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Albana Shala

Albana Shala (1968) grew up in Tirana, Albania. She studied English and translated fiction and nonfiction from English into Albanian. In 1990, she began working for the UNDP office in Tirana. In 1995, she moved to the Netherlands to study International Law and Development at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague and soon thereafter established herself in Amsterdam.

Her first poems and short stories appeared in Albanian journals and magazines in Albania and Kosovo. In 2008, her first Albanian poetry collection Papa Dixhital was published in Tirana by Dituria. For this debut she was awarded the prestigious Migjeni prize by the Ministry of Culture of Albania (2009). A Dutch translation of this debut (De digitale Paus) was published in 2009 by Uitgeverij P (Leuven). Shala’s second poetry collectionParajsa eshte e portokallte(Paradise is Orange) appeared in the fall of 2010. At present Shala is working on a short story collection and a new poetry collection in Dutch and English.

Shala was a resident with the International Writing Program in 2010. The following interview was conducted in Shambaugh House on November 3, 2010.

ZA: Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up, when did you move out of Albania?

AS: I grew up in Albania. I was born in 1968, to very young parents; my mother had just finished university, and my father has just started working. I was the first child of a family of two children. Soon my sister came, so I didn't have much time to get spoiled. I had a very good childhood. Thinking back, there was a lot of love in our family. It was a safe nest of love. It saved me from feeling to the bone the repression, fear, and poverty, and to fully understand what was really happening in the country. I went to the University in the late 1980s. When Albania opened up in the beginning of the 1990s, the stormy events overlapped with the end of my studies in English literature. My first job was in book publishing. During my university years I have written for youth and literary magazines (mainly essays and poems), and I liked to translate fiction and nonfiction from English into Albanian.

ZA: At what time did you feel or decide that you will become a writer?

AS: I think, pretty late. I used to write poetry while in college. And I was always surrounded by friends who were writers, journalists, and poets. My father was a journalist, my mother an English language teacher. I grew up in such circles, and apparently the writing ‘habit’ did not let go. In my mid-twenties, I decided to move to the Netherlands. I became more aware of myself, of my place in the world, and of the place of my country and my history. I felt the need to keep writing, as a survival mechanism but also as a comment on what surrounded me. I went on writing articles for journals, but I also wrote stories and poems. But my first poetry collection came out when I was 40: first in Albanian and then in Dutch translation. So, as you can see, I took my time to focus and put things together…

ZA: Was there a moment that you recollect when you thought, yes, this would be my profession, my career, because that is my vocation?

AS: Maybe it is my vocation, but certainly not yet my profession. I still earn my living as program manager in the not-for-profit sector (a Dutch organization that supports the independent press). In a way I am happy that I didn't publish poetry collections in the 1990s. I had to take my time to reflect, to observe, to perceive the world through a lens that is different from the one I grew up with. It was the fact that I left Albania, the journey that I have taken, the permanent transition from the known little world to the big unknown world that woke up the writer in me. Once in exile I lost my innocence. The experiences made me think with another level of seriousness and write more often, and, consequently publishing my own poems beyond sharing them now and then with a group of friends came naturally.

ZA: In this particular environment, which was communist Albania, how did you acquire your values?

AS: Through my family and from books. I really tried to read as much as I could in order to understand and explore the world with my imagination. Albanians were not free to travel and move until the end of the communist regime. It took me some time to become myself, and at the same time behave in a way that I could still not hurt and ruin the lives of other people. In communist Albania, the moment you wanted to live by yourself, that is, by your values, the moment you wanted to publish poems that would be considered too liberal, the moment you would fall in love with someone who was not liked by your circle, or the moment when you befriended someone coming from a persecuted family, you knew that your life was put in danger; you were denounced and marked as a troublesome person. Your family was in danger, too. Being an individual in Albania was difficult for everybody. And I'm happy that when the system fell, I was only 22. I could move on, I was not so damaged. And this mainly thanks to my parents who knew how to keep the family together.

ZA: When you say you were not damaged, do you mean that you avoided making compromises with the regime or that you remained true to yourself?

AS: Luckily, I was too young to have to make compromises. But I was aware that every step you would take as an adult in communist Albania was associated with compromises. For example, my Mom was not a member of the communist party; therefore, she was not qualified to become a school principal. My father was a member of the party, although a disillusioned one. In order to keep his work he had to be very careful not to show his disillusionment, the loss of faith.

ZA: Today, can you see all this through the prism of the outside world? You were living in Albania like in a closed space, and you had an idea of the rest of the world through books. How did your horizon begin to expand? What were the first moves in this direction, and how fast did you decide to leave Albania?

AS: Soonafter I was hired by the publishing house “8 Nëntori,” which was state-owned and about to collapse, the first United Nations office opened in Tirana. That provided an opportunity for me to get to work with international organizations and to learn their different culture, norms, values, standards. It was a fast-track training in how things were organized in capitalism, the West, and the rest of the world, broadly speaking. That was a strong experience. For three years I had the opportunity to meet people from all around the world. Of course, the United Nations is a complex organization, with lots of rules and bureaucracy. Still it was a totally valuable experience. During that time I took some trips to neighboring countries—Macedonia, Italy, Greece—and this allowed me to see how our neighbors lived. During the communist regime, Italian TV was considered our greatest enemy, since its images were propagating a different kind of life, a rosy life. After a while, lots of overwhelming stories of migrants from Albania came to be known, not so rosy, but still stories of people who wanted to decide for themselves, in pursuit of a better life. So, by the time I decided to leave Albania and study abroad, I had an idea of how life in the West could be. I would not have my family around, I would not hear my native language, I would not walk the streets of Tirana, I would miss the safety that the communist system “ensured”—as an Albanian you lived in poverty but you had a job and your life was secure—and I had to start from scratch, all by myself. I was young. I could do that.

ZA: When you met these people from the UN, did you experience some clash of values? Did you feel that you were not up to their values or it was like a natural transition for you?

AS: There was absolutely no clash of values, because all of us were trying to promote the development of the country, break through isolation, promote democracy, build structures that would bring tolerance. So it was very much in line with what I have dreamed about.

ZA: How do you define your own move: as an escape, an opportunity, cutting bridges with the past?

AS: I moved to the Netherlands in 1995. At that time, I did not think that I was going to live in the Netherlands. I went there to study. I had the curiosity of someone who has been living for more than 20 years in one and the same place, a very isolated place at that. I love to travel, to meet people of different cultures, to listen to how they speak, sing, tell stories, therefore, the Institute where I studied was a perfect place to be. I went for a short while back to Albania, enough to be disillusioned and terrified by how much anger, how much madness there was in the country. I am talking about the chaos that the fall of the pyramid crisis provoked in 1997. What people have kept at bay at the beginning of the 1990s came out in 1997-1998 crises. And I decided to stay longer in the Netherlands. And I am still living in the Netherlands, regularly visiting Albania. So it was not a one-time spontaneous decision, it was a gradual absorption of reality, a slow and painful departure. I am very happy things are going better in Albania, more opportunities, more positive energy, more perspectives, so you never know …

ZA: You think you may return where you belonged? Did you actually belong to the intellectual class in Albania?

AS: There was the so-called intelligentsia. In every town there were a number of well-educated people, some of whom have studied in the West, who did understand the true nature of the regime, and they could agree among each other and could support each other to a certain extent. There were progressive people among those who did not agree fully with the regime and tried to compromise as little as possible. To have the status of a famous writer or famous journalist in Albania, you had to compromise. I have no doubt that for many who believed at least for a while in building the socialist system, the question has been : how to make things work, how to bring change? From within, by joining the power structures, or by challenging the system? Unfortunately, all dissident voices were hushed. The mastery was to keep mentally strong, and to cherish your internal freedom. The ones who protested openly or questioned the system were punished. My luck, as I said, was that I did not need to compromise.

ZA: What was the status of the writers in your country?

AS: As I said, they had a high status, as long as they would put their talents in the service of totalitarianism. The ones who did not obey were executed or de-activated by being sent to jail or forced to go in exile, or they decided themselves not to publish. It was a harsh system. I read Orwell’s 1984 between midnight and early morning in the winter of 1984. It was brought to my home by an older student, who had managed to smuggle it out from the personal library of the family of a high-rank communist functionary. I had to give the book back at 7 am, so that it would make it in time to the bookshelf.

ZA: Why did you decide to come to the International Writing Program?

AS: After publishing my books in Albania and Holland, I considered joining a program that would expose me to a well-established tradition and also to different writers, from different cultures. Here, I am amongst peers. Here I'm buying time to fulfill my vocation, to make something I consider special and an investment in myself. I wanted to take this time off not only to write but also to reflect and to understand how the literature world works in the U.S.

ZA: What about competitiveness? When you meet established writers do they make you feel diminished or insignificant?

AS: I wish I had been part of the program several years ago, and I wish I would have published earlier, but at the same time I think that I would not be able to write the way I write now, that is, without the sense of rivalry and competition. Sure, as a writer you exist when you are known by a larger group of readers. Great poets are expected to have large audiences. I respect the writers who have taken the fast lane and have reached large audiences.

ZA: What exactly changed in your understanding of literature and your perception of the world after spending time in Iowa City?

AS: It is too soon to tell. I have been here only for two months. But what I’m already sure of is that I’m in the right place, and I am convinced that the domain of literature is not a fenced-off territory. In whatever language we write we still have our own ways to say things. In that sense I don't envy anybody. But I grew aware that the language, in which you write, determines the degree of your reputation and your accessibility. That is why I am seriously considering the idea of writing in English. In terms of friendships and new encounters, I consider this place a blessing. And you know what, what connects writers deep down is not the superficial arrogance and self-confidence about what they do. I think it's those little lenses that they have inside, the questions and concerns that keep troubling them, that “unique” perception of the reality they carry with them. After talking to each writer in the program and getting to know their work, I feel I can connect with them. I can feel what bothers them, what haunts them, what inspires them.

ZA: What was your idea about America before coming here? And how did it change?

AS: I came here with an open mind. I am trying to keep my mind with as little prejudice and bias as possible. In Kosovo, one of the countries I work for, America is loved. America and NATO are seen as liberators. They awe America a lot. In Albania America is seen as the land of prosperity and freedom, where people pursue their happiness. Many Albanian families have moved to America, and for them it is the number one country, it is the superpower. It is a country that promotes democracy, but sometimes in a very interventionist way. So, people in Albania are more critical. In The Netherlands, particularly in the circles I move around, America and the American values, the consumerism of American society are strongly criticized. I'm trying to feel and experience the everyday America, the local America, the small town America. And Iowa City is the perfect example. Americans think of themselves—and maybe they are—as self-sufficient. In the case of Iowa City, what is peculiar is that as much as it is open to bring writers like me from around the world, Iowa City is in itself self-sufficient. I'm speaking in terms of artistic production. I had the good luck to see a small community in America and what happens when this small community is so much geared toward literature. In that sense I have been very positively impressed by America.

ZA: What is Europe for you and do you feel the European context is more fitting to you than the American one?

AS: When I am in Holland, as much as I can be Dutch—I work there, live there, speak the language—I am still aware that I am coming from a different culture, most likely because the Albanian and Dutch cultures are so far apart. Europe is for me the place of big patches, countries that are consciously working with each other to avoid another war to take place. In America I am not Albanian, I'm not Dutch, I’m someone from Europe. In that sense here I feel more European by the identification of the others. In Albania I'm more specified. In terms of opportunities, I think America offers more.

ZA: You carry a lot of perspectives to the world in yourself. How do you see the Balkans now, after you have lived so many years in The Netherlands and after you have visited America?

AS: The Balkans is a troublesome place, full of soul, passion, fights, and history. I often picture the Balkans as two roosters fighting over a pile of dust. Only if you could see how many fights go around for small issues? And these issues stay unresolved. For example, in post-war Kosovo none of the communities has truly reconciled to go along with the others and move forward. But I come from the region and I know that the people of the Balkans, especially in former Yugoslavia, were in war not so long ago. I recognize what is happening around, I recognize when things go better, and I remain critical. Especially after having lived in The Netherlands, I see that human life in the Balkans is valued much less than in The Netherlands. The same is true of individual rights.

ZA: Do you experience nostalgia about the Balkans?

AS: Nostalgia for what? Nature? People who are no longer there? The old times? An imagined community? Living in The Netherlands, I have to prove every day that I can move by myself without help, and without the support of the family, that is, to stay away from the Balkan clan mentality. Then when back there, through language and all the other familiar things, I notice I question myself less. You don't ask questions whether you are integrated enough or not. In that sense the feeling of not questioning myself now and then is something I have nostalgia for. When I go back to Albania and I just see the newspapers, in 10 minutes I already know and feel what is going on, and I can place myself there. In The Netherlands, it took me 10 years until I could open the newspaper and immediately grasp the viewpoints of people and what is really going on in the country. It is a process of adaptation and removing nostalgia from your soul.

ZA: You write poetry but also you said that you write short stories. What do you consider yourself: a poet or a fiction writer? Which of these will prevail in your future writing?

AS: Some years ago, when I published some short stories in The Netherlands, I gave an interview, and I answered the same question by saying that I thought I would like to write stories. The fact is that now I have published three collections of poetry and I've not yet put together a collection of short stories. I am actually drawn to something that is between prose and poetry. Maybe to a genre that could be considered prose poems or poetic short stories.

ZA: Do you attempt to write something that can be called poetic fiction?

AS: No. My poems stand to be more like prose, and it is a big challenge because what is a prose poem? How good can you be at that? There are a lot of experiments in that direction but still very few have succeeded. But when I write a short story, it comes out as a typical short story. My short stories breathe more in Albanian, because I write them in Albanian, and people like to read them in Albanian.

ZA: What kind of characters do you create: people that are on the move like you, living in-between the two worlds, or simply people in Albania?

AS: People in Albania, people in The Netherlands, people that I meet, people who have a story that captures me. My stories are about migrants, illegal immigrants, people whose families were persecuted during the communist regime or people who suffer from a disease. I’m interested in people who are at the end of hope. My stories are very different from one another and they describe mostly people who live across Europe and experience the changes that Europe is going through during the past 20 years. You may call them transition characters.

ZA: Who are your teachers of writing? Did you learn writing from somebody or you believe it is your natural gift?

AS: In the first place is reading. My greatest teachers are the books that I read. Thanks to my knowledge of English I was exposed to good literature, which I could not “ignore.” Also Russian literature was translated in Albanian so this is another good foundation. Chekov was well known in Albania, Gorky as well. Dostoevsky was prohibited, so I read him in English. From the English and American literature I studied Thackeray, Dreiser, Cronin, Dickens, my thesis at the University was about the work of John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, so I can say that I grew up with the English and Russian literary tradition. I read also Dutch writers. I have read also some Greek, Italian, and French writers. I love Kazantzakis for example. Going back to the imagined community of the Balkans and its resonance, I think I am more influenced by Charles Simic than by Kazantzakis. Or Raymond Carver, for that matter. I want to write good short stories like him and maybe that is the reason why I still haven't put together my collection of short stories. So reading has been my first teacher.

ZA: You have never had a formal education in writing or style?

AS: I became aware of this when I came here. [Laughing.] But I don't think that if I invest more time in studying creative writing, I would need to study poetry. I think I can “improve” by myself, it's only a matter of using my acquired skills and natural gift. As far as prose is concerned, I have a lot to learn. That would be something to consider. Also nonfiction, I like writing essays and I have written for many journals.

ZA: What is your opinion of the American system that is geared toward creating so many writers through creative writing teaching?

AS: Before coming here I didn't know that there were so many, and I didn't realize that the creative writing programs were so heavily focused on American literature. The availability of so many programs provides an opportunity to be choosy, to make more of a career out of a vocation, but on the other hand, I would like to see a combination between the literatures that are produced in the Anglo-Saxon world with the rest of the world literature. In that sense, the IWP is unique, as far as I can judge. Maybe there are one or two things like IWP taking place in America, and that is it. Being so self-centered does not help creative writing. There are a lot of things going on in the other parts of the world as well, things that are not written in English.

ZA: Do you have the confidence that you can teach creative writing simply because you are a good a writer?

AS: Absolutely not. I think good writers are not necessarily good teachers. It is not an easy task to put the two things together. Teaching requires certain skills.

ZA: But look who is teaching here?

AS: [Laughing loudly.] Well, writers. Still, I don't think the good writer is by definition a good teacher.

ZA: Yet, if you think of that, the teachers here were writers who self-appointed themselves without being taught formally when they were not yet writers. The MFA degree is a creation of these people. And there is no other authority to decide who is a good teacher and who is not. It is always a matter of self-selection, a selection process among people who have the natural gift of writing. Don’t you think so?

AS: But it's important to see what will remain at the end of the day. This is like a factory now. You bring people in, you put them together, and you try to supervise the process. What will come out of this is that there might be one or two or three very good writers whereas the rest will just smuggle through. How do you measure the academic skills and performance? By what the teachers write? By the people they teach and inspire? Or by the output of the very few who will win awards and later will recognize the contribution of Iowa’s program?

ZA: Of course, we know of several very good writers who did not become teachers and on the other hand, we know a number of very good teachers who did not become very good writers. The combination actually is very rare. Such example is Donald Justice. And this is what inspires me to think that somehow through natural selection this place has thrived and has become so good. It has attracted people of talent who have tested themselves in this environment.

AS: What you are saying is that not only the students but also the teachers have been tested. And what happens when the teachers who are tested do not make it? They still keep hanging on?

ZA: Well, with time they get sidelined. It is a true selection. Also the very good teachers here select from a large pool of candidates. And the better the teachers, the better students will be accepted in the program.

AS: You made a convincing case that, even though you cannot become a good writer through teaching in this program, you learn the craft. If you believe writing is a craft you can become a good craftsman. I agree with this.

ZA: The other part of the equation is the readers. Who do you think are or will be your readers? When you write, what kind of reader do you have in mind?

AS: When I write I have in mind some friends, friends I grew up with, friends that I met on the road. Many of the latter don’t speak Albanian and I try to reach out to them in English, which has become my second language. I know that the poems, the stories, the essays speak to the Albanian readers because they can often identify with the characters. But I hope the stories and the poems also speak to a Dutch or an American audience because what I write about happens somewhere in Europe, in Albania, in Turkey, in Malta, in the Caucasus, in Holland. What I consider to be at stake is the universal themes. I write about motherhood, migration, life, death, loss, the beauty of the journey. In other words, I care and want that readers in Europe or in the U.S. or elsewhere to read me, bear with me, and through my writing to get to know another world, my world: my perceptions, my observations and ideas about how we live life and what really matters. I think that fiction is different from non-fiction first of all regarding “the message.” I’ve had long discussions with my father about the message. And I don't agree that there should always be a message. What we agreed on is that there should always be readers. When it comes to fiction and when I'm thinking about the Albanian soul, certainly I have belonged there, but now I belong more to the world than to Albania. Before the Albanian system fell, that national soul was put together by force, it was placed like in a pressure cooker, and all that was considered external to it was condemned. And now Albania lives in a time of transition. Perhaps I am a writer in transition, with one foot in Albania and one foot somewhere else? How much from Albania do I carry with me? Everything, and even my name, to begin with. But I think our so-called soul was constructed and existed in artificial conditions for half a century. And it was damaged. The feeling of what it means to be Albanian is being incredibly tested. That is why I am saying that I try to reach out to the universal reader.

ZA: Then, let me ask you what does it feel to be an Albanian Dutch or a Dutch Albanian?

AS: On the surface perhaps, with respect to how culture has been moving throughout these years, Albanians and the Dutch are two very different kinds of people. But I feel a global citizen more than an Albanian Dutch. I feel an individual. Every single day I have to negotiate the fact that I came from Albania and I'm now living in The Netherlands, but what is more important is that I feel that I am the boss of my life. That's where I sit on the deeper level. I can be anywhere, some places are easier than others, it is easier to be my own boss in The Netherlands than in Albania, and maybe it is easier here to be the “boss” of my life than in the Netherlands, but I try to keep this as my definition.

ZA: I understand that you feel comfortable with your identity because you're a boss of your life. But you cannot be a boss of your writing. Your writing depends on so many cultural premises, don't you think so?

AS: You can be the boss of your writing as long as you don't want to share it. The problem starts when you want to share it…

ZA: We depend on our readers and all our fellow writers. We cannot be bosses of our writing.

AS: I write in Albanian. This is a fact. If the Albanian audience would appreciate what I have written and if they can remember at least one of my poems and it can affect their memory, their collective memory, then I would be happy. But the fact is that I'm considering writing more and more in English. There is a whole Anglo-Saxon world, from New Zealand to Alaska. These are different cultures from one continent to another. So who are going to be my readers? How will I know how am I accepted by this vast population? Locality is important, and particularly nowadays I think that, because I have moved from one place to another and moved from writing in one language to writing in another, I resist to be put in a pigeonhole. I want to think that I can be the humble boss of my writing and not stumble over cultural differences.

 

Interview: Zlatko Anguelov