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 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?”
Tackling a subject like paedophilia through fiction takes guts. Tackling it from the angle that Carmel Scicluna has opted for, not only giving the reader the culprit’s point of view, but also including a subplot that deals with an al-Qaeda assassination attempt… well, then you really need to keep your wits about you not to allow your story to descend into chaos.
In fact, Scicluna seems to have no problem keeping his wits about him. Ossessjoni won the Konkors Letterarju Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ktieb/Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, and even before I finished the second chapter I could see why.
The story revolves around a man who calls himself Uncle Charlie, a 40-something-year-old who has a sexual fixation on Amira. The only problem is that Amira is a 10-year-old. She is wiser to the ways of the world and possesses more sexual nous than is usually expected from children her age.
And this is the crux of the matter. Is Uncle Charlie the monster? Is Amira just an innocent child? Or are there more than 50 shades of grey (if you’ll pardon the pun) in between?
This is a disturbing tale. You read and re-read the words; you alternate between feeling disgust for Uncle Charlie and grudging pity.
Because yes, Uncle Charlie is depicted as a piteous figure, a man who can’t help himself. As the relationship between him and Amira grows more complex, with the balance of power continuously shifting towards the little girl, the reader sees that Uncle Charlie’s sexual urge controls his every waking moment. In short, this is a very sick man.
I have to confess that up to this stage, I was still in two minds about Scicluna’s narrative. Did it manage to hook me? Undoubtedly. Did I like the conflicts it was creating in my mind?
I was not that sure. I’m usually very happy in my unequivocal belief that sympathy is wasted on paedophiles and pederasts.
This is particularly so in the wake of the ridiculous attempts by paedophiles to claim the same rights as homosexuals – for all the world, as if the two are even remotely in the same ballpark. I wasn’t sure that I was comfortable having my beliefs rocked.
Still, being perfectly aware that the true hallmark of a great writer is his/her ability to rock said status quo, I continued reading. After all, the biggest masterpieces created are those that disturb and that deliver that touch of unpredictability that makes you question your values/beliefs/priorites – as long as this is done with purpose, and not just for the sake of it.
Happily, Scicluna definitely belongs to the former camp. The more the story progressed, the more evident his prowess in subtle storytelling, with the reader’s sense of contempt, of revulsion towards Uncle Charlie deepening with each page.
Scicluna manages to create two opposing emotions – getting the reader to acknowledge paedophilia as a sickness, while at the same time condemning the actions of the protagonist – with seemingly no effort. He achieves this without taking on the role of preacher. He doesn’t even actively tell us that what is happening is wrong.
However, every twist and turn in the narrative implies just this. He paints a picture of a childhood that, while maybe not innocent, has certainly been further deflowered by the actions of a selfish, weak-willed individual. The fact that Amira comes from a background of turmoil and physical abuse only serves to make this abrupt ending of her childhood even more poignant.
The book starts off by posing a question: if a child isn’t so innocent, can corruption be really said to have taken place? Scicluna’s story proves that the answer is not only a resounding yes, but that if anything, the perpatrator’s guilt is doublefold.
In the same way that two wrongs do not make a right, Ossessjoni shows us Amira’s precociousness simply makes Uncle Charlie’s guilt stronger. The message is loud and clear: there is never a justification for child abuse.
Ossessjoni is disturbing to read. It upsets the status quo on a subject most people are scared to even think about, let alone dissect. But it does so cleverly, with intent – and while weaving a very good story to boot.
The ending escalates rather abruptly, with the language suddenly becoming more forceful and innuendos becoming certainities. If I have one criticism to make, it is that the transition does not happen gradually – yet again, maybe it is precisely this abruptness that really pushes the seriousness of the situation – the fragility of Amira’s mental state and the damage and pain Uncle Charlie is inflicting on her – home so forcefully. The sudden turn in events proves that at the end of the day, no matter how sexually aware or manipulative Amira might be, she remains a child.
Although the main topic is paedophilia, the issues of domestic child abuse, racism, terrorism (Amira’s father is a mover in a locally based al-Qaeda cell, and there’s an assassination subplot) and a very poor education system are also addressed.
Put like that, it may sound like an overkill of unrelated topics. In reality, it is not. All the different issues come together very naturally as part of the main narrative, and at no point is there a question of anything feeling forced. This is no mean feat to achieve when writing.
Kudos to Scicluna for pulling off the double whammy of giving the reader both a compelling storyline and a deep analysis of one of the darkest desires that are usually taboo.
– Ramona Depares