Representing 'Gibraltarianness' – a transcript of the speech given by M. G. Sanchez as part of the 2017 Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to start this talk by telling you a few facts about myself. My name is Mark Sanchez and I write under the name M. G. Sanchez. I chose the initialised version of my name because there is a very famous American football player called Mark Sanchez – and it would have been almost impossible to find details about my writing on the net had I published the books under my full name. (If anybody here has tried googling the renowned English novelist Elizabeth Taylor, they’ll know exactly what I mean!). My interest in writing began in the early Eighties, when I was a student at Bayside Comprehensive. I was not a particularly bad pupil, but I hated Mathematics and the Sciences with a passion – to the extent that I used to hide in the school library to avoid attending lessons in those subjects. The best place to hide, I soon figured out, was right at the back of the library, next to the modern classics section. One day, having nothing better to do, I picked out a book at random from the shelf before me and read a few pages. The book was Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert and I ended up taking it to the issuing counter. By the time I finished it two days later, something very strange had happened: I had fallen in love with literature and promised myself that one day I’d write a novel set in Gibraltar!
A lot of things had to happen, though, before this came to pass. In 1987, at the age of 18, I went to study English at the University of Manchester. I was highly unsettled during my stay in England’s northern capital and ended up returning to Gibraltar after only a few months. The next year I was back at Manchester again – on this occasion studying Medieval Studies with Latin. Unlike the previous year, I was very settled and happy this time around, but I hated the Latin component of my course with a vengeance and after two terms I once again dropped out.
For the next six or seven years I did not think much about books or reading or anything connected with the world of ideas. Instead I persuaded myself that I wasn’t the studious type and settled down to a series of jobs (petrol pump attendant, tourist site caretaker, insurance salesman among others).
Then in 1995 I decided to try one last time. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was out of stubbornness. Maybe I was fed up of seeing ex-schoolmates of mine returning to the Rock with their degrees.
My friends in Gibraltar all thought that I was crazy and (I later discovered) were even laying bets with each other as to how long I’d last this time!
But I did not come back within three months as most of them had been predicting. Instead I spent seven and a half years at the University of Leeds – in the process obtaining a BA with first-class honours, an MA by Research and a PhD – all in the subject of English.
It was while at Leeds that I started writing stories. I wrote mainly to relax, to switch off from Shakespeare and Spenser and Marlowe and all the other authors that I was studying. By 2002 or 2003 I had enough material for a short-story collection, so one day I printed my stories out and sent them off to a publisher. I was convinced that there’d be a market for my writing, that readers and publishers would be genuinely interested in the fascinating and idiosyncratic place which I’ve always considered Gibraltar to be.
This, however, proved to be an overoptimistic assessment. Most of the British publishers that I sent my stuff to never replied. One said that he liked my style, but couldn’t see Gibraltar being a subject of interest. Another was even more explicit: he told me that Gibraltar was just an out-of-the-way colony like the Falklands Islands – and that nobody would be interested in reading stories “about reactionary, flag-waving nationalists.”
It became clear to me back then that there was a tremendous gap between the Gibraltar that I knew and the way Gibraltar was being imagined by those outside Gibraltar itself, between how we view ourselves, in other words, and how other people view us. I would now like to spend a few minutes talking about how Gibraltar has traditionally been perceived – and what I, as a Gibraltarian author, make of it all. Obviously, it is possible to encounter all sorts of opinions and views when it comes to a subject as topical and politically charged as Gibraltar, but in general I think there are four main ways in which Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians have been represented in the last few decades. These are:
The British Conservative/ Nationalist view
Gibraltarians are staunch tea-drinkers who are very patriotic and love to wave the Union Jack whenever Royal Navy warships visit the Rock. This is a very good thing.
The British Left-Wing/ Labour view
Gibraltarians are staunch tea-drinkers who are very patriotic and love to wave the Union Jack whenever Royal Navy warships visit the Rock. This is a very bad thing
The Spanish view
‘No me hables de Gibraltareños; en la Roca solo hay colonos que no pertenecen allí.’
‘Don’t talk to me about Gibraltarians; only foreign settlers who shouldn’t be there live on the Rock.’
The Gibraltarian View
‘We are more British than the British, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.’
What strikes me about these different interpretations is that they are all to some degree or the other politically motivated. Take the Gibraltarian position, for instance. Harassed as we have been for decades by the machinations of the Spanish government, we seek comfort in our relationship with Britain and therefore take every opportunity to portray ourselves as more British than Marmite or as Her Majesty’s corgis. Some might see an element of theatricality or performativity in this unwavering espousal of Britishness – but is this such a bad thing? Can we really blame the Gibraltarian people for embracing Britishness in the face of ongoing Spanish governmental hostility? I personally don’t think so.
The Spanish position, too, is by and large politically driven. For years and years Franco’s propagandists churned out the idea that Gibraltarians have no cultural identity of their own – and so it is only natural that a considerable number of Spaniards see us as a ragtag bunch of settlers with no claim to the land under their feet. I am reminded of what a friend of mine got told by a guardia civil when he was stopped while out in the bay in his fishing boat. When he tried telling the guardia that he had no right detaining him in British Gibraltarian waters, the man arrogantly replied: “The only waters that you can claim in Gibraltar are the waters in your effing toilet cistern!”
A similar sense of political bias underpins most British perceptions of Gibraltar. Commentators on both the Left and the Right love to present the Rock as a bastion of old-fashioned Britishness – shamelessly glossing over the polyglot, multicultural reality that is to be found outside the Garrison Library’s walls. The Left does this in order to portray Gibraltar as a redundant left-over from imperial days, a pointless encumbrance that should have been discarded decades ago. The Right, by contrast, celebrates Gibraltar’s ‘Britishness’ as a way of whipping up patriotic sentiment among its nationalistically minded supporters. The irony is not just that they are both saying the same thing – admittedly with a slightly different angle of focus – but that what they are saying is so misleading. Consider, for instance, the following little gem which appeared in a left-leaning periodical earlier this year:
Locals, clad in M&S polo shirts … speak English with clipped British accents. Bursts of "bloody" and "gosh" reveal themselves to be the going expletives. Some are retired pensioners from Cheshire and Kent looking to retire to sunny Spain, without the effort of learning Spain's language and customs, or the distress of giving up home comforts like the Daily Mail and a decent cup of breakfast tea.
Is this Gibraltar they are talking about, or Henley on Thames during Regatta week? Hard to say…
Anyway, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen – four different views on Gibraltarianness, none of which, in my opinion, do justice to the complex, nuanced, multi-layered reality which is to be found in the streets of vibrant, modern, cosmopolitan Gibraltar.
Does this mean that all portrayals of Gibraltar have been so far off the mark? Actually, no. In the days of the British Empire, ironically enough, English commentators had a much better understanding of what it meant to be Gibraltarian. This is how the lexicographer John Farmer, for example, defined the term ‘Rock Scorpion’ (a Victorian slang term for a Gibraltarian) in his Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English of 1895:
Rock Scorpion - a mongrel Gibraltarian: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Genoese, Barbary Hebrew, Moorish negro — a mixture of all mettles.
If you think that all this sounds a bit derogatory, you are, of course, right. Many Victorian writers loved to focus on our heterogenous genealogical origins and make fun of us, the object being, no doubt, to buttress their own sense of cultural and racial superiority. Here’s the noted Shakespearian scholar William George Clark, writing in 1851:
The crowd which assembled on these occasions was curious, consisting, as it did, of Muslims and Jews, and a nondescript rabble of Scorpions, the Anglo-Spanish mongrel race, that dwells on the rock, and nowhere else, like the monkeys.
And yet, as derogatory as this sort of writing is, I find it easier to relate to than the glitzy, airbrushed, 100 per cent British version of Gibraltar presented in programmes such as ITV’s Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun, or in newspapers like the Daily Express or the Daily Mail. Whether we like it or not, you see, Gibraltar has always been a cultural, linguistic and racial melting pot, a global crossroads in every sense of the word. Our ancestors have come from all over the Mediterranean and beyond – Malta, India, Portugal, Morocco, Great Britain, Genoa, Sardinia, Spain, the Balearic Islands – and every migrant coming to the Rock has brought with them a part of the native culture that they left behind. Should we be ashamed of this? Should we try to brush our diverse ethnic origins under the carpet? Quite the opposite. In these days where inward-looking nationalism is on the ascendancy and sameness and racial uniformity are held up as desirable attributes, we should be proud of our diversity and our hybrid culture, of the fact that we are ‘a mixture of all mettles,’ as John Farmer described us. This is one of the things that I’ve been trying to do in my own writing – to capture that state of Gibraltarian ‘in-betweenness’, to move away from the demeaning oversimplifications that are often told about us. To quote a soon-to-be-published essay on my books by Professor Ana Maria Manzanas Calvo of the University of Salamanca:
It is not the space of Britishness nor the space of Spanishness, but something else, an uncharted territory away from nationalistic absolutisms and overintegrated perceptions of culture. This is the liminal space Sanchez repossesses in his writing.
Okay, after that little detour, we need to go back again to the year 2002 or 2003. As I explained a few moments ago, I sent the manuscript of my first book to several publishers, but none of them were interested in publishing a work of Gibraltarian literary fiction. At this point I was faced with a decision – should I give up on the idea of writing about Gibraltar altogether, or should I struggle on and publish the books myself? After thinking about it for some time, I decided to take the plunge and go it alone. I did this for a number of reasons - first, because no one was writing about Gibraltar in a literary manner and I thought that somebody needed to be doing this; and second, because I genuinely believed that if people engaged with Gibraltarian writing, they’d realise that we are much more than the rabidly anti-Spanish flag-wavers that papers like the Guardian make us out to be. So how does one go about writing in a Gibraltarian manner, you might be wondering. How does one represent Gibraltarianness? Well, I don’t think it’s that difficult, really. The first thing I recommend is to go out there and engage with what’s around you, to try and capture Gibraltar’s spirit of place. Keep your eyes pealed. Observe the lay of the land. Try to focus afresh on the things we take for granted. Here’s a passage from my latest novel Jonathan Gallardo:
It is almost half nine by the time he gets to the plant. The Levanter cloud still hangs like a heavy blanket over the warehouses and showrooms of Devil’s Tower Road, but the outline of the sun can now be discerned, smudged and saffron-coloured, behind the different layers of mist. The entrance gates to the plant are thrown fully open – like they always are after the fleet of trucks has left for the day. The metal chain which normally fastens the gates has been placed behind one of the concrete gateposts in a neat coil, its thick, torus-shaped links flecked with rust and bird droppings. Overhead in the swirling haze seagulls hover and soar and then plunge into precipitous thirty-foot dives, endlessly screeching and cawing, clearly excited by the smell of refuse rising from the yard. Towering above them is the Rock’s northern cliff-face, a vast, unending symphony of sharp bone-white crags and patches of thorny dark green maquis. Despite having worked at the plant for several years now, Jonathan still feels a twinge of nervousness every time he looks up at that sheer 400-metre precipice. Part of his unease stems from the knowledge that the section of Devil’s Tower Road where the plant is based is subject to intermittent rockfalls. Thankfully, most of the time these turn out to be relatively minor affairs, noisy and fleeting pebble showers that fall into the cordoned-off zone by the foot of the Rock, occasionally raising clouds of fine limestone dust. Cagadas de mono, Pepe calls them. ‘Monkey shits.’
The second thing I recommend is for the writer to use language in a way that reflects our hybrid Gibraltarian identity. I do this by occasionally interpolating a few Spanish or llanito words and phrases into my writing. Sometimes (as in the passage I’ve just read) I translate these words and phrases into English; but other times I don’t. To be honest, it all depends on how I feel. Here’s a passage, for instance, also from my novel Jonathan Gallardo, in which several Spanish words are left untranslated:
Every Sunday afternoon they walk down to Fish Market Road and catch a bus to the frontier. There they spend about an hour strolling up and down the Gibraltarian side of the fence, watching families that were divided back in 1969 communicate across the empty hundred-metre stretch separating them. In hoarse and emotional voices, often trying to make themselves heard above the shrieking westerly wind, the families exchange news in Spanish about betrothals and illnesses, job interviews and sudden deaths, marital break-ups and school exams, all of it drifting past the lone Guardia Civil who stands there just outside his wooden sentry hut looking bored and resentful, his clunky FR 8 fusil propped up heavily over his right shoulder, his already swarthy features made even swarthier by the long and interminable hours he spends under the unforgiving glare of the Mediterranean sun. Little Paulie finds it all very amusing and often mimics the cross-frontier dialogue, putting on a bumbling, high-pitched voice for the women and an overly gruff, cretinous one for the men. He declares that if he had any relatives over on the Spanish side he’d rather not see them at all than discuss family problems in this way – a berrío limpio.
Amanda Gerke, an American scholar who has just written an excellent article on my work which will be published next year, argues that the act of non-translation in literary texts is “an active choice which reveals discursive realities within bilingual communities.” In other words, she argues that by leaving Spanish phrases untranslated I am Gibraltarianising, as it were, my writing. I like this idea very much, although I have to confess that If I’m doing this, I’m doing it at a subconscious rather than at a conscious level!
Another thing which I recommend is for writers not to be afraid of the political realities we are enmeshed in. Someone (I can’t remember who it was) once wrote that Gibraltarians are one of the most politically aware people in the world – obsessed as we are with developments in Westminster and the Spanish senate and how these impact upon our everyday lives. If this is the case – and I believe that it is – this reality has to be included in a Gibraltarian text. Obviously, I am not suggesting that Gibraltarian writers start openly sermonising in their writing, but I think it’s important, nonetheless, that there is some level of political engagement. Here’s a passage from my novel Solitude House, for instance, in which the main character reflects on the border queue:
I grasped the steering wheel with both hands and angrily shook my head. I told myself that Gonzalez must have made a mistake and that the traffic jam had instead been caused by a car crash or some other type of road accident, but in my heart I knew that he was speaking the truth. This sort of thing had been happening now for the last few years. If Gibraltar applied to become a member of UEFA, there was a queue. If the British Foreign Secretary said that handing Gibraltar back to Spain against the wishes of the Gibraltarians was not an option, there was a queue. If the Gibraltarian Chief Minister spoke in front of the UN Assembly, there was a queue. If a Gibraltarian sports team was invited to compete in some prestigious tournament in Spain, there was a queue. All very different from those short-lived days back in the mid-Eighties, needless to say, when, anxious to get into the European Community as they were, the Spaniards had been on their best behaviour. In less than twenty years they had done a complete volte-face and were once again using the border as a weapon, a tool of political strategy, the crank tightening the loop of razor wire into which Gibraltar’s delicate maidenly head was placed. Turn the crank just a quarter of an inch and, voilà, Gibraltar’s little roads would be clogged with traffic, ambulances and police cars couldn’t attend to emergencies, and everybody on the Rock would feel stressed out of their heads. A nice and easy way of causing maximum disruption with minimum effort, muchas gracias.
The last thing that I recommend is for writers to actively engage with Gibraltar’s hybridity. The signs of this hybridity are everywhere around you. Go to the upper town, for instance, and look at the names of the streets – Lynch’s Lane (English), Pezzi’s Steps (Neapolitan), Fraser’s Ramp (Scottish), Arengo’s Palace Lane (Genoese), Baca’s Passage (Spanish), Abecasis’s Passage (Sephardic). Or else sit on a bus and listen to how effortlessly local kids switch from Spanish to English. Or notice the juxtapositions that you encounter as you walk up Main Street – red pillar boxes outside a Catholic cathedral; blond-haired, blue-eyed policemen speaking Spanish; restaurant signs advertising both fish and chips and gambas al pil-pil. Above all, focus on the people around you – for they are the living embodiments of this hybridity:
[Let me tell you something about] my father’s father, Joseph Sanchez. He was a handsome and imposing man, broad-shouldered and piercingly blue-eyed, unusually tall, too, for a Gibraltarian at just under six feet. He had the names of his wife and children inked on his right forearm, and on each hand, on the fleshy mound of muscle between thumb and forefinger known as the opponens pollicis, he bore a series of faded, violet-coloured squiggles which were supposed to represent flying seagulls and which his brother-in-law, a budding artist, had once tattooed with a knitting needle and a bottle of what my grandfather used to call ‘tinta china.’ He had inherited his fair looks from his maternal grandfather, a Mancunian called Joseph Brown who spent a few years posted in Gibraltar with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in the mid-1880s. In 1888 or 1889 Private Brown waved goodbye to the military in order to marry Sebastiana Villanera, a locally employed seamstress from Cortes de la Frontera in Spain. Throughout Gibraltar’s colonial history there have been countless Protestant-Catholic nuptials of this type. The template hardly varied. English soldier meets Spanish/Gibraltarian woman. Quits the military. Gets married. Finds a job on the Rock. Becomes a father. Allows his children to be brought up as Catholics so that they can integrate better with the local community. This was more or less what came to pass in Sebastiana’s and Joseph’s case – except that for some reason (probably Joseph’s pig-headedness) their children came to be baptised as Anglicans rather than Catholics. There were five of them altogether: Charles, Florence, Isabel, Joseph and Maria Luisa. I’m not sure whether the first four continued this tradition when they themselves came to have children, but I do know that when Maria Luisa gave birth to my grandfather while domiciling with her Gibraltarian husband Oscar Sanchez in La Línea she wasted no time in having him baptised as an Anglican. Thus, my grandfather Joseph (who throughout his life remained completely uninterested in political or religious matters) can in some ways be seen as the embodiment of one of those befuddling Gibraltarian paradoxes: a man who was born in Spain and whose surname was Sanchez... and yet who looked as light-skinned and blue-eyed as a Cockney costermonger and who was taught as a child to believe that the Pope was only the plain old Bishop of Rome.
Okay, so I’ve analysed how Gibraltarians have been traditionally represented – and I’ve described how I’ve been trying to represent ‘Gibraltarianess’ in my own writing. Now I want to spend a few minutes looking at how my writing has been received, how people, in other words, have responded to the idea of a Gibraltarian text. For the first five years, the truth is, there was hardly any interest in what I was doing – either here in Gibraltar or overseas. This was a very demoralising time for me, as I was putting a lot of effort into my writing but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Again and again I felt like giving up, repeatedly I asked myself: what the hell are you doing?
Nevertheless, I persevered with the writing and, finally, around 2012 things began to change.
That same year an Anglo-Finnish academic by the name of John Stotesbury gave a couple of talks on my writings – one at Roma Tre University and another at the University of Zaragoza. Six months later, Professor Esterino Adami, a lecturer from the University of Turin, published an essay on my work in a book entitled Ritorno a Babele.
Since those days, articles about my work have appeared in different university journals (among them British and American Studies, ES Review, IL Tolomeo and The Alicante Journal of English Studies) and lectures about my books have been delivered by academics such as Professor Ina Habermann of the University of Basel and Ana Maria Manzanas of the University of Salamanca. I have also been invited to take part in radio programmes with the BBC World Service, Australian National Radio and other international radio stations. Just next year alone, four new pieces on my work are scheduled to be published – including a chapter in a book called Postcolonial Passages in the Twenty-First Century.
I’ll be honest - sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure that all this is happening, especially when you consider that a) there was no interest in my work for a long period of time and b) that to this day I continue to publish books on my own, without support or backing of any kind!
Furthermore, over the last eighteen months I have been invited to speak about my Gibraltarian writings at different European universities – including the University of Salamanca (which I visited twice, in May 2016 and May 2017), the University of Basel, the University of Turin, the University of the Balearic Islands, and the University of Portsmouth. I enjoyed all these talks immensely and loved explaining to people what being Gibraltarian actually entails. I was also very surprised by just how interested students and professors are in finding out more about the Rock and its people. When I went to Mallorca, for instance, almost a hundred students turned up for the talk, much more than the hall could hold. When we had a Question and Answer session at the end of the talk, almost half of the audience were putting their hands up! Not only that, after the talk a group of young Spaniards approached me and said that they wanted to apologise to me in person for the way their government had been treating the people of Gibraltar!
A similar thing happened at Salamanca. When I finished my talk there, a postgraduate student from Rwanda declared that, as far as he was concerned, Gibraltar was an issue that should be settled by Britain and Spain alone, and that nobody should attach any importance to the views of the Gibraltarians. You’d have thought that this statement would have delighted the Spaniards in the audience, wouldn’t you, but in actual fact it was the reverse: many young Spaniards started rebuking him for expressing such an anti-democratic and anti-Gibraltarian view!
Above all, what I have learned from all these speaking engagements is that folk out there are genuinely interested in Gibraltar and its people, that it is imperative – more than that: it is absolutely crucial - that we, as Gibraltarians, begin to write about ourselves and our customs, that we start treating literary self-representation with the seriousness it deserves. As I wrote some years ago in an article for the now defunct New Statesman’s Gibraltar blog:
Long ago, you see, I came to a simple realisation. And that is, that if we don’t start writing about ourselves, we run the risk of being presented to the world solely through the prism of others’ perceptions. Or, to paraphrase the words of the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe: “If you don’t write your own stories, others will start writing them for you.”
But what about in Gibraltar itself? What has been the reaction to my books locally? Well, I wish I could tell you otherwise, but the response to my work here, I’m afraid, has been rather muted. My books are difficult to find in bookshops; many of my titles are missing from libraries; and there has been little media/ establishment interest in what I am doing.
Why is this? Why has it been easier to promote my books outside Gibraltar than back on home soil? At first I thought that it had something to do with what I write. As anybody who is familiar with my writing knows, I frequently focus on ‘problematic’ characters – smugglers, drug addicts, womanising alcoholics, and the like. Could this be the reason why I’ve found it so hard to promote my work here? Because I am holding up a mirror, as it were, to certain aspects of Gibraltarian life that most readers would rather forget about? It might sound like something of a long shot, but you have to remember that the average person in Gibraltar is subject to psychological pressures and constraints that are simply not faced by their counterparts in the UK. The constant anti-Gibraltarian diatribes in the Spanish press, the ongoing tensions at the land frontier, the repeated skirmishes between the Royal Navy and the guardia civil out in the Bay, the half-veiled threats uttered by Spanish politicians like Señor Margallo, the misrepresentations which are spread about us by the anti-colonial lobby back in the UK – all these factors have combined to produce something of a defensive mentality among Gibraltarians, one which ensures that anything smacking of self-criticality is immediately dismissed and branded as “anti-Gibraltarian.” A perfect example of the latter occurred while I was putting together the reprinted paperback version of my first book Rock Black. The photograph used on the cover shows a large case of Winston cigarettes lying discarded on Eastern Beach and was shot by my friend, the brilliant local photographer Gerry Fagan. While sauntering through Eastern Beach with his empty case of Winston cigarettes, Gerry tells me, he was accosted by a man who said to him, ‘Don’t you feel ashamed of yourself – taking photos of a Winston box on the beach like that? What are you trying to do – make people believe all the negative propaganda about tobacco smuggling the Spanish are always saying about us?’
Could this defensive mentality be the reason why I’ve always found it so hard to sell my books here? For a while I toyed around with this idea, but then I decided, No, this couldn’t really be it. There had to be other factors involved, surely. Could it be that living in the UK, as I do, I’m out of sight and out of mind? That one needs to be physically here in Gibraltar to get some momentum going? Or could it even be that we ourselves, as Gibraltarians, somehow believe that no fellow Gibraltarian is capable of writing semi-decent literary fiction? My friend Christopher Wall, who is sitting here in the audience, once told me about the time he was trying to persuade an acquaintance of his to read one of my books. ‘But he is local, isn’t he?’ the lady in question replied. ‘He can’t be any good, surely.’
Or is it just that we live in very book-unfriendly times and that all local writers struggle to assert themselves in the face of widespread illiteracy and sciolism? That sounds more like it, doesn’t it?
Certainly, if there is one thing that I keep hearing when conversing with fellow Gibraltarian writers like Rebecca Faller, Jackie Anderson and Giordano Durante, it is that literary efforts are not as valued in Gibraltar as other forms of creative self-expression. It’s not that there isn’t a local reader base or that there aren’t any devotees of good writing; it’s not even that we don’t have talented Gibraltarian writers. It’s just that the system, the establishment, the powers-that-be, call it what you will, has never really valorised local writing. It’s probably something to do with the mercantile history of our town, that profit-making instinct flowing through our bourgeois veins. Writing, the most intangible of the creative arts, cannot be commodified, it is not something that can be easily quantified and given a market value. And therefore, because it cannot be commodified in this way, it is often dismissed as a trifle, a valueless bauble, an activity practised by bored housewives, bookish eccentrics and pedantic grammarians. Look at the difference, for instance, between the way artists and writers are treated in Gibraltar. Artists are constantly appearing in the papers together with government ministers, are the recipients of big-money prizes, and are being sent on cultural exchanges to places like Berlin. By contrast, what is the best a Gibraltarian writer can aspire to? The chance to win a £300 cheque and a trophy at the annual poetry competition – and if, they are lucky, to be invited to speak as a local author at the Gibraltar Literary Festival?
Please don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against artists or the efforts made by the establishment to support them. I think it’s great that these talented Gibraltarians are being feted and celebrated. But just because you cannot hang the work of a writer on a wall, or you cannot buy it at auction, doesn’t mean that it is any less important. On the contrary, I would argue that writers have a unique role to play in the formation, and simultaneous projection, of Gibraltarian cultural identity.
Again and again we complain in Gibraltar that we are being misunderstood, that foreign journalists misrepresent us and seldom talk about the vibrant, multicultural, tolerant Gibraltar that we experience in our everyday lives. ‘Look at what that Oliver Bullough fellow wrote about us in the Guardian the other day!’ someone might complain while sipping coffee in one of the Main Street cafes. Or: ‘Did you hear what they are now saying about the frontier in the Spanish telediario?’ another person might grumble to their wife or their husband.
But how can we expect the world to understand us when we ourselves don’t attach much value to the art of self-representation, when we are, in effect, allowing the Gibraltarian story to be told almost exclusively by outsiders.
Writing, you see, allows us to draw strength from our traditions, it frees us from the need to constantly explain ourselves, it acts as a bulwark against the battery of propagandistic distortions that are frequently told about us. If you doubt what I’m saying, then consider the example of postcolonial territories like Nigeria or India. When the British governed these places, you see, they used to justify their presence there by claiming that the natives were an uncultured and uncivilised lot with little, if any idea of self-government. But when writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka started writing about Nigerian society in the 1950s, the world was able to see that this was just a convenient fiction designed to keep the whole sorry imperial edifice from crumbling. The Nigerians did have their own form of culture – a culture that was different, perhaps, to what we are accustomed to in western countries, but no less valid because of that. Only by writing about themselves, in other words, were Nigerian authors able to convince the world that their country was not as culturally bereft as it had been made out to be.
This is why writing is important; why we should be promoting our poets and storytellers; why we should be celebrating the works of local writers like Trino Cruz, Gabriel Moreno, Paco Oliva, Mary Chiappe and Sam Benady; why we should applaud Rebecca Gabay, who, despite all the obstacles in her way, is writing a postgraduate thesis on Gibraltarian Literature; why we should be encouraging young people to study literature, to read poetry and novels and history books, to value the printed word as a tool of self-definition and a form of self-expression.
Back in 1965, some of you may remember, Franco’s government published the infamous Libro Rojo Sobre Gibraltar, a compendium of distorted facts and statements designed to discredit the Rock. One of the people they quoted in this compilation was the British novelist Anthony Burgess, who a few years earlier had complained – and I am quoting – that “Gibraltarians know nothing of English literature and have not themselves produced either a poet or a novelist.”
The Spanish government included Burgess’s quote in el Libro Rojo for a simple reason – they knew that a territory without poets or writers is a territory with a serious identity crisis.
Half a century later, we finally have our writers and our poets.
It is time to let them sing.