It’s not often that you hold a Zoom chat with someone for an Insight Magazine article when they are sitting in their car somewhere in North Yorkshire, their dog sleeping peacefully on the back seat, but that is exactly how this interview with Jo Ward took place!
M. G. Sanchez is a prolific author with fourteen books to his name that include novels as well as numerous stories, essays, articles and works of non-fiction, mostly focusing on interrogating what it means to be Gibraltarian. “There are some short stories that I have not set in Gibraltar, but almost everything that I have written has a Gibraltar connection in one way or the other,” Mark explains.
As a student at Bayside Comprehensive, Mark noticed that there was a deficit in terms of Gibraltar as a subject of writing. “I was in the library looking for books written about Gibraltar, and although there were some, for instance on history and geography, there was nothing in terms of fiction and I realised that there was a gap there,” he says. “That idea percolated through over the years into my subconscious until at a certain point when I thought I might as well start writing with Gibraltar as my main theme.”
Growing up in Gibraltar during the closed border years, Mark reminisces that there wasn’t much to amuse him, especially on weekends. “All you could do was drive round and round the Rock, it was almost like normality for us and in fact, looking back on it now it wasn’t normal but it is what we were used to and it was quite challenging.”
Mark mostly lived on the Rock until the age of twenty-seven, albeit after a brief stint when he went to the UK at the age of nineteen, but he couldn’t settle then. “I wanted to study and the opportunity rearose when I got a second chance and went to Leeds University at the age of twenty-seven when I moved to the UK to study English Literature and subsequently took BA, MA and PhD degrees at the University of Leeds.”
“My flatmates used to refer to me as a grandad because at that age I was a bit older than them, but I really enjoyed it and it was one of the best experiences ever.” Since completing his studies, Mark has lived mainly in the UK, but he has also travelled extensively around the world, including New Zealand, India and Japan.
There is no doubt that writing is a passion for Mark, and although he is an academic and has had several other jobs, writing is what he feels most strongly about. “When it comes to Gibraltar there are so many different things you can write about – the place has all sorts of aspects that you can focus on – and it is an endless source of interesting stories.”
The Fetishist, Mark’s latest novel published in November 2021, is the story of a young Gibraltarian man, Nathan Holgado, who travels to Yorkshire to research one of his British ancestors with the intention of reconnecting with his British heritage. Commenting on a review that I saw that said the novel was ‘brilliantly terrifying’, I asked Mark how he would categorise it. “Most of what I write is what I like to classify as dark comedy and The Fetishist is quite funny, but it also has a bite to it and I think this story is possibly darker than the others.”
Asked if the book is in any way autobiographical, Mark laughs. “Not at all.” It explores the themes of post-Brexit racism and xenophobia, taking in the colonial/post-colonial discourses of ‘otherness’. Is this something that Mark has encountered himself since moving to the UK? “Definitely, it is almost like a micro diaspora in the sense that I don’t know any other Gibraltarians in my neck of the woods.”
With an accent that is distinctly different to the Yorkshire dialects that surround him, Mark comments that people don’t really know where he is from. “You don’t find the Gibraltarian accent often in the UK and it throws people when I open my mouth and they ask me where I’m from,” he says, continuing, “I have had all sorts of reactions – people have asked me if I am Welsh or Geordie.”
Has Mark ever felt marginalised living in the UK? “Not really, although once or twice over the years I have had some negative reactions when I have mentioned that I am from Gibraltar, which has been disappointing,” he comments. “Having said that I have noticed that over the last twenty years things have changed here in the sense that more people now know about Gibraltar.”
“When I was studying at Leeds University I had a part time job working for the Civil Service and my nickname there was Maltese Mark, and when I tried to explain to people that I was not from Malta I was from Gibraltar it didn’t seem to make a difference, they thought that Malta and Gibraltar were the same place,” Mark states. “I don’t think that would happen nowadays and I think there is more of an awareness about Gibraltar and I think that has changed for the better.”
Politics and history can be seen as the main themes in his books, even though Mark says that he is not a particularly political person. “Inevitably coming from Gibraltar, politics creeps into my stories whether I like it or not because everything is so politicised – all you have to do is walk down Main Street and sit outside a cafe and everybody will be talking politics – it is part of our culture.”
The Fetishist also delves into issues surrounding a post-Brexit Britain and Covid-19. “What I envisage is a Brexit where people start looking inward and they don’t really want to engage with the outside world, it is almost like raising up the drawbridge I suppose, and that is what I have seen to a certain extent here in the UK.”
“Theresa May famously said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but the truth is that no-one, even now at this late stage, knows what Brexit entails and I think that is particularly true for Gibraltar, and for me Brexit represented one thing above all – which is uncertainty,” Mark comments. Regarding Covid19, a topic that features at the end of The Fetishist, Mark says that he sees a lot of distrust, and negative feelings surrounding the pandemic.
Considering himself a Gibraltarian, and with most of his family still living here, how often does he manage to get back home? “Normally, two or three times a year, but unfortunately since Covid it has been a bit difficult and I have only been back once.” In 2020 M. G. Sanchez was awarded the Cultural Ambassador Award at the Gibraltar Culture Awards, for his work broaching on Gibraltarian culture and promoting the Rock’s identity traits.
The desire to write is never-ending and Mark is currently in the process of finishing a new book which he hopes to have ready for publication next year. “In Gibraltar in the 1990s there used to be a lot of smuggling and nobody has written or talked about this,” he states. “My philosophy as a writer has always been to write about whatever nobody wants to talk about, and it is important to bring these things out into the open rather than bottling things up which can become problematic in the long term.”
Intrigued as to why he called his latest novel The Fetishist, Mark tells me that there are two elements relating to that title. “The first element is that the protagonist is completely obsessed with military things, so in that sense he is a bit of a military fetishist – but there is another element which is revealed at the end of the novel where there is another fetish component – and unfortunately I can’t reveal that to you.” You will just have to buy The Fetishist by M. G. Sanchez to find out!