A New Yorker in Għarb

(Warning: long read. An edited version of this post first appeared in Times of Malta here.)

Travelling down a narrow, dusty road lined by the typical yellowing globigerina limestone, seemingly arriving at the very end of Gozo to meet an American writer, was an incongruent experience.

And yet, it came to perfectly encapsulate the very essence of the discussion that would ensue with Anne Glusker, a former editor at the Washington Post in Għarb to participate in Fondazzjoni Kreattività’s Artist in Residence programme (AiR).

Ms Glusker, 57, came of age at the time of the Vietnam War and clearly remembers seeing the body bags and soldier counts as they appeared on their television screens.

“The secret bombing of Cambodia is one of my earliest political memories… Nixon and Kissinger lying. That was shocking to me,” she recalls.

Vietnam protests
Protests against the Vietnam War abounded.

Student radicals had taken over Columbia University in protest, a happening she witnessed as she rode on the bus on her way to high school. In fact, she reckons she became very political by the age of 12, when she realised that each one of us can, indeed, effect change in the world.

Ms Glusker grew up in New York City’s Upper East Side, at the time a rather mixed neighbourhood, where the building you grew up in made all the difference to the environment you were surrounded by.

Glusker 2
Anne Glusker is a passionate storyteller who paints a clear picture to her listener. Photo – Anthony Grech

She recalls the familial atmosphere of the immigrant families that occupied the condominium that her parents still reside in till today.

Her grandparents were all Jewish immigrants, three of them from the Pale of Settlement in the former Russian Empire, while her maternal grandmother hailed from Romania. “Integration is the key to all migration issues,” she claims, explaining how her grandparents were so keen to assimilate into American culture that her grandmother could not understand why Ms Glusker’s father even bothered to visit her place of origin.

Pale of settlement
Territories that made up the Pale of Settlement.

Travelling was, however, in Ms Glusker’s blood.

She left the Big Apple in 1995 when she moved to Washington to follow love, the man who would then become her husband and with whom she eventually decamped to France during the Bush years, a decision motivated by her political leanings.

“Je deteste mon President (I hate my President)”, she would vehemently assert in reference to George W. Bush and the alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Ms Glusker and her family lived in Divonne-Les-Bains between 2005 and 2009, a place she describes as contradictory in that it still pulls crowds for its thermal springs but, however, has true mountain people as residents.

Prior to her move she had worked in journalism but always kept up her writing on the side. Now, the situation is the inverse.

“I’m really trying to wean myself from the marketplace,” she adds, “so I would say recovering journalist is the most accurate way to describe myself.”

Ms Glusker’s writing focuses mostly on capturing the many facets of the human experience and she is currently exploring which form she will adopt for her upcoming work.

She happens to have a novel which she is reading in front of her, A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, which she excitedly says is informing the work she is doing at the moment.

“It’s written in an elliptical way,” she explains of the Man Booker 2016 shortlisted novel. “The chapters are very short, with enigmatic titles, and some are like poems. It makes me think of Claudia Rankine’s award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, a book which has both true essays, such as one on Serena Williams, as well as poems.”

Authors
José Eduardo Agualusa (l) and Claudia Rankine

“Perhaps I can integrate genres,” she mused. She is referring to writing a memoir, or fictional memoir as opposed to non-fiction story. The essence here is the deconstruction of the concept of ‘truth’.

What is true, what is real, and does it matter, are the questions she ponders. Ultimately, Ms Glusker believes what is important is how you present your statements. If you say it is true, then it should be. If not, it is important to couch your piece in words which clearly allude to the fact that what you are claiming could be fanciful recollections or imaginings, for example.

She is actually aiming to work on two essays while residing in Gozo as well as a novel that has been fermenting for a long time. The latter harks back to her childhood, to a time when she would decamp to Long Island for the summer together with her family.
There, aged three, she became best of friends with a girl from a radically different background to hers, who she met on the beach. And this friendship survives till today, with Ms Glusker being godmother to her friend’s twin boys.

Class divisions, friendship and family will form the heart of her novel for which she already has a title in mind, “Goodnight, my sweet and wild town.”

One of the essays, on the other hand, will deal with the New York of the 70s that she grew up in, a town in agitation with a burgeoning arts scene, an interesting juxtaposition to the seaside town that she will explore for her novel.

The works both clearly encapsulate her fascination with the concepts of space and time. And Gozo has proven to be a serendipitous destination for this.

An Italian friend once told me that when in Gozo he felt like he should not ask what time it was, but what century it is, a sentiment Ms Glusker subscribes to in full.

The abode she has been put up in is in the middle of nowhere, necessitating a walk to the closest village centre, which for someone coming from grand metropolises is tiny and sleepy. Catching a bus to go to the beach can take her the better part of a day.

The pace and character of Gozo perfectly fits the intended spirit of her novel which will be rooted in nostalgia, encompassed by a bitter sweetness and longing for a place and time gone by.

Space in Gozo is particularly thought provoking for Ms Glusker. “I’m attracted to small places and I’ve always been attracted to islands,” she explains. “Islands offer a clear difference from limitless space. In a way, the boundaries free the minds.”

Her journey to Gozo started with a residency in Amerhurst, Virginia, which she undertook following her MA in English from Georgetown University in Washington.

There, she had 10 days to explore different forms of writing, something she will be deepening while here. She then applied through the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts for the AiR programme and began to carry out research into Malta, which, until then, had only featured on her horizon as a place to have a holiday in the sun.

She was pleasantly surprised, she says, to discover the history of the archipelago, the fascinating language, and the serious side to the islands. Research is key for the informed traveller, she believes.

She recalls a particular piece she came across written by Gozitan author Pierre J. Mejlak in which he described the resolution of two feuding villages, Qala and Nadur, where the inhabitants of the latter were mostly returned migrants.

Pierre Mejlak
Gozitan author Pierre J. Mejlak

Mejlak writes: “A group of young men from Qala once went to a crossroad between both villages and sprayed ‘New York’ with an arrow pointing to the road leading to Nadur… morning came and ‘New York’ was still there, but with another word sprayed a few metres away with an arrow pointing at the opposite direction. Calcutta.”

She has continued to explore, talking to the locals and to anyone who is willing to share their experience with her. “One of the tensions in a residency like this is that you want to explore your work, but you also want to get out and meet people.”

When she applied, Ms Glusker was afraid that the original six weeks would prove too long and was happy when it was changed to three. “But now I can really see how you could spend three months here. In terms of the dynamic between working and encountering people, you really have to make a choice,” she explains.

In the spirit of the AiR programme, she will also be meeting with some local artists and people involved in the arts scene, including author Mark Camilleri, publisher Chris Gruppetta, and artist George M. Attard.

Ms Glusker’s family would have loved to join her in Malta for holidays but she felt she needed a change of scene. So they’re off to Corsica instead, having to catch planes, trains and boats to get there – yet again, challenging herself with space and time.

The AiR programme started in 2001 thanks to the Maltese-born American artist Jean Zaleski. The duration of the residency is generally of two weeks. However, Fondazzjoni Kreattività also considers proposals with a different duration.
The programme aims to enrich cultural diversity within the national creative scene, and encourage productive interactions between international creatives and local creatives, between international creatives and communities, as well as physical and virtual environments.
It has now greatly expanded through Fondazzjoni Kreattività’s collaboration with the Valletta 2018 Foundation following the direct participation in the EU’s Open Method of Collaboration on Artists in Residence which produced guidelines on the subject for member states in 2013/14. Both entities believe that such initiatives and collaborations will enrich their programmes in the run up to 2018 and during its legacy.
The residency is based in Għarb, Gozo, with artists free to move around the islands as they please.

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