Days of the Dead: November 2010-November 2020

The morning I woke up to discover that my mother had died, my first instinct was to feed the cat. I woke up later than I usually do – that is, 7am rather than around 6am – and succumbed to the dispiriting habit of checking my phone before doing anything else.

Appropriately enough, it was my father who delivered the news – on a Facebook Messenger thread shared by him, my siblings and myself. It was short and emphatic, and sent two or three hours prior.

I gasped in shock, but the cat was unperturbed and blissfully ignorant – whining for her routine delivery of early morning wet food. My father told me to call him as soon as we get the message, but I knew that this would not have been in any way viable before Olivia had her breakfast.

I peeled off the thin sheet that I was using as a coverlet – anything else would have been too heavy for the early August heat – and rose mechanically, Olivia sauntering steadily to happiness, the trademark fluff that frames her jiggling its way from the bedroom to the corridor before finally reaching the living room.

At this point, the apartment is no longer really a home – with V. away on a long trip to Rome, I was left to take care of an imminent move from one flat to another: from the South of the island to its centre, by dint of our landlord wanting to sell the place that had served as a home for V., Olivia and myself over the past half-decade.

I crack open a satchet of food for Oli and place it in the bowl. I lie down on the living room sofa and I make the call.

It wasn’t covid – at least, that’s what the final analysis said. That clarification feels jarring, like a sop to topicality in a story that had encompassed years, that had touched me in ways that are truly universal.

My mother, Jasmina, suffered a stroke and fell into a coma just under 10 years before she finally passed. This happened in early November of 2010, just as I was about to graduate from my Masters degree in Contemporary Literature and Criticism within the English department, and just as I had started to embark on a full-time career at a local newspaper.

I mention this to illustrate how the decade that followed would be crucial to me in many ways, and in some ways may even have laid out a fairly conventional trajectory of academic and professional training, peculiar for a family in which the conventional pathways might not always have been the ones we ended up taking. But that all of this happened without my mother watching on the sidelines altered things irrevocably, in a way that I’m only ready to accept and explore further now.

That is, now that a degree of closure has finally been made possible, now that the strange limbo state in which she was plunged for nearly a decade has come to an end.

*

“And how is your mother? Have there been any changes?”
This question would understandably crop up every now and then, from concerned friends and acquaintances who knew about our situation and would want to show they’re keeping tabs; and, of course, who cared for us and wanted to share in at least a modicum of our grief. But it was always a strange question to answer, even if the facts of it were simple: ‘No’ was always the long and short of it.

What is interesting is that in answering it, I always felt at least a twinge of shame come over me. Like I could have been more specific in my reply. Like that ‘no’ should have been qualified somehow; that it should have come with contextual and conditional clauses.

‘No, but we’re doing all we can’
‘No, but there has been some sign of improvement’
‘No, but the doctors say that we might see progress in a few months or so’
‘No, and we’re preparing for the inevitable’

Any of these would have felt more satisfying somehow, conforming with a narrative of life that we have all learned to expect and somehow also predict: birth, effort, tragedy, death; birth, effort, shortcoming, improvement, final outcome. For someone who would subsequently begin to place great stock in narrative structure my mother’s situation was particularly disorienting: she was in a proper limbo state, a purgatorial condition whose ‘true north’ was nowhere in sight.

This is, however, only an abstract adjunct to the more visceral truths of this experience. Whenever I’d allow myself to think about what she may be experiencing during this weird time, I would feel a stab of pain – part guilt, part pity, but all-encompassing in its ability to metaphorically bring me down to my knees.

The sheer unfairness of it all: her, alone in the hospital bed, with no respite from whatever discomfort or pain she was feeling at the time. We would visit, but no visit would ever feel like it’s enough. Even if we had moved in to the hospital – and, later, the old people’s home – to live by her side full time, it would not have done anything to bridge that chasm of consciousness that now existed between us.

*

My mother was a respected and much-loved seamstress and in many ways, it was thanks to her skills that this immigrant family managed to ingratiate itself into its host community in Malta all those years ago. She was hard-working, talented and beautiful – a scintillating presence at social events and parties – the latter of which she would begin to organise herself in later years, and whose mantle my sister and I would take on at least in part.

She was also my closest confidante in many ways.

I would visit her studio – now my father’s film photography darkroom – as she would thread needles over tracing paper that would in turn be placed over pieces of fabric. One of my regrets is that I never inquired into the details of her profession all that much. (As a writer, I constantly disappoint Henry James by failing to follow up all that much on his principle of ‘solidity of specification’ – my instinct tends to be towards arcs and moods, so the details I fill in dispassionately later).


But our conversations certainly encompassed the implications of what it means to devote oneself to a creative pursuit. My mother had gone to art school back in her Belgrade years and struggled with climbing that particular ladder: becoming a seamstress was that oblique pursuit that she wasn’t expecting but which, in the end, gave her the most satisfaction.

She was 19 when she had me – her eldest – and it’s only now that I’m starting to fully realise just how much she came of age while raising us. The clear arcs of growth that I’ve experienced since, she experienced during the years we were all very much around: some of which are not just faint miasmal memories of formative infancy but the solidified impressions of late childhood and even adolescence.

The weavings, longeours, deceptions, depressions and compressions of time are at the forefront of my mind whenever I think about my mother now, in my memories of her walking and talking and in the more recent period when she was bedridden and unresponsive, lost in a vortex where time had no meaning and neither her nor us could assume there would be any parameters to the experience.

But parameters, check-points and life-markers would form part of our conversations on a fairly regular basis. My mother would be the person I would go to when I’d need frank perspective on pretty much any issue.

Ensconced in that focal point of her studio, and when not consulting clients, she would be receptive to me walking in and plonking down on the nearby sofa: a stolid piece of 60s/70s furniture the likes of which we would later find valorised as a bona fide piece of modernist fare in a local exhibition, but which now mainly doubled up as the archetypal ‘therapist’s couch’.

My mother would be occupied in focused but non-verbal labour – again, that mysterious-to-me set of measurements and markings on tracing paper over fabric, sometimes with a soap-like, hexagonal piece of chalk – so I would let my anxieties in a way I knew she would understand.

Her feedback would often be encouraging, but it would also be tinged with focused and pro-active tough love. The lesson was that all troubles are actionable. Every situation has an exit if you train your mind well enough to look for them at each turn.

Of course, this makes what happened to her all the more tragic. The root causes of what happened remain frustratingly vague to us to this day. ‘Stress’ is the only real factor, and it feels both lacking and entirely appropriate. She was an overworked perfectionist who wanted to be the best at what she does, and work to deadline to continue supporting her family.

Was she looking for an exit of some kind, herself? Was she not waving but drowning while we looked on all the while?

She would likely chide me for dedicating so much time to such a non-actionable emotional trajectory. There is work to be done, and I shouldn’t waste time wallowing in regret. But I would contradict her on this point. She deserves this space. This emotional oxygen in her direction, too little and too late as it may be. Pressured into working all her life, albeit in a profession that she loved and excelled in, she dedicated a lot to others and very little to herself.

*

Neither is it entirely true that her predilection for the actionable and productive came at the expense of a more ‘holistic’ approach to life and her surroundings, though.

Some years back, when we were far from the studio and had embarked on a sunset walk at the holiday village in Serbia where my maternal grandparents have a summer home, my mother laughed amusingly when I commented that I wanted to crystallise this sunset somehow, that I wanted to do something with it and not let it go to waste.

‘That will pass,’ she told me, smiling in recognition.

It still hasn’t, really. There’s still a nervous, grasping tendency in me. I am not as ‘zen’ as I wish to be. Perhaps that’s true for most of us.

But that doesn’t change what she continues to teach me. Because her lessons aren’t definitive, finite, dogmatic. They contain true wisdom, which is not marked by clear targets and trajectories, but which swirls in a circle of awareness, challenge and comfort in equal measure. I’ve been lucky enough to absorb some of it, having been in her orbit during her all-too-brief time on this earth.

*

Ten years of mourning is both a long time, and not nearly enough. But time will do its work, and the rest will pass.

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.

52793124_382139919253161_595208074097065984_o

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

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.

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.

Image

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…