[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)

 

 

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.

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.