#ChasingNelson: Tomate Frito problems
When I wrote the story ‘Like Ripe Fruit’ for Popshot Magazine, that I talked about in the last column, one of the first things I did was show it to my mother. Aside from being very proud, she also took a moment to mention that in the year that the story is based in, tomate frito did not come in jars. Or like someone much wiser than me said about any Llanito mothers, si hay un boquete lo encuentran.
Which is great, from an editorial perspective. Except once the story is printed, it fills me with a nervous sweat to consider that something in it may be wrong. I hope that at least a jar of tomate frito in one line of story is a small enough oversight, but it always makes me consider the question of authenticity in fiction, and how far you should go to convey it.
I have the same problem when I watch something set in London, and as I live here, I know it is very much not London. It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact it’s not the London, but a London. I remember the meltdown on social media when Thor took the Tube from Central London to Greenwich Observatory in Thor: The Dark World. There is no Tube to Greenwich Observatory. But did you really want to see Thor take the leisurely boat across the Thames? And nevermind that there’s a flying man wielding an enchanted hammer about to do battle with a horde of elves. Maybe the London of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a Tube to Greenwich Observatory. Easy, no? Except I suppose when you live somewhere, when you love it and breathe it and belong to it, it’s a little harder to accept when things are skewed, or less than flattering.
Back to Gibraltar. I am halfway through writing a novel set in the Gibraltar of 1994, leading to the events of the speedboat confiscations in the summer of 1995, and the subsequent events. Whatever those may be. Because I was 10 years old at the time and all the imagery I have in my head is fuzzy and peripheral. So I entered into the planning phase of the novel by deciding I would research. I would make it as accurate as possible. I would uncover facts. Who can argue with facts?
Except I had two problems. The first one is the tomate frito problem. Up to what level of detail would I have to research in order to satisfy myself, and those who would eventually read the story? And the second problem, who would I alienate in the process?
I remember very naively booking an appointment to go to the Garrison Library and look at old Gibraltar Chronicles, and asking for a year’s worth of them. To which Dr Jennifer Ballantine Perera very politely told me it would be best to start with a couple of months and see how I got on. She was not wrong. I spent about six hours in there, and after filling up my notebook and taking hundreds of photos, I probably felt more lost than when I got in.
I realised what excited me about basing the story at that time was not the factual events. What made me want to write about 1995 was the nostalgia, the longing and the memory I had for that time when I was growing up. The imagery of the cars with the blacked-out windows and silver license plates with 2Pac at top volume vibrating through the tires. The first time we got Sky television with its three channels. Living in Police Barracks as it crumbled around us and we waited for our new houses in Westside and Gib 5 to be built. The long border queues. The mullets and perms. Cool Blues, passing Queens Cinema so we could see the posters for what films were coming soon, and Teuma on Main Street for cassettes.
I asked M.G. Sanchez recently about the difficulties when writing about Gibraltar. I feel like if you were to write about a fictional city with an airport runway you drive across sideways to get to the border, with the giant hunk of Jurassic limestone, the monkeys, its location in the world, the dolphins, the Moorish Castle and the Old Town, the lighthouse, the language and the people, an editor would say it was too much. And what he told me was some of the best advice I had ever received, that what I would end up writing was my interpretation of Gibraltar.
That’s when I relaxed about getting every detail right. I stopped spending hours making sure I had a small detail about a street or a shop that has since closed right. The real truth I needed to get to, was about what I wanted to say in the story. And if I get something wrong, if something is less than flattering, there will always be someone out there who is irked about it. But the thing is there’s a lot to be proud of in being Gibraltarian, but every aspect of our history is our culture too, we can’t erase it. And in that murk, there are a lot of interesting stories to explore.
People will always have their own interpretation of events. I once pondered on Twitter (almost always a bad idea) why we didn’t embrace our Spanish language a bit more. We speak Spanish, but that doesn’t make us any more Spanish than someone from Mexico or Argentina. Someone replied to me and said it was quite simple, that we didn’t embrace Spanish because we are British, we are not Spanish. But we are bilingual, I argued. She denied this. She considered that we only spoke enough basic Spanish to get by, and that we shouldn’t need to learn more. The fact all her tweets stated her location was San Roque aside, I realised that was the truth of her experience as she has chosen to see it. Her own story. And actually, in that mess she has smoothed out into a narrative, facts or otherwise, there is probably a very interesting story to tell.
I’m very happy to have seen this week that Rosanna Morales and Sophie-Clifton Tucker have launched The Next Wave, an initiative for young writers to tell their stories about Gibraltar. I hope that these young writers are brave enough to express their honesty through fiction, to tell all the beautiful complications and contradictions that being from and living in Gibraltar can reveal, tomate frito or not.