Carmel Scicluna’s latest novel, Ossessjoni, tackles the difficult subject of paedophilia. Believing that the subject chooses the author, Scicluna tells Veronica Stivala that this story, based on real incidents, had to be told.
There’s no easy way to approach the subject of paedophilia. There’s no easy way to write about it nor, most definitely, to experience it.
Author Carmel Scicluna is not one to mince his words and, within hardly a few minutes of this interview, explains how he came to write a book about a paedophile and the girl he abuses: a relative of Scicluna’s was sexually abused by a teacher.
To say that what Scicluna went through was a very painful experience is surely an understatement, but it led the author to think: “What is this paedophilia?”
A believer in the fact that a subject chooses the author, Scicluna was gripped, as it were, by the incident and began to research the subject in great depth.
“To create something good you need to have experienced it,” he confides earnestly. By no means arrogant, Scicluna describes his novel and the events that led to its inception with a striking sincerity.
He’s come to the interview with notes he’s written specially for this interview. In them are comments about themes, character descriptions and even a short summary of Ossessjoni, a novel he describes as a tragi-comedy and a subtle parody on a paedophilic relationship.
Scicluna is slightly incredulous that I’ve read the book from cover to cover and often asks, genuinely, whether I think his characters are realistic or what I think about certain elements of the plot. His honesty is endearing.
Ossessjoni won first prize in the National Book Council’s writing competition Konkors Letterarju għaż-Żgħażagħ in 2012. This is Scicluna’s seventh novel and it tells the story of a paedophile, whom we only know as Uncle Charlie and who gets involved with a nine-year-old girl called Amira. Written in the first person, the narrative alternates between the paedophile’s account and Amira, an Arab girl who lives with her abusive father.
Scicluna, 44, a pharmacist by profession, is a careful writer, his writing laden with meaning, his choice of words and names a message in themselves.
“I called him Uncle Charlie because the name is ironic, Charlie means ‘a free man’. He is anything but free,” he explains.
“I like to use irony in my writing,” continues Scicluna. Even Amira means queen.
Amira’s life is despicably tragic; not only is she abused by her terrorist father, but she no longer lives with her mother (the parents are separated and her mother is still in Algiers) and is also the victim of bullying and discrimination at school. So lacking love is she that she misinterprets the attention she receives from Uncle Charlie as something positive.
Scicluna admits that people’s reactions to his book will probably be divided – as were those of the judges
Scicluna does not take the ‘typical’ approach of making Amira the victim and Charlie the hated villain. Giving them the chance to speak in the first person narrative, he lets the reader see a manipulative side to Amira and the humane side to Charlie.
“I didn’t want to be angry at my characters,” he confides. “That’s why I wrote in the first person narrative. I didn’t want to be a patronising, omniscient narrator.
“I wanted to give the paedophile a voice, to give him some dignity so that we can see things from his perspective,” explains the author. Noting how paedophilia is a sickness, Scicluna comments how paedophiles too, are suffering and that there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the issue.
A delicate issue to be sure, Scicluna admits that people’s reactions to his book will probably be divided – as were those of the judges.While some praised his writing, others accused him of degenerating into pornography. Ossessjoni grapples with two taboos: paedophilia and sensuality between children.
Scicluna’s opinions are admittedly not run of the mill: “We need to love [paedophiles],” he comments.
“Love solves everything. I don’t agree with having their names on a public registry. If we create a campaign of hatred – they’ll go further underground and make it even more difficult for police to trace them. Why should we treat them any differently to other criminals. Isn’t all evil bad? That you kill, hit a woman is just as bad; why should we apply different morals to them and chastise them?”
Scicluna feels that Maltese literature is perhaps too safe in its themes and is adamant that his story had to be written – shockingly, although he reworked the facts into a piece of literary fiction, many incidents are based on real-life incidents. He refers to ‘engagement’, a specialised term in the Sartrean vocabulary that refers to the process of accepting responsibility for the political consequences of one’s actions.
One phrase is particularly striking:
“…min jaqra ħafna u jħobb jikteb ħafna, […] m’huwiex kuntent bid-dinja.”
(He who who reads a lot and likes to write a lot […] isn’t happy with the world.)
“I wrote that about myself,” explains Scicluna. “The world is too cruel. That’s my voice.”
Amira’s story is inspired by the true tale of a Syrian girl. Hers and Amira’s story run very much in parallel: the girl’s father used to beat her, she was constantly waiting for her mother who never showed up and because of what she’s been through, acts and speaks a lot older than her age.
Scicluna did his utmost to help her, giving her private lessons for free, taking her and her family out to eat, paying their electricity bill. He even tried (unsuccessfully) to adopt her.
The story also contains a sub-plot about terrorism. On being told that this side to the story remains somewhat under-developed, Scicluna admits he was bound by a limited word count.
Terrorism was another theme Scicluna felt compelled to write about.
“I wanted to write a serious piece of literature and these themes – paedophilia, terrorism, multi-culturalism and racism – are what some children experience in Malta.”
In sum, Scicluna believes we need to accept today’s reality: our children are aware of certain things we weren’t when we were young. He also feels compelled to give a voice to the unheard and unaccounted for.
His next book (F’ħalq il-Lupu) is about transsexuals and non-exclusive hebephiles (a sexual preference for a specific physiological appearance related to age).
“These are the minority of the minority whom society doesn’t even calculate. We don’t even know they exist. Why shouldn’t there be literature that gives them a voice?”
Carmel Scicluna’s Ossessjoni is published by Merlin.