In Conversation with Gazmend Kapllani

The desire to speak other languages invaded my mind. I, too, wanted to look strange, mysterious and attractive...

Gazmend Kapllani is an Albanian-born author, journalist, and scholar. He lived in Athens for over twenty years. He received his PhD in political science and history from Panteion University in Athens, with a dissertation on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. In addition, he was a columnist for Greece’s leading daily newspapers. Kapllani has written his first three novels in Greek, which is not his native language. His work centers on themes of migration, borders, totalitarianism, and how Balkan history has shaped public and private narratives.

Kapllani’s first novel A Short Border Handbook (Livanis, 2006) has become a best-seller and has been translated into Danish, English, French, Polish and Italian. His second novel, My Name is Europe (Livanis, 2010), has been published into French. The Last Page (Livanis, 2012) his most recent novel, has been translated into French and was short-listed for The Cezam Prix Litteraire Inter CE 2016. Since 2012 he has been living in the US, where he was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar at Brown University and Writer in Residence at Wellesley College. Kapllani currently lives in Boston and teaches Creative Writing and European History at Emerson College.  

Gigi Papoulias has a chance to sit down and talk to Kapllani on his work, language, and borders.

Gigi Papoulias (GP): You seem to have a passion for languages. You are fluent in five languages. Were you born into a multilingual family?

Gazmend Kapllani (GK): Actually I was born in a shack. My father’s family was persecuted by the communist regime and was driven out of their house in the countryside and punished—sent to live in a shack on the outskirts of my hometown Lushnje. They were considered “enemies of the regime” because they were wealthy landowners. Stalin did the same with the so-called “kulaks” in the Soviet Union.

I grew up surrounded by a large group of monolingual relatives whose discussions always led to the glory days of their aristocratic past. I grew up surrounded by joyful uncles and aunts—all of them impressively good looking. I’m amazed today that in my memories that miserable place comes as a place of joy and love. I remember the flowers that were planted all around. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman—she had lost three brothers in the war against the Nazis in Albania—she did everything possible to make life in the shack seem normal. What has remained with me is the extraordinary love that I was given in that shack. I also learned what resilience and human dignity mean. But I refused the rest: living with the glory of the past. I understood though that when people are denied a present and a future they take refuge in the past.

By the time I turned five, my father managed to move us out of the shack into an ugly small one-story brick house, which compared to the shack looked like a royal palace. It was a poor neighborhood and we kids used to play all sorts of games in its dusty streets. In that neighborhood I remember listening for the first time to people speaking words that were different from Albanian. I was impressed by their “foreign words”. (It’s where I first heard Greek words, Aromanian and learned a few roma words). Every time those words came out of those kids’ mouths I felt like they were transformed into something else, something mysterious and inaccessible. Even today when I think about it I am surprised that in spite of the overwhelming nationalist propaganda in Albania, nobody ever showed any signs of annoyance toward the “foreign words” and the people who were bringing them among us.

I remember once asking my parents about these strange words. They answered that the people speaking them were Albanians like us, and that they had learned those languages from their mothers and fathers. I ended up envying these kids. They seemed to be lucky as they were given the gift of speaking strange words from childhood. I felt rather unlucky for the fact that my parents spoke only Albanian (my mother understood Italian though). The desire to speak other languages invaded my mind. I, too, wanted to look strange, mysterious and attractive, similar to those people who uttered strange, mysterious and attractive words…. My aunt’s husband knew perfect Italian. He was the only one in my large family who spoke a foreign language. He had studied in Bologna, Italy in the 30’s. He was a wonderful storyteller and encouraged by him, I learned Italian from a very young age.

GP: And afterwards you learned French and English as well…

GK: Yes and with very primitive means, old grammar books that had survived on the shelves of friends and relatives. Albania under totalitarianism was one of the most isolated countries in Europe, similar to today’s North Korea. Learning foreign languages in such an atmosphere had no practical use. By adolescence I had already learned two: Italian and French. I learned French on my own. I learned French because I wanted to translate French poems into Albanian—Jacques Prevert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. They were all banned and a bunch of printed French poems had fallen into my hands when I was 15 years old. Italian and French were not just “foreign languages” for me. They became like underground tunnels or small windows which, suddenly, I could open in the wall of our totalitarian jail. Thanks to them I could reach the world-beyond-the-border.

I could listen to Italian and French radio stations, secretly of course, thanks to a Chinese radio. All of the ‘forbidden books’, which were banned by the regime, and were so essential in stimulating my creative imagination, I read secretly in Italian and French. I still maintain a special relationship with both languages. I started learning English a year before I left Albania. Actually and quite ironically I crossed the Greek-Albanian borders carrying a book of English grammar in my hands…

GP: You have lived and worked in numerous countries and have almost always coexisted in a language which is not your native tongue. Your first three novels were written in Greek. Why did you decide to write in Greek and not your native language?

GK: I arrived in Greece crossing the borders as a refugee in January 1991, when the communist regime in Albania had not collapsed yet. I left because the secret police were on my trail after I led a rally in my hometown (Lushnje) against the police. I went into hiding for ten days and then decided to head towards the borders hidden inside a truck. In my book A Short Border Handbook I have described the dramatic scene of border-crossing as it really happened. It was the moment when my life changed once and forever. When I arrived in Greece I didn’t know a word of Greek.

Actually, when I set out to cross the Greek-Albanian border, I carried a few plans in my mind (more like a lot of wishes because I was unable to make plans at that moment) aiming at continuing my journey westward, toward countries which languages I already knew and spoke, Italy and France in particular but also Belgium, Great Britain or America (even though, back then I would picture America like something essentially different from Europe, a distant and rather mysterious reality. Back then I was exaggeratedly Europe-centered). Greece didn’t even exist in the imaginary map of countries-to-live that I carried in my mind. Even though Greece was a neighboring country, I knew very few things about it; maybe this is due to the “Balkan syndrome”. I knew much more about Italy and France, Germany and England than I knew about Greece.

I arrived in Greece with the naïve intention of staying there only a few weeks. In the end, I never left Greece. Life itself overthrew all my plans. The painful irony is that I felt I had to leave Greece, a few years ago, the moment when I had decided to live there forever.

Only a few months after I arrived in Greece, I started studying philosophy at the Kapodistrian University in Athens. I wrote my papers for the University in Greek but I didn’t dare to write something more in Greek. Since I arrived in Greece I was writing poetry and short stories in Albanian. I was also translating into Albanian a few poems from Greek poets—Cavafy, Livadites, Seferis. Then in the 90’s (1999 more precisely) I remember I started writing short articles for Greek newspapers. That was like coming out from invisibility. Those small articles had an impact and triggered reactions that surprised me. I was writing about immigrants and minorities living in Greece. I was the first immigrant writing about immigrants in the Greek press. Many immigrants saw me as their mouthpiece, many Greek readers looked at me with surprise, some others with immense sympathy and quite a few with extreme hostility. That was the decisive moment for my choice of Greek I believe. That’s also the moment that I felt that I can write something bigger than poetry and short stories exclusively for the small circles of my Albanian friends in Athens. I decided to do this in Greek. I took a huge risk but I saw it as a challenge. I saw it as another border to cross. I felt that in Greek I brought together my old and my new self. Actually, it was a fascinating journey.

GP: What is the greatest challenge (if there is one) when writing and existing in a language which is not your native tongue?

GK: It depends on who you are and how you exist in a language which is not your mother tongue. I learned Greek with great passion because I wanted to explore the country and the society where I had decided to live. In the beginning though, I felt terrified by the wave of contempt and hatred against Albanians that I encountered. I longed to explore Athens and every now and then I came across racist slogans against Albanians written on the walls of Athens. Even in the philosophical school where I was studying there was racist graffiti against Albanians. There was a nationalistic hysteria in Greece then. Once, in my anthropology class, a professor by the name of Markantonis suddenly started raving against Albanians, saying that they are murderers and they don’t have anything better to do in their lives but to slaughter Greeks with their big knives. At the end of the class I went to his office and with my broken Greek I told him that I was one of those “with the big knives”. He felt perplexed and started mumbling that he was not talking about Albanians like me. It was always like this: “I’m not talking about Albanians like you.”

In any case, I wasn’t some Western, French or English or German anthropologist in Greece: I was an Albanian immigrant; I was the scapegoat of the time; my mother tongue was the tongue of the scapegoat. Ironically many of the ancestors of today’s modern Greeks, who show contempt for modern Albanian immigrants, used to speak Albanian themselves.

It was back then that I fell in love with the Greek language and mastered it. That’s most likely to be the reason that my relationship with Greek became so special. Faced with rejection, I didn’t feel comfortable with the status of victim. I wanted to succeed where everybody else was doomed to failure. So the Greek language offered me the means to evolve from “scapegoat” and “undesirable” to interlocutor and storyteller. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to tell stories, mine and those of others…

GP: In your book My Name Is Europe you describe the relationship of an Albanian immigrant with a Greek girl named Europe. She becomes a shield for the protagonist against the ugly reality he faces and she inspires the love of Greek in him. Is this autobiographical as well?

GK: Even the most fictional elements in my books have something even remotely autobiographical in them.

GP: But then in the same book you say that language doesn’t belong to anyone…

GK: No one can seriously declare any ownership over a language. Every language has its own history of course; it’s a conveyer of individual and collective memory. What I mean is that language doesn’t recognize the jus sanguinis, the “right of blood”—it belongs to you as much as it belongs to the Other. That’s why, to a racist, the foreigner who speaks “their” language, is viewed as an intruder. I have often felt that while living in Greece. The racist imagines the language in biological terms, in terms of “earth and blood”. But language remains a universe with open borders, always welcoming to the Other…

GP: How have your novels been received by Greek readers and literary circles in Greece?

GK: In terms of reviews they have been received quite well. I have a faithful readership in Greece now. But I was never really accepted in Greece. I have always been considered as a “strange Albanian writer”. It has to do with the way that the Other is viewed in Greece: either as a threat or as a temporary visitor. Never in equal terms of rights and obligations. That’s a huge cultural problem for Greece, according to my opinion, reflected everywhere, from its political institutions to its literary circles. The fact that my books have been rewarded various literary prizes in different countries where they have been translated but never in Greece is only a bitter indicator of this. The only reward I won in Greece was by a small association of translators which wanted to give me a translation prize for the translation of my first book into Greek! When they called to let me know about the good news they were shocked when I told them I had written the book directly in Greek, it was not translated. It was like a comedy scene. The members of the committee could imagine that I had translated my own book into Greek in a masterful way, but they couldn’t imagine that I had written it directly in Greek. I hope though that by writing successful novels in Greek I made the first breach on the high wall of cultural parochialism and misery.

GP: I assume you are a Greek citizen today?

GK: When I go to book presentations around Europe, readers believe that I’m joking when they learn that I have always been refused Greek citizenship by the Greek state. Not only have I never had Greek citizenship, but from the moment I became a sort of public persona in Greece I was harassed and threatened systematically by rogue elements in the Greek police, even during my book presentations. Xenophobia and racism lead always to paranoia. I’ve never understood why I was so annoying for them. Maybe because I was challenging the prevailing discourse about Albanians and immigrants in Greece who were always presented as being primitive and violent.

GP: As far as I know your books have not been translated into Albanian yet…

GK: Welcome to the Balkans! An Albanian publisher accused me once of betraying the Albanian language because I had written my books in Greek. But the world is changing and now my first book has been translated into Albanian and will be published soon. My books speak of painful historical moments of modern Albania and I’m very curious to see how they will be received in my homeland.

GP: Speaking of English, French and German. Do you think you would have written in Greek if one of those languages was your native language?

GK: This is a question that always makes me feel perplexed. My sincere answer is “maybe not”. There’s an inequality between different languages. The languages that you mentioned belong to the so-called “major languages” which enjoy huge audiences of readers and a very developed book-market. As I know the history of the modern novel is full of Polish, Albanian, Greek, Chinese, Czech, Japanese, Russian or Turkish immigrants and expats who wrote in languages that were not their mother tongues. They wrote in the so-called “major languages”—English, French or German. But I have never seen an English or French or German expat author writing books in Albanian, Polish, Czech, Japanese or Turkish.

GP: Does writing in a foreign language influence how you write, how you narrate a story?

GK: When you write in a language that is not your native tongue, you recreate and refresh your identity—your cultural identity, but mainly, the identity of the narrator. Immigration means starting from scratch. To write a narrative in a language that is not your native tongue, is like starting the narration of your life from the beginning. That’s why I felt as if the Greek language was a new pair of shoes which gave me the desire to run. Narrating in a “foreign” language, I felt not only like a participant, but like an observer of my own experiences. Greek offered my narration a different style and pace. But mostly, Greek offered me the distance I needed to reshape and re-read my previous and current experiences. Sometimes, this distance is like a savior for the narrator. Probably, because it transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar. The “foreign” language does not carry the historical weight of your native language. When writing in a foreign language, especially about traumatic events of your own life, you feel as if you have acquired a layer of protection from the dangerous weight of your own experiences.

GP: In your book My name is Europe—a book dedicated to the question of the “foreign language”—your protagonist learns Greek by reading the memoir of a famous transvestite Kostas Tachtsis, who was an important contemporary Greek writer. Why did you choose this way of introducing your protagonist to the Greek reality and language?

GK: Because that’s what happened to me in reality. In my first weeks in Greece I fell upon the book of Tachtsis and I was literally hooked. I started reading the book using a Greek-French dictionary. It took me hours to read a page but I kept at it. On the other hand, I never viewed Greece through the eyes of a tourist. For me Greece never meant ancient ruins, souvlaki and exotic beaches. I didn’t long to visit the Acropolis or posh places when I arrived in Greece. I took immense pleasure in walking around the chaotic and bumpy back roads of Athens. That’s how I discovered and loved Athens and Greece. For me Greece is not a country that belongs to the past but a contemporary country living in the present. What better way to learn contemporary Greek than by reading the memoir of Tachtsis? Its language is superb. Furthermore, the protagonist of my book is an immigrant and he shares the same feeling of marginalization and loneliness as Tachtsis. By reading this book he learns some big truths about contemporary Greece that he would have never learned reading “mainstream” stories and writers, visiting the Acropolis or reading essays on Plato.

GP: You’ve been living, teaching and writing in the US for four years now. How do you think you’ve evolved creatively during this time? How has your work been influenced by your experiences in the US?

GK: I feel extremely lucky to be in the US. Maybe it’s a myth that America is the most generous country towards immigrants but I have experienced that myth as a reality. I came here as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. A wonderful place indeed. Then I was a visiting scholar at Brown University and a Writer in Residence at Wellesley College. From 2013 I have been teaching at Emerson College.

I came to America a few months after I had been fired from my job at the newspaper TA NEA while in the meantime the Greek state had refused me the right to citizenship and gangs of neo-Nazi thugs were sweeping the streets of Athens stabbing and beating immigrants under the total tolerance of the police. A year before coming to the US a group of neo-Nazis physically attacked me during a book presentation at a square in the center of Athens. I was rescued by the people who organized the book presentation. What shocked me most was that the next day, when I went to the Municipal Council of Athens to report the violent episode, I was met with total indifference and hostility both by the municipally counselors of the extreme right and of the left. I’m a survivor and felt the bells tolling inside me. That’s how I decided to stay in the US. It had dramatic consequences in my personal life. I didn’t leave Greece with joy. It was a very painful choice for me. It hurts to see that in Greece racism, nationalism and xenophobia is worse today than when I arrived there 25 years ago.

As a writer being in the US caused a “language crisis” for me. Would I continue to write in Greek or would I start writing my novels in Albanian? My books have been translated from Greek into several languages and it’s important to me to know and work with the translators. If, from now on, I write my books in Albanian, where will I find new translators? I started writing in Greek and then I stopped. I felt that it was not working anymore. In the meantime, I feel more and more tempted to write in English. Since childhood I’ve been drawn to the languages of the Other. Above all, I like writing in the language of my everyday life. So, living in a kind of linguistic suspension, the new book I am writing is becoming a patchwork of two languages: I’m writing it in Albanian and rewriting it in English. It’s very interesting because when I rewrite it in English I discover different flaws and I feel I improve the book at least at the level of structure. How does it feel rewriting my own book in English? Fascinating—like discovering a new continent, and at the same time insecure like running barefoot across a minefield.

GP: Do you think that you will come back to writing in Greek?

GK: I think I will. I don’t know when though.

GP: Was your transition to the US easy?

GK: In terms of writing all transitions are painful, full of amazing opportunities and big risks. You have to reinvent yourself as a writer and it need might need time. But there is no time to lose for a writer because life is short and that of a writer even shorter…

GP: What’s your new book about?

GK: Let me summarize it in few words. The protagonist of my new novel is a serial migrant from Albania (the term belongs to the anthropologist Sussan Ossman) established in Boston who’s investigating the private library of a serial killer (the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha)…

GP: It sounds a lot like you…

GK: He’s just a bit like me—following maybe the same geographical itineraries. But in my new novel the protagonist is very different from me. He’s much better than I am, I guess.

GP: Do you feel like a citizen of the world?

GK: I rather consider myself an immigrant of the world. Not only because I’m (again) an immigrant but also because I want to make a political statement and choice; immigrants today are often viewed the way Jews and the ethnic minorities were viewed in Europe in the ’30s. Hatred against the Others (on behalf always of love and protection of the Self) is becoming globally trendy, again. That’s why I am and I will always be an immigrant of the world, armed with a temporary residence permit for this earth, incurably transient.

Books of other authors mentioned in this interview:

  • Kóstas Tachtsis, The Terrible Step (“To Fovero Vima”) (Exantas, 1989)
  • Susan Ossman, Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration (Stanford University Press, 2013)

Gigi Papoulias is a Greek-American writer and translator based in Athens, Greece. Her most recent work has been published in the anthology Rethinking the Plot, (Kingston University Press, 2016); and in Greek literary journal (de)kata, (Spring 2014).


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