In 2011, on a windy afternoon in Kuopio, Finland, the Iranian poet Mohsen Emadi told me he had discovered an amazing Albanian poet and began reading to me from Luljeta Lleshanaku’s poem “Monday in Seven Days.” The poem echoed a question I was obsessed with at the time, when I was contemplating whether to choose literature as a way of life: “How far should I go?” the son would ask only once / “Until you lose sight of yourself.” Mohsen didn’t know very much about Lleshanaku. He told me that she had grown up in politically isolated Albania, living under house arrest during the country’s dictatorship, which spanned more than forty years. What I knew was that her words spoke to me. And in the years since, I have felt like an invisible thread has been leading me to Lleshanaku’s poems and through her words, as if I wasn’t completely in charge.
Though I was born in Slovakia, as a student I was most familiar with the literary canons of Western Europe and the United States. I knew far less about the literature coming from countries that lacked significant political and economic power. Too often, such countries do not have the means to promote their art and literature beyond their borders, and so remain underrepresented. If you didn’t know better, you might think they had no great writers.
I didn’t know I would end up living in Mexico, adopt Spanish as my language, and later write books in Spanish instead of Slovak. Throughout, I kept Luljeta Lleshanaku’s poems with me. Her call for reconciling with the past, without bitterness or sentimentality, resonated with my own search. When I began translating the works of other writers, I knew I wanted Lleshanaku to be among them—translating her work would allow me to spend more time with her words, and to help them reach new readers. Earlier this year, Olifante Ediciones de Poesía published my translation of her book, with the Spanish title Lunes en Siete Días (Monday in Seven Days). My Slovak translation, Pondelok v Siedmich Dňoch, will be published this summer.
There is something of a parallelism in the act of translation, and I have a very intimate relationship with the works I translate. In translating Lleshanaku’s poems, I discover something of myself—a possible life, a possible feeling, a story I might have lived, but didn’t. It was only after several years of correspondence that I finally met her in person; from that moment, it was as if we had always known one another. In the time since, we have kept in close touch, discussing translation, our love for cinema, fateful accidents, and the mystery of creation. As Lleshanaku writes, in Henry Israeli’s translation of her poem “Waiting for a Poem”:
I’m waiting for a poem,
something rough, not elaborate or out of control,
something undisturbed by curses, a white raven
released from darkness.
Words that come naturally, without aiming at anything,
a bullet without a target,
warning shots to the sky
in newly occupied lands.
Today Lleshanaku is the author of eight books of poetry, which have been translated into numerous languages. Last summer, I traveled to the Albanian capital of Tirana, where she lives and works as a translator, teacher, and researcher, to visit her. We drank Turkish coffee and talked about our lives. We remarked on the freshness of oranges in the morning, and compared the taste of Albanian olives to Greek ones. We drank raki and walked along the Adriatic Sea, the border separating the Balkan peninsula from the Italian peninsula. Later that day, we sat down to talk about coming of age in an isolated culture, gendered authorship, and what it’s like for her to read her own words in another language.
—Lucia Duero for Guernica
Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.
When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.
Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.
Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.
My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?
Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.
Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?
Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?
Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.
Guernica: In Albania, with only one TV station—the national one—you and others learned Italian by watching Italian films illegally captured by antennas. How did these images later translate to your poetry? What effect did this limited freedom have on your writing?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: I have always been a big fan of movies. When I was growing up I would watch the same movie ten times, and I would go watch TV at my neighbor’s house before my family had a television. Throughout the neighborhood, young boys sat on the roofs doing nothing but positioning the antennas to catch the Italian TV channels. That’s how I saw the films of Bertolucci, Fellini, Tarkovsky, and some classic American movies like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. I think my first connection with poetry came from the movies. Watching them, I could feel the impact and endless language of the image. I learned more from movies about pace, rhythm, gestures, and the limitless power of expression, than I did from poetry itself.
Of course, it is much easier to improvise a vivid moment in a film than in poetry, because the image speaks for itself. Words are delicate instruments: How to use them so that, after having read the poem, the taste remaining is not of the words themselves, but of a thought, a situation, a parallel reality? If not used appropriately, words in poetry are like the ugly remains of food after eating. What I mean is that readers will reject words if they don’t serve to shift attention from themselves to somewhere else.
Guernica: You’re a poet in a globalized world, writing in a language spoken by just three million people in Albania (though that doesn’t count those in Kosovo, Montenegro, or Macedonia). What does that mean to you?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: It is a misfortune. In the beginning, it didn’t bother me, because I found pleasure sharing my poems with a small group of friends, and in local magazines. My expectations were very modest. But when I got more ambitious and started wanting more, it felt like language was an obstacle, a cause for an isolation. When I read poems aloud, people who don’t speak Albanian praise the sound of the language, but I never took that as a compliment. In my opinion, poetry is not a sound and shouldn’t be perceived as musicality. To me, poetry is a rational act. I never write a poem if I’m not sure what I am going to say or what I want to communicate.
I am grateful to the foreign translators who by chance found my poems, and did such heroic work translating them from such a small language.
Guernica: How do you feel about your work in translation? Does a change in language change the substance or feeling of a poem?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Most of all I feel lucky, because I belong to a very small language, and the probability of falling into the hands of foreign publishers—especially great ones—is very small, almost accidental. Being translated is the only way to communicate with the readers throughout the world. My poems were translated into English first, and that’s how other publishers found my work.
At the same time, being published in other countries and languages is a challenge, since you never know what the foreign reader is expecting from you. I come from a culture that was isolated for a long time—I have my own story to tell, in my own style, and an aesthetic approach that was mostly self-taught. So, does it fit a reader’s curiosity? Will it meet their expectations?
Each language has its own temperament; some languages make a poem more dramatic or sad, and others make it more playful. The translation of my work into Slovak means a lot to me. Czechoslovakia has had a very interesting literary tradition, and at different times it has been quite avant-garde. Czechoslovakia and Albania share a lot when it comes to history and political aspect, but not very much when it comes to aesthetics. So I am excited and curious to see how my poetry will be perceived in Slovakia.
Every time I hear one of my poems in another language, I instinctively step away a little bit, and enjoy them as if it was somebody else’s. It is like admiring the wrapping on a gift, when you already know what is inside.
Guernica: What resonance do issues of justice and injustice have to your work, and in your personal dictionary? How do you reckon with history in your poetry?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Years ago, I thought that if a person had experienced injustice in her life, it meant she would be fair, because she would know what it meant to be a victim of injustice. But now I am not so sure. Experiencing injustice can also make a person dangerous. Carrying a sense of revenge and anger can make a person victimize their own self. I could easily be one of them. But writing was the thing that protected the child inside me, helped me deal with my fears, displeasure, pain, wounds. Writing was the instrument by which I discovered the beauty and meaning in the midst of misery. So poetry protected me from myself.
On the other hand, if the pursuit of knowledge gives us a reason to exist, bitter experiences help us to know the world around us, to understand it on a deeper level. In that way, a smooth, easy life can be a kind of innocent ignorance.