The Malta Independent 7 December 2022, Wednesday
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FIRST: A book inspired by Facebook racist comments

First Magazine Friday, 22 December 2017, 15:10 Last update: about 6 years ago

When Gabriel Schembri opened up Facebook during his travels only to find an abundance of racist comments underneath an article written by a news portal back home, he began fuelling his frustration by writing a novel on the topic. first magazine interviewed the writer about his second novel Patria, writing in his mother tongue and his views on racism. Interview and photography by Joanna Demarco.

How different was it writing your second book compared to writing your first?

When my publisher gave me the go-ahead for this second book, I promised myself I would be better prepared for the hassle that publishing brings about. I knew, from the first publication, that I'd need months of preparation. Editing the document, the book cover, marketing - you name it. Luckily, I have a very understanding publisher who always tries to accommodate my wishes: that really helps.

Obviously, it was a really nice experience because, it seems that the public has liked the first book and many were asking me if I was working on anything new. The truth is, many assumed that Esklussiva Dotkom would be a one-off and this is not the case. I'm always writing - and I don't intend to keep any manuscripts hidden in my desk drawer.


What inspired you to write your book?

Patria is an encapsulation of anger. For me, the first chapters especially are nothing more than my personal way of dealing with anger. Fortunately, unlike my first book, I recall the exact moment I started writing Patria.

I remember that we had been living in the north of Peru for four months, helping out in an HIV clinic and drug rehabilitation centre in Iquitos. The parish is run by a certain Fr Ray Portelli, who is a priest and a doctor, and it doesn't get more interesting than that. He deserves a jam-packed book on his own.

Anyway, when we started travelling south, we stopped by another Maltese priest in Arequipa. We stayed there for some days. It was a period of limbo: we were between the end of a very emotional period in Iquitos and the start of more travels to Bolivia. I recall opening Facebook for the first time in many months on this tiny laptop and among the items which appeared on my timeline, I see this news item about the arrival of migrants. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to open the comments section. What I read shocked me. I was so lost for words - I couldn't control the burning rage inside my stomach. I started to write something random and that same piece is now, almost unedited, the first chapter of the book. It's the most brutally honest thing I've ever written.


The book tackles the subject of racism in Malta. In your opinion, is racism evident around us and, if so, how?

Yes, of course it is. And social media is serving as the biggest manifestation of a platform for racists. I have grown extremely sensitive to racist comments online since I started working on the book. Sometimes, when I was not inspired to write, I would go on Facebook and hunt for racist comments. The anger that builds up inside me is then transposed into words. Fortunately - or rather unfortunately - I was not short of inspirational material.


What is the Maltese literature scene like? Do you feel there is a demand for novels written in Maltese?

I think so, yes. Actually, I think the demand for Maltese novels has grown because we are going through this era where the Maltese language is being rejuvenated. The proper use of the Maltese language is something which even young people want. I feel lucky that I'm part of this generation where Maltese is back in fashion. Take the local music scene for example. We've had decades of the same old bands singing in English. Now we've finally realised that the Maltese language is perfectly suitable for musical lyrics. We have bands like Brikkuni, Plato's Dream Machine and Brodu, just to mention a few that use Maltese in such a beautiful, artistic way that it's inspiring. Now obviously, when it comes to demand, with a population of 400,000 there is a limit as to how many people actually buy our books. To be honest, I really don't care if 10 or a thousand people buy my book, as long as those who read it approach me to give me their feedback.


How has Patria been received so far?

It has been very well-received. The feedback I have had so far has been excellent. For me, the best thing is to hear people who got hold of a copy telling you that they read it in one or two sittings. That's what makes it all worth it.

Can you explain the word 'patria'?

I remember author Jean Paul Borg saying at the book launch that he is normally taken aback by the word 'patria'. To be honest, I feel the same way. And I chose the title for this reason: I want it to mean the exact opposite of what the book is about. I want patria, which means homeland, to be taken almost sarcastically, because the protagonists in the book don't give a damn about who was born where and how.

I love my country but my patria - homeland - does not define me. I firmly believe that I did nothing to be born in Malta: I just consider myself lucky. Likewise, those who were born in some war-torn country did nothing bad to deserve that. Maybe we should keep in mind that we don't have a divine right over this little island of ours.

Since you began writing your book, many far-right activities in the Western world have been highlighted by news outlets, such as Trump's travel ban. Do you think the situation has worsened since you began writing the book, making it more relevant?

The situation has worsened and I was actually worried because I wanted to get the book out before some extreme measure was set in motion. Not that racism will ever cease to exist, mind you, but I didn't want anything dramatic to happen. The book barely includes the time of the Syrian refugee crisis. I had to choose to either limit it to one particular period or present it over a more generic timeline. I decided to focus on the period when the MV Salamis was outside Maltese waters and it was denied entry. It's more of a reference point than an actual strict timeline. 


The objective of the group is to eliminate racists. What is your thought on fighting violence with violence? 

Well, Patria is about an extreme idea - and extreme ideals bring about extreme actions. This is the continuous struggle of the protagonist, Nathan. He has to see if he should let go and follow Martin on his crusade against racists or hold to his principles and come up with an alternative solution. In the real world, of course, I don't agree with anyone using violence to fight violence. And that's the beauty of being an author or a scriptwriter: you can take ideals to new heights and experiment with them a little. 


Why do you write in Maltese?

I get asked that question a lot. I am asked why I write in Maltese when I work with an English-language newspaper and it's probably because I miss writing in Maltese. The truth is that, because of work, I tend to associate English with journalism. So then I automatically choose Maltese for writing fiction - even because I love this language, the way it's written, the way it has evolved and how expressive this unique language of ours can be.

Until some years ago, I used to limit my reading books to English. But then I bought It-Trilogija tal-Fiddien, a fantasy trilogy by Simon Bartolo and Loranne Vella. I read the three of them in a couple of weeks and that was when I realised that the best of stories can be told in our native language. I had read other Maltese books before, but nothing captivated me as did these three books. 


But does it limit your audience?

Well, technically speaking, it does. There are only a couple of hundreds of thousands Maltese-speaking readers and millions of people who'd rather read in English. But for me personally, since both Esklussiva Dotkom and Patria are solidly based in Malta, I don't mind having the book concentrated on one particular market. We'll see what the future holds, but I won't exclude switching to English for my next work of fiction.


If the book is translated, will it lose a certain essence acquired as a result of the Maltese language?

If what you write is a good story, compact, with no loose ends or gaps in the plot, it can be translated into any language without much trouble. The Maltese language, if used properly, can help you manifest great emotions and there is really no limit to the descriptions you can come up with. Actually, some expressions that I included in the book had to be in Maltese because otherwise they would have lost their descriptive value.

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