An island’s boundaries free the mind, says Anne Glusker, an author and former editor at The Washington Post who spent three weeks as an artist in residence in Gozo.
The journey presented itself like one from a fairy tale: a long, narrow road that squirrels through the dust and heat of a Gozitan summer. And, at the end of the road, my journey would end with a meeting with an American writer.
That a Gozo road would lead to an American writer is in itself a slightly incongruent experience. And yet, the experience would encapsulate the very essence of the discussion I would have with Anne Glusker, a former editor at The Washington Post who travelled to Għarb to participate in Fondazzjoni Kreattività’s Artist in Residence programme (AiR).
Glusker, 57, came of age at the time of the Vietnam War and remembers seeing the body bags and soldier counts as they appeared on the television screens.
“The secret bombing of Cambodia is one of my earliest political memories. Nixon and Kissinger lying – that was shocking to me,” she said.
In April 1968, student radicals took over Columbia University in protest. Glusker witnessed the event as she rode on the bus on her way to high school. The protests left a mark on her as she realised that everyone can, through their action, effect change in the world.
Glusker grew up in New York City’s Upper East Side, at the time of a rather mixed neighbourhood full of immigrant families. Her parents still live in the same building she grew up in.
Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants, three of them from the Pale of Settlement in the former Russian Empire, while her maternal grandmother hailed from Romania.
For Glusker, integration is key to all migration issues. She explained how her grandparents were so keen to assimilate into American culture that her grandmother could not understand why Glusker’s father even bothered to visit her place of origin. Unlike her grandmother, Glusker developed a taste for travel.
She left New York in 1995 and moved to Washington to follow love, the man who would then become her husband and with whom she eventually moved to France during the George Bush years. This decision was motivated by her political leanings and disapproval of the US involvement in Iraq.
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 yet has true mountain people as residents.
Prior to her move, she worked in journalism but always kept up her writing on the side. Now, the situation is the inverse. “I guess the more accurate description of myself is a recovering journalist,” she said.
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 is currently reading A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, which she said was informing her current writing.
“It’s written in an elliptical way,” she said 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.
One of the tensions in a residency is that you want to explore your work, but you also want to get out and meet people
“Perhaps I can integrate genres,” she mused. She is referring to writing a memoir, or fictional memoir as opposed to a 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, 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.
While in Gozo, Gusker worked on two essays and a novel which has been simmering away for a long time. The novel 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. This friendship survives till today, with 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 she grew up in, in the 1970s: 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.
Gozo proved to be a serendipitous destination for this. Her temporary residence was in the middle of nowhere, necessitating a walk to the closest village centre, which for someone coming from a grand metropolis is tiny and sleepy. Catching a bus to go to the beach took her the better part of a day.
The pace and character of Gozo was a perfect fit with 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 was particularly thought-provoking for Glusker. “I’m attracted to small places and I’ve always been attracted to islands,” she explained. “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 after graduating with a master’s in English from Georgetown University in Washington. There, she had 10 days to explore different forms of writing, something she explored further while in Gozo. She then applied through the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts for the AiR programme and began to carry out research on Malta, which, until then, had only featured on her horizon as a place for a holiday in the sun.
She was pleasantly surprised, she said, to discover the history of the archipelago, the fascinating language and the serious side to the islands.
She recalled 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: “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.”
Glusker spoke to the locals and to anyone willing to share their experience with her.
“One of the tensions in a residency is that you want to explore your work, but you also want to get out and meet people.”
When she applied, Glusker was afraid that the original six weeks would prove too long and was happy when it was reduced 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 said.
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.
Glusker’s family would have loved to join her in Malta for holidays but she felt she needed a change of scene. After Gozo, she went to Corsica with her family, changing 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 two weeks but 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 and local 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 2013/2014. Both entities believe 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.