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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There and back again | Trip to Serbia

Just returned to the island home after a long-overdue visit to the original homeland of Serbia, and apart from the dreaded-but-expected plunge back into the heat and a grudging return to the work routine, what sticks in the mind is that heady cocktail of nostalgia and sentimentality that such a trip inspires, and which, I think, even those most impervious to such irrational (but all-too-human) reactions would find difficult to short-circuit.

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Apart from the usual visit to relatives – a nicely balanced town & country trip encompassing both Belgrade and the Vrujci Spa – this time I also joined a group of fellow Maltese on a tour to Kovilj, a village near the city of Novi Sad known for its rich stork population and which boasts a proximity to the Danube.

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

There’s obviously something bracing about visiting your native country after six years, not least because you’re bound to change your perspective substantially since the last time you were there.

One of the reasons for my absence was that I wanted to travel a bit more. Malta -> Serbia was pretty much the extent of my travel experience for the longest time – i.e., until I was granted Maltese (and therefore EU) citizenship a couple of years ago – and having now seen a bit more of the rest of Europe, I could view the home country with a bit of a tilted perspective.

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Belgrade itself certainly reminded me of other places now – Rome, Berlin – and so I could appreciate its beauty better for placing it into some kind of context. Edinburgh was one of my favourite recent travel destinations; Belgrade doesn’t have all that much in common with it save perhaps the comfortably compressed size of its city centre – a coziness I find essential.

Malta is infamous for its lack of greenery, and an aggressively neo-liberal policy of its current government only spells further doom for the island in this regard. So the trip to Banja Vrujci – where my maternal grandparents have been keeping a summer house for 35 years, give or take – was welcome as ever, even if the overcast weather was something of a downer.

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

But the Kovilj tour took us to other green places too – some of them housing beautiful monasteries – and it was a reminder of how Serbia, for all its problems, retains a proud farming tradition in certain areas.

One thing I didn’t do much of in Serbia is write. Between the fact that we were moving around so much and simply being on ‘holiday mode’, I can’t really say I took full advantage of a change of setting and pace to give a fresh spin to the projects I’m currently working on.

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

But the summer – and its attendant torpor – should be winding down soon enough. And Malta is inspiring too, in its own way. Obstinate yellow streets and buildings, flashes of beauty both random and stuffily curated, contradictions that can’t be explained and so make for great fodder. We’ll start at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, then take it from there…

And amusingly enough, our Kovilj tour made it to the local online news portals…