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The City and the Writer: In Tirana with Ani Gjika

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Ani Gjika.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Tirana as you feel/see it?

The Tirana I know is a child’s and a teenager’s Tirana for me because I was born, raised, and lived there the first eighteen years of my life. Seen through those eyes, in my imagination, Tirana’s mood remains one full of bliss and wonder, flirtation, anticipation, and anxiety, too, lots of it. As a child I walked everywhere with my parents and friends. Nobody had cars when I was growing up unless they worked for the government. I loved walking because it allowed me to turn corners and find new things each day, see new faces. But that only lasted until I turned thirteen, because from then until age eighteen, walking to school and back became the worst daily experience of my life. My friends and I had to navigate corners and sidewalks in ways that wouldn’t allow us to run into the same guy or group of guys ready to ambush, harass, or sexually assault us.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Leaving Tirana. We left around dawn. I remember sleeping the night before for just a few hours in an apartment that was almost completely emptied out. Uncles, aunts, first cousins, and neighbors came out onto the street for a last good-bye. I don’t remember feeling anything, just seeing a large group of people—it was like being at a funeral or a wedding. There’s no time to feel when saying good-bye. You just have to go through with it. But you know you’re going to feel a whole lot afterward, when everyone’s gone and the emotions build with distance, like those parted waters in Moses’s times—you know they’ll finally come crashing down.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Tirana is small but packed with unique pockets wherever you turn. One of my favorites is the old bazaar with its characteristic cobblestone streets where moss and green grass still find ways to grow between the stones, and where the kiosks and houses have their roofs growing off each other so that the whole place is kind of like a maze, where you’ll smell the strong stench of fish in one corner and get hit by a waft of roasted chestnuts or coffee beans in another. The look of the bazaar has changed a lot over the years but the people it draws are still the same. It’s a little cosmos in itself. There are similar gatherings in other areas in Tirana, like in the city square, or the Grand Park of Tirana, but the difference is the selling and buying in the bazaar, the desire of most people to make a deal.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Ismail Kadare, who’s widely translated in other languages. And I often return to Jonida Beqo, Ardian Vehbiu, Visar Zhiti, Agron Tufa, Luljeta Lleshanaku, Lasgush Poradeci, Mimoza Ahmeti, Julia Gjika, Indrit Sinanaj, and Arianit Roshi.

Is there a place here you return to often?

My old neighborhood on Ali Demi Street. I lived in an apartment in a building that seemed to have come straight out of Hitchcock’s Rear Window set. And in the common courtyard, everyone’s children would gather every afternoon and evening, especially in the summer, and play outside. I was surrounded by life buzzing, by voices—a person calling another’s name endlessly, another screaming something from one balcony to another. Stories and secrets on the sidewalk. Also, Mount Dajti is situated in such a way that it seems like the entire city spills out from its guts. In the late afternoon, as the sun gets weaker, the mountain’s blue-gray light grows stronger. There wasn’t a day I didn’t go to the balcony to see Mount Dajti, which isn’t tall but has such presence in a city that desperately wanted to change and has changed in drastic ways since I left.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

When I visited in 2010, I came across “E Per7shme,” a bookstore and coffee shop that hosts literary readings in the evenings. It attracts a younger crowd who are passionate about literature.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The Block (Blloku), which is not hidden anymore, but was a forbidden space when I was growing up. It was where only the communist elite lived. When I went back fourteen years later, it still felt forbidden to me, as I was away when the people—the youth in particular—claimed it and made it their own. Today, it is mostly young people there and there are many bars, cafés, and restaurants. I missed out on that “making it ours” period. Writing this, I realize I have to go back to get to know Blloku, to get to know my city again.

Where does passion live here?

It will always live in the evenings, in the boulevards around Rinia Park. There’s a tradition where people walk up and down these boulevards. Traffic is stopped so people can walk freely for pure leisure. I love that the city creates and allows spaces for its citizens to come together. I also think passion lives wherever there are two or more women having coffee together. And of course, reading their cups after. It’s symbolic of women telling stories, looking deep into their coffee cup allows them to draw from their lives and making sense of them together. It’s a fun pastime if you don’t take it too seriously.

What is the title of one of your works about Tirana and what inspired it exactly?

There are some poems in my first book Bread on Running Waters, such as “In the Summer,” “Names and Nouns,” “Children’s Story,” as well as several sections in a memoir I’m currently writing. These poems, as is true for much of my work, are inspired by a sense of loss.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Tirana does an outside exist?”

Today, inside The Block, there is nothing but The Block. An outside does not exist and no one cares if it does. The same could be said for Rinia Park, the Grand Park of Tirana, Mount Dajti, and other surrounding villages. People seem happy in their environments, present in their lives. But when I was walking the streets of Tirana in my childhood and adolescence, when the country was closed off to the world, an outside always existed. I didn’t know what it was like, so that made the outside all the more powerful. In Albanian we use the phrase jashte shtetit, which literally translates as outside the country. An outside is necessary when life on the inside is stifling and miserable, when people have lost the present. But also, outside Tirana, there’s another Tirana that exists in the hearts and minds of Albanian artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers, painters, sculptors in the diaspora.

Ani Gjika is an Albanian-American poet, teacher, literary translator, and writer. Her poetry book Bread on Running Waters (Fenway Press, 2013) was a finalist for the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, and the 2011 May Sarton New Hampshire Book Prize. Gjika earned an MA in English at Simmons College and an MFA in poetry at Boston University. Her other honors include awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, the Banff Centre International Literary Translators Residency, and the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize. Her poems have appeared in Seneca Review, Salamander, and Plume; and her translations from the Albanian in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, AGNI Online, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Two Lines Online, among other magazines.

Published Aug 22, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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