Barren Landscape: Who is Afraid of Albanian Women?

For many Albanian women, the domestic is a space of terror and violence; what could be more heroic than surviving and writing in spite of that?

How is it that a formal literary curriculum can almost completely erase the works of a group of proficient, formidable writers? In this essay, Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, asks this question of her country’s educational system, while also discussing and revealing the extensive work of Albania’s female writers. 

I could make a long list of my grievances about the Albanian educational system, but I have generally appreciated the breadth of my literary education. In four years of high school, I was assigned some eighty books to read, spanning Western literature from Antiquity (starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh) to Shakespeare, Hugo, Hemingway, and Márquez.

I no longer retain the official list of my required reading, but it is not hard to find a contemporary equivalent. I graduated from high school in 2011, and in eight years, the list selected by the Ministry of Education does not seem to have changed much, which I find questionable. While I am grateful for my literary education, with the years I have become acutely aware of its flaws, the most egregious of which is the complete dismissal of women writers, especially Albanian women. Dozens of books, an entire year dedicated to Albanian literature during my senior year, and yet I graduated without having heard the name of a single Albanian woman writer. It was almost as if they didn’t exist.

But of course, they do. Albanian women have written and continue to do so, although Albanian students rarely speak their names. And their continual erasure from our school curricula raises a number of issues. The bulk of our literary education takes place in classrooms. School curricula dictate what we read and what constitutes—and will continue to constitute—the national literary canon for centuries to come. Removing the work of Albanian women from such curricula ultimately means deeming them somehow unworthy and erasing them from our collective memory. This has consequences that are not limited simply to literature, but to our understanding of what it means to be a woman in Albania.

What are the names of the women we have pushed into literary oblivion and what part of our history, of who we are, have we lost by never hearing their voices? Though my research began with a rather localized concern, it turns out that the answer to it lay in patterns of erasure and suppression of women’s voices that are not specific to Albania, but that we have simply adopted from cultures beyond our own.

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Due to the vicissitudes of history, the roots of Albanian literature are deep but slender. The first examples of written Albanian date back to the thirteenth century, but literary production was scarce. In its very beginnings, written Albanian was mostly the domain of Catholic priests who produced religious texts in an unstandardized Albanian. The earliest text recorded text is Gjon Buzuku’s Meshari (Missal), written in 1555. The first examples of proper literary creation belong to Bejtexhinj poets who forged their own literary genre, writing religious poetry inspired by the Persian, Turkish, and Arabic traditions. But again, this production was sporadic, or at least our records of it are. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that a national literary consciousness began to flourish with the unfolding of the National Renaissance (Rilindja Kombëtare), which aimed to unite all Albanians against Ottoman oppression through a shared language and culture.

And it is in the nineteenth century that we can begin to see the presence of Albanian women of letters, though their first contributions are mostly academic. Dora D’Istria, who was born in Romania to an Albanian father, championed the cause of Albanian independence in European circles and wrote a memoir entitled Gli Albanesi in Rumenia (“Albanians in Romania”) in 1873. In Albania proper, Sevasti and Parashqevi Qiriazi opened the first school for Albanian girls in 1891. Parashqevi Qiriazi published one of the first abecedaria in the newly coded Albanian language, and the two sisters continued to produce textbooks, periodicals, and even some poetry throughout their lives. In Italy, the Arbëreshë community kept their own dialect of Albanian alive through the centuries, and it is not surprising to find traces of women’s literary work there, too. Christina Gentile Mandalas (1856-1919), whose work was uncovered by Albanian researcher Nasho Jorgaqi, was among the first collectors of Arbëreshë fairy tales. And in 1913, in Calabria, Maria Antonia Braile published Canti, a modest collection of poems.

We would have to wait until the 1930s, however, for the publication of the first literary work by an Albanian woman. On November 28, 1935, a poem, “Vala gënjeshtare” (“The Wave of Deceit”) appeared in the pages of the Populli (“The People”) newspaper under the pseudonym “Kolombia,” a clear indication that a female pen had written these verses. Yet speculations and scepticism abounded. The poem was well-received in literary circles, but many were dismissive of the idea that a woman could have written poetry worth publishing, sure in their belief that a man instead was behind them. In fact, the editorial note that accompanied the poem when it was first published said the following: “Though the writer presents as a woman, it would not be a surprise to learn that a man hides behind this pseudonym.”

A few years later, Selfixhe Ciu came forward as the anonymous Kolombia. She had been just seventeen when her first poem was published, and would continue to write poetry, essays, and reviews for many other newspapers and periodicals before and during World War II. Ciu was not just a writer—with her, we can see the beginnings of a feminist consciousness in Albania as well. She fought for the right of women to divorce their husbands and declared that “being born a woman is not a misfortune,” a revolutionary statement in a country where the birth of a girl was treated as something akin to tragedy.  Furthermore, with Ciu began a golden age of Albanian women writers, though most would work exclusively in journalism. Ollga Plumbi, Afërdita Asllani, and Mira Vangjeli Prela were the first women journalists in Albania, often writing under pseudonyms. In 1937, Nexhmije Zaimi, an Albanian writer living in the U.S., published her autobiography Daughter of the Eagle: The Autobiography of an Albanian Girl. Until the book’s publication, some Albanian journalists thought she was nothing but “the fantasy of an American journalist . . . trying to advertise his next novel.”

But perhaps the most well-known of Albanian women writers is Musine Kokalari. Kokalari was a childhood friend of Selfixhe Ciu, and her omission from the annals of Albanian literary history is perhaps the biggest injustice. In her youth, Kokalari was a writer, scholar, and politician. She received a doctorate in literature from the Sapienza in Rome, where she studied the poetry of Naim Frashëri, the most renowned figure of the Albanian Renaissance. Kokalari returned to Albania in 1941, and in the next three years published three collections of short stories: Siç me thotë nënua plakë (“As my old mother tells me”), Rreth vatrës (“Around the hearth”) and Sa u tund jeta . . . (“How life swayed”). Written in her local dialect and inspired by the folklore and history of Gjirokastra, the importance of Kokalari’s writing is two-fold: her stories are among the few depictions we have of women’s lives of that time, and they also serve as a first representation of the ethnographic heritage of southeastern Albania.  As if this weren’t enough, between 1943 and 1944, Musine Kokalari was a founding member of the Social Democratic Party and established and ran an underground newspaper, Zëri i Lirisë (The Voice of Freedom). Unfortunately, her political activism would also lead to her demise.

With the end of World War II and the advent of Communist rule, what had been a great period for Albanian literature at large came to a painful and abrupt end. Enver Hoxha and his ministers interned, exiled, or executed a number of major literary figures. Especially targeted were those writers like Ciu and Kokalari who had studied abroad and whose ideas, consequently, were considered dangerous to the regime. Selfixhe Ciu and her husband were interned twice: once in 1947 and then again in 1966. They left internment only in 1972, but Ciu was no longer allowed to write. Journalists like Plumbi and Asllani retired from journalism and returned quietly to teaching. Musine Kokalari was arrested and tried in 1946. She spent eighteen years in prison in Burrel and the rest of her life in internment in the northern city of Rrëshen, where she worked mainly as a street sweeper. She died in 1983 from breast cancer. No one but a gravedigger attended her funeral.

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Of course, like many other writers, Ciu and Kokalari were purged from Communist-era anthologies, textbooks, and libraries. Thus, it is perhaps reasonable to see these two figures as victims of nothing more than political forces, as were dozens of other writers of their time, regardless of gender. This first politically motivated purge does not explain, however, two current trends in the teaching and publishing of Albanian literature: the complete absence of Ciu’s and Kokalari’s works in the acknowledged Albanian literary canon, and the marginalization of the works of women who wrote during other periods of Albanian history.

Many writers whose works were buried during Communism returned as heroes in Albanian textbooks, documentaries, and book fairs. They were presented to us as great symbols of Albanian literary history, their books a sign of our resilience. Even those who had written books more to the Party’s liking managed to find favour in the modern Albanian literary landscape: some of their texts were simply rewritten to remove the more obvious pandering. No such homecoming was available for Ciu and Kokalari, or any of their female contemporaries. In 1998, Selfixhe Ciu published her collected works under the title Tallazet e Jetës (“Life’s Momentum”). It is currently out of print, with only two copies available in libraries across the world, neither of them in Albania. Musine Kokalari’s work has been re-published by some smaller presses, but it does not have the reach it deserves.

I have focused here on Ciu and Kokalari in an attempt to show that women writers have existed and contributed to Albanian literature, but these two figures are by no means the only ones whose work has been suppressed. This concealment extends to all Albanian women who have written and continue to write in the present. Helena Kadare, for example, was the first Albanian woman to publish a full novel with Një lindje e vështirë (“A difficult birth”) in 1970, but while multiple novels by Ismail Kadare are assigned, discussed, and published, most Albanian students are not taught that his wife is an acclaimed writer in her own right. Diana Çuli’s novels are an intimate portrait of daily life under Communism that do not fall into the trap of socialist realism, and yet her novels are rarely given their due in classrooms. A similar fate is suffered by writers like Elvira Dones and Flutura Açka, who have in turn depicted the lives of Albanian refugees abroad in all their complexity. Academics focused on Albanian literature praise its poetry, but even the most critically acclaimed female poets (like Natasha Lako or Luljeta Lleshanaku) are missing from school curricula. Ornela Vorpsi’s The Country Where No One Ever Dies (translated by Robert Elsie from the Italian), a collection of stories about the oppression and objectification of Albanian women, has never even been translated into Albanian.

What drives this marginalization and erasure of women’s writing from Albanian literary history? It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Albanian literature suffers from the same misogynistic assumptions that have led us to underestimate or misconstrue women’s work all over the world. More specifically, we find in Albania the same argument for the exclusion of women from its literary canon: it is not that critics or literature professors do not want to include women in the literary canon, but rather that what women write is just not good enough. In her fundamental work How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ addresses this very assumption. Russ argues that the exclusion of women’s writing from the canon is not necessarily construed as a conscious effort. Rather, it is embedded in the way we think about literature in general and women’s abilities and experiences in particular. That doesn’t mean that there is no active work done to undermine women’s contributions to the literary world, but rather that those who do it do not realize their own motivations. What form do these efforts take in the Albanian literary world?

First, there is an attempt to define the literary canon using certain criteria and then arguing that women’s writing simply does not fit. In this spirit, professor Sazana Çapriqi has argued that the Albanian literary canon “was built on a tradition that sees literature as an arena for heroic figures with extraordinary talents.” Classic Albanian literature is rife with epic figures, from our national hero Skanderbeg, who has been the subject of many novels and epic poems, to the twentieth century epic Albanian Songs of the Frontier Warriors. Of course, a man does not have to be epically heroic for his tale to be deemed as such. Rather, the male struggle, even at its most intimate and quotidian, is considered heroic in itself and thus fits the definition given by Çapriqi. Most published Albanian women, on the other hand, have written largely about issues that pertain mostly to women alone—like domesticity and motherhood, or even prostitution and abortion. The assumption is that to write about domestic spaces is to write about all that is private but devoid of political influence or significance. And often, it is the political that lends a heroic quality to men’s writing. And what is heroic about daily domestic life when you are not fighting your inner demons, the political system, or the weight of history itself? Never mind that for many Albanian women, the domestic is a space of terror and violence; what could be more heroic than surviving and writing in spite of that?

But even for those critics who might agree that women’s writing constitutes a rebellion, this rebellion is seen as a limitation. Albanian writer Rezart Palluqi declares that “women write to survive and men to triumph.” According to Palluqi, the use of writing as a tool of survival has one major consequence: women who write to survive are too concerned with their own pain, and their writing becomes self-absorbed. This self-absorption is further exacerbated by the fact that, by virtue of their own socio-economic position, women are not allowed the same breadth of experiences that men tend to have. Where is Palluqi going with this? Well, his main conclusion is that women’s limitations do not allow them to write literature that overcomes the boundaries of gender and expresses truly universal experiences or ideas.

Of course, it is absurd to dismiss the life experiences of half the world’s population as “not universal,” to see good literature only in the fantastic, or even to argue that women are incapable of writing sweeping stories that do not “betray” their gender. Not to mention that if literary critics see men’s writing as universal, it is not because men are truly capable of erasing their gender from their writing. Rather, the literary canon in Albania, and elsewhere, has been largely defined by the male point of view and the male experience. What we have learned to consider neutral or even objective is not truly such, but merely a mirage created by thousands of years of reading largely from one (male) perspective.

Translator and writer Mira Meksi eloquently spoke in an interview about the fact that “the soul has no sex nor gender . . . these designations are ‘inventions’ made by men to exclude women from literature and marginalize female writers.” And I agree. It is disingenuous to talk about a “female” versus “male” sensibility, as if it were truly possible to distinguish such things in writing. But while this vague idea of sensibility is bogus, it is true that the personal experiences of different groups of people are different and it is this difference in experience that will find its way onto the page. And we need these experiences. There have been attempts, in past years, to rectify the perception of Albanian women writers and to save some figures from oblivion. Panels have been held, museum exhibits hosted, projects aiming to teach Albanian children about writers like Musine Kokalari. But they have been ephemeral. What is needed is a revamping of our curricula to include the stories of the women who have shaped Albanian literature and given us a better understanding of what it means to grow up under the pressures of the Albanian patriarchy. In a time when violence against women in Albania is an everyday occurrence, perhaps the best way to recognize their shared humanity is to begin teaching their writing in schools.

 

Barbara Halla is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania. She splits her time between Paris and Tirana, where she works as a freelance researcher and translator for French, Italian, and Albanian. She holds a BA in History from Harvard.

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  • Joshua Passell

    I confess my acquaintance with Albanian writers began and ended with Kadare…Ismail Kadare. But your post caught my attention. I searched a bit online, and found this entry on Musine Kokalari: “Kokalari was the first and most famous Albanian female writer.” The first Albanian woman writer! Ever! What an accomplishment! I’d say the entire thesis of your has been proved beyond question. Well done.