Exiliado: Gibraltar’s Monsters
On the eve of Gibraltar Literature Week, there was a debate brewing across social media and the local press regarding whether a Gibraltar Literature exists. Which to me and many others is a debate not worth having. Especially those of us who write. We are Gibraltarian. We produce literature. Don’t try and give me an existential crisis.
Except what lurks at the edges of this argument is not, I think, about literature in itself, but about the validity of our nationhood. Are we a lump of property passed from nation to nation for the last few thousand years? Are we now settled into the homogenous and stereotypical characteristics of Britain? Many articles written in the past year about Gibraltar as a tourist destination love to think so. “Look at them! So feisty in their Mediterranean-ness, but red phone boxes British bobbies fish and chips Union Jack and The Queen!” Sweep that away.
There is no one way of being British, and especially so when British is used so often as a shorthand for White English. Some sort of feverish post World War 2 fantasia of a utopia that never existed. We are often depicted as perpetually moored to the mothership. A flag-waving proud and grateful underclass, an example to those living in the United Kingdom of what ‘real’ Britain should look like.
Anyway. Back to ourselves, which seems an eternal struggle. If we are a nation populated by distinct citizens and not just a lump of Rock coveted for its strategic location, then we have our own system of government, our own language, our own culture and food and yes, literature. Considering our first system of government didn’t come to be until 1969, and that we still murky in the legalities of our citizenship until 2002, you could say in some aspects what we are is still in our birth pains regarding things other than politics. And what that child grows up into is entirely in our own hands.
What lies beneath this struggle seems to be a question of heft and validity. Is it a boon that we learn received pronunciation in school? Absolutely. Reading Austen and Shakespeare and Chaucer? I am obviously all for it. Learning about Tudors and Stuarts and Queen Victoria and how they sent English schoolchildren away to the countryside during World War 2? Fantastic.
Throwing out or erasing or disregarding or leaving ‘below’ all the messy, wonderful history and language and culture of the Gibraltarian people as unimportant or improper or bajuno? Not so great.
I’ve heard it said from a few notable Gibraltarians, including creative people, that Gibraltar has no inherent culture. If you’re going to start from that position as a Gibraltarian, what hope do we possibly have?
Because we do have heft. And we do have culture. And we do have history. And it should be honoured. And it should be a starting point for what you do as a creative person. And we can widen the spectrum of history and land further if you want some more heft, and find a pedigree that is the standard for all literature in the Western World.
Consider Ogygia. The island that Odysseus spent years in, under the spell of the nymph Calypso. Malta lays claim to it proudly. Others have stated it’s possibly La Isla Del Perejil, just a few miles away from Gibraltar. It’s also been argued it could very well be Gibraltar, with its many caves. Similarly, the story of Atlantis most probably stemmed from somewhere close to us. We go on about the Pillars of Hercules, which means even the story of our creation is well, a story with one of literature’s most notable and most depicted characters.
We can embrace these foundations. You can stretch a thread from those myths to Moorish flower poetry, all the way up to Modernist works and one of the most famous characters and lines in all of literature, inspired by Penelope of The Odyssey, in Joyce’s Gibraltarian opera singer Molly Bloom.
So what grounds do we have now, to take up the baton, filter all these aspects of our surroundings and transmute it into our literature? It’s very nice to use Gibraltar as an exotic location for a murder or a romance without a whiff of a Gibraltarian between the pages, aside from the occasional peasant. In similar Mediterranean climes, Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name did very well with the Italian coast as a landscape for rich White Americans and their predatory libidos.
But we need more. We should demand more. What people enjoy about literature is the taking up of all the mess and how we filter it into Truth. Maybe this is where the hesitation lies.
Comments that particularly struck me in the debate about the validity of Gibraltarian literature were by writers and historians who had been told not only to not be so ‘Gibraltar fixated’ and not to ‘dwell on the past’ but also to perhaps not be so ‘negative’ about Gibraltar.
I get where this comes from, this idea about not being ‘negative’. We’ve had enough dirt piled up on us. But what is the fear here? To not be seen as respectable? And frankly, whose opinion matters? Every nation has ghosts and skeletons. The worry should be in those places that don’t wish to uncover them, to dialogue with them, and to make sure they serve as warnings and narratives for future generations. Sweeping things away has never gone well for anyone. The monster lives under the bed whether you like it or not.
I’ve had similar comments when it comes to my writing. It provided me with such a ‘paralysis of analysis’ that I have entire notebooks filled with plot and structural issues around the novel I am currently writing. To the point where I shelved it more than once, thinking I would never be able to write it without a barrage of abuse or criticism about what ‘really’ happened. And I am not claiming this novel will be a masterpiece, but what a shame to not create something and put it out into the world, something I now realise is based on my truth and my life and my story and that’s all that should matter.
Because I am writing about smuggling in Gibraltar in the 1990s. I am writing about issues of identity and language. Of societal reactions to Queerness, and expectations of gender. Of the unspoken pain of the Spanish Civil War. The underside of the glorious National Myth related to the evacuation of Gibraltarians during World War Two. The devastation of the border closure.
Truths. Based on personal experiences and those of family members and friends and people I know. Inconvenient, painful and complicated truths, but truths nonetheless. And if we were reading them about any other place, we would eat them up. Because we do it on a daily basis through films and TV shows and magazine articles, and of course, books.
And I get it. I remember workshopping a short story at university with a not very flattering depiction of reactions to homosexuality in Gibraltar, and someone mentioned how Gibraltar had ‘backwards’ and ‘colonial’ attitudes to Queerness, like the UK is some bastion of liberty and progressive views. It makes you want to carry a history book around, mostly to beat people over the head with who couldn’t even locate Gibraltar on a map. But all I can do is put my truth out, what the reader thinks is up to them.
The word ‘monster’ most probably derives from the Latin ‘monstrare’ which means to demonstrate or to warn. We still have it in Spanish with ‘mostrar’. The entire point of a monster in literature is to uncover some truth about life or society through the use of something awful, terrifying, something we can barely look at. As people love to point out so much, the real ‘monster’ in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the doctor and his disregard for humanity.
So if we’re going to get serious about this, we need to confront these monsters. We need to be brave and create them. Look them in the eye and allow them to exist. We need to celebrate and elevate what they are trying to tell us about ourselves. As both creators and consumers.
Because beneath all that hurt and blood and ugliness there is heft and there is value. Just as much value as there is in Homer and Joyce and Austen and Shakespeare and Chaucer and everything that came after. And there is Truth in our stories. Let us allow each other to tell them all.