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Interview with Ani Gjika
by Gloria Mindock

Ani Gjika

    Photo courtesy of Ben Poulin

Bread on Running Waters by Ani Gjika

Order Bread on Running Waters at Fenway Press.

Talk about the writing scene while growing up in Albania.

I wasn't aware of there being much of a writing scene in Albania when I was growing up. I also wasn’t that much into writing growing up. I disliked poetry all through high school. I do remember this one time, when I must have been 10 years old or so, my mother, who is also a poet, took me along to one of her friend’s house and the two of them worked for hours on pages and pages they had spread out all over the living room. I understood they were working on poems, but only years later did I realize they were going through the process of assembling a manuscript. I know my mother had a few poet friends she talked about and/or visited with. There were very few well-known writers while growing up. They were the names that had always been, sort of. There were no new writers for the longest time. You could count the contemporary Albanian poets in one hand.

How has growing up in a police state affected your writing?

That's a really good question. I'm not sure I have an answer to this yet. I do think that growing up under a totalitarian government has made me more of an observer. I felt watched and I think I practiced a lot of watching right back.

Did you ever have to hide books you were reading?

No. A lot of good literature just wasn't available, or simply didn't exist in translation, so I couldn't even access it. The Bible wasn't available but my grandmother had one in Greek which she read daily and translated for us daily. She would have to hide that every time the door bell rang, at least until I turned 13.

When did you start to write?

I wrote a poem at 6 years old, then some rhyme and short stories throughout high school in Albania. But I didn't really start to write poetry until a few years after moving to the States when I had gotten more comfortable in English.

Do you write in Albanian first then English?

I've been writing in English since 1999.

Who are some of your favorite authors to read and why?

I am drawn to writers whose voices and imagination surprise me with their honesty and originality. I was just reading Galway Kinnell today and came across "Fergus Falling" for the first time. The way he imagines a fisherman "only the pinetops can see", describing it through one long sentence at the end of the poem, feels almost like a net he's casting and I become the pickerel that fisherman is waiting to catch. I am drawn to any type of writing that transforms me and my experience of reading it - the type of writing that transcends the sum of its parts. I usually return to Li-Young Lee, Louise Glück, Wallace Stevens, Yasunari Kawabata, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, Luljeta Lleshanaku, Jane Hirshfield, because all these writers are very successful at doing that, quite naturally.

Even though you can write whatever you want in the USA, do you ever find yourself watching what you write because of growing up under Communism?

No. On the contrary, I feel like I can say anything here. I am the most honest when I write. I think growing up under Communism has made me much more reserved and I am often quiet in social situations. But my writing is my voice and it is one place where I'm not afraid to articulate myself.

You also have lived in India and Thailand. Where do these countries/cultures come into your writing? What did you do while you were there?

I went to teach in Thailand right after I finished an MA in English at Simmons College and ended up staying there for four years. My ex-husband is Indian and I often visited his home and other parts of India throughout those years. Being exposed to these countries and cultures only made me less afraid, less anxious about what we perceive as differences among us. At the end of the day, when I'm jogging late at night down the street, whether I'm in Thailand, Albania or somewhere in Framingham, Massachusetts, the families I see behind lit windows are the same - we're all trying to keep this corner of ours lit a little longer.

Bread on Running Waters was just published by Fenway Press with an Introduction by Rosanna Warren. Talk about your new book.

My new book is something of an old book really. I don't write all that frequently and I tend to revise something on and on for years. The book starts with poems set in Albania described from a child's/young teenager's point of view. I was consciously exploring memory throughout the poems in this section and was particularly interested in what I could get by adopting a child's persona. As it's often true when you adopt a persona for your poems, the result was liberating and I felt like I had just found the keys to this whole new childhood that was never mine but which felt universal. "Children's Story" is such a poem and it's not exactly set in Albania or anywhere in particular. I think it's just set in Childhood which, like May Sarton, I believe is very much "a place as well as a time."

The second section of the book explores relationships. These poems are mainly set up as portraits of couples in various settings: in a marriage, on a date, in a photograph, around a dinner table, etc. I never set out to write a series of "portraits of couples". These poems, too, were written through the course of many years and they just happened to fit together by this time in the process of completing the book.

The third section, "Song," which is one long poem made up of mini-poems is a retelling of the loss of my aunt. Everything about her death was tragic and ugly. I remember who she was before she got married and before we left Albania. She had an incredible singing voice and was incredibly alive. And then she was never quite like that again. I tried to imagine her death telling about it through the perspective of a child whose father suffers a similar tragic death.

The rest of the book touches on departures and arrivals in different countries and the ultimate arrival - that of feeling at home, especially feeling at home when you find your own voice.

Where do you like to write? Do you have a favorite room or place?

I don't really have a favorite place. I usually write at home, in my living room couch or an armchair in my little studio. Many times I write on the floor because I usually like to sit there with a bunch of books around me that I have just pulled out from shelves. I know I need to be alone to be able to write. I don't mind if other people are in the house, but they would have to be in another room. When I'm traveling, I often don't talk to the people in the car or plane with me, because I like to be in my head when I travel and some lines come to me then. I don't need to write these down. They usually come back to me days or weeks later.

What are you working on right now?

Not much work at the moment. It is summer. I'm off from teaching. It's been nice to just live lately.

Order Bread on Running Waters at Fenway Press.


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