic book fandom, by its very nature, foments a completely unpretentious appreciation of art. Instead of self-conscious fawning, you get entirely unselfconscious gushing.

(Though a visit by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was a heartening reminder that the ‘Con’s reputation as a quality, audience-grabbing event is growing, I’m afraid he fails to win the Coolest Official On Show Award. That honour would have to go to US Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanely, who enthusiastically did the rounds while wearing a Star Trek shirt.)

But there were quiet moments amidst the madness too, and I was lucky enough to sit in for one of them. Giving a reading of his upcoming novel The Girl With All The Gifts, Mike Carey also took time to answer questions from the intimate group that had gathered at St James’ Music Room for the occasion.

Preach, Mr Carey.

The genre-hopping British writer spoke, among other things, about the differences between prose fiction and writing for serialised comic books, and something he said resonated with me due to a kinda-secret project I’m working on at the moment.

Read: not that secret at all. (Credit: Widdershins/Nel Pace)

Speaking about the way comics are structured as stories, Carey said that “you can’t do it scene by scene”.

That mulling over period is essential when it comes to planning a sustained piece of fiction – more so when it’s a more dramatically ‘tactile’ thing – when it’s a story delivered in conjunction with a visual element, like a comic book, a film or a play.

It’s something I’ve rather enjoyed doing over the past day, aided by a purchase from yet another inspiring event held in tandem with the ‘Con – Patches Market. The notebook shown below – courtesy of the ever-brilliant, ever-meticulous Sarah of The Secret Rose – has been serving as a repository of notes, ideas and in-character psychological rationalisation towards a project that will only be coming into full fruition next year.

Cockbook. Hihi.

It’s a thoroughly unromantic thing – Wordworth: “we murder to dissect” – but I find it necessary. It’s one of the many things that writing ‘Two’ has taught me… and it was a long process, one which started during a particular November, some four years ago…