‘We are not living in the best of times’ | Immanuel Mifsud

With a concluding story that folds in a fictionalised take on both the recent egg-pelting of a sex worker and the murder of Lassana Cisse Souleymane, Immanuel Mifsud’s latest short story collection, L-Aqwa Żmien, seeks to skewer that same campaign slogan with a brutal set of timely, topical and searingly painful explorations of the ones our society has left behind. The award-winning author speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about what motivated this angry and sullen new volume

Immanuel Mifsud
Immanuel Mifsud

As is evident in both its title and the content of the stories within, this collection appears to have been inspired by the toxic underbelly of contemporary Malta. Would you say this characterisation is correct, and did you write out these stories – partly, at least – as a way of spitting out some of the venom that the state of the country has punctured through to your soul?

I wrote these stories in a very short time, something a writer should never do. They are, of course, one political statement, which is aimed at those politicians who insist on us believing that we are living in the best of times. Some people might be enjoying the best times of their lives, true, but others aren’t. The System – an entity which nobody can really identify with any certainty – is very unfair, not only because it favours some and not all (that in itself is an ancient story) but because it makes us believe, by very subtle and not so subtle means, that really everything is fine.

Many of us are still chanting, “Best of Times! Best of Times! Best of Times!” to the beat played by that DJ on stage, but there are silent corners where people retire in pain because their story is not in sync with what is presented on stage. Think of those who are living on the streets; those who come up to you in Republic Street asking for one euro; think of those who had a home and ended up living in a garage because they can no longer afford the rent of their old flat.

Think of the trees: the many that got chopped. I admit these stories jar; they are out of tune with the grand, euphoric, scenario we’ve come to accept as the real. It is a matter of choice, I think: some love playing catchy tunes, I prefer a more sullen beat. I dislike, or rather, mistrust elation. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to make a disclaimer, which has become important in 21st century Malta: this collection of stories is actually a recollection, a revisiting of themes I had already written about in my first publication back in 1993.

Then there is another dark side, darker still. The underbelly of our society, as you called it. And here, what intrigues me most, is the violent element. Again, nothing new, but still out of tune with what the master of ceremonies is proposing to us.

I am not totally sure why I wrote this collection. What counts, for me, is that I wrote these stories intent on passing on the message: no, we are not living in the best of times. Not all of us are, anyway.

How do you hope this approach will affect the readers? Do you hope to inspire change or some revolution in the way people perceive the political discourse that surrounds Malta?

Revolution? I have no hope that these stories are going to kindle some revolution in people’s perception of things. First, because I’m not a revolutionary writer; second, because I’m writing nothing new. The stories I’m publishing are the life and times of living people who are not enjoying the best of times. They have made the headlines as recently as this past summer. I’m venting out my anger, my mistrust, my frustration, but I harbour no high hopes these stories will move anyone to the point of inspiring change. Change comes through other means, not literature. Activists can bring about change, not writers.

And what about the literary scene? Do you think we need more local authors responding to these realities in just such a manner? Do you feel that perhaps, many other local writers opt to take a more secluded or comfortable view of their craft and supposed vocation?

During a recent meeting for writers, called by the National Book Council, during which we discussed authors’ rights, I urged fellow writers not to think too much about their rights without first assuming social and political responsibilities. That was a mistake on my part. I should have never made such a plea. A writer who writes love stories is no less of a writer than someone who writes critically. Of course, I would be happier if all the writers were to respond critically to our times, but I don’t think it is a duty. I should have never proposed authors what to write.

That was one grave mistake.

Mind you, I will probably commit it again.

The final story in the collection actually folds in two very topical happenings into one horrific whole. How did the construction of this story take shape, vis-a-vis your alchemising the ‘real life’ events into your narrative structure? And would it be fair to say that the story expresses your own discomfort and disgust with certain aspects of Maltese masculinity?

I am sure there is nothing particular with Maltese masculinity. It’s the same as the British and Hungarian and Libyan and even Chilean, I would say.

The final story in the collection is about hatred. I’ve always been intrigued by hatred: what makes people hate others? Why do some white people hate black ones? What makes them hate? Is it fear that makes one hate? Or insecurity? What would motivate someone just to shoot, cold-bloodedly, another human being which happens to be black? I honestly don’t get it. The main character in the final story embodies hate.

He perceives black people and ugly women, as deserving to be hated, as being objects of hate and ridicule, ultimately deserving to die. How can we explain this psychology of hate? Approaching the end of the story, something very ironical happened: I caught myself disliking the character so much that I was afraid I was going to end up doing exactly what he did: hate him. At that point I realised that it is not so difficult to start hating. Yes, it is horrific.

L-Aqwa Żmien will be launched at The Undercroft, Valletta on October 31 at 7.30pm. The collection is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin