An interview with the Albanian-American poet Dr. Gjekë Marinaj by writer Bão Vũ

An interview with the Albanian-American poet Dr. Gjekë Marinaj by writer Bão Vũ*




Nhà văn BãoVũ

   Nhà thơ Gjekë Marinaj



Bão Vũ (BV): I believe your intellectual exchanges with the Vietnamese writers in this trip will be full of camaraderie and sympathy since Vietnam and Albania shared similar significant political events, which had a big influence on writers of both countries. What are your expectations as you prepare for your trip?


Gjekë Marinaj (GM): I have every reason to believe that my visit to Vietnam will be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Being for the first time in the presence of some of the Vietnamese writers, poets, and artists whose works I have a high regard for will be nothing short of a dream come true. But this has very little to do with the political background of Albania and Vietnam, because a good writer is a good writer under any political system. Good writers have a better potential to modify political structures than political organizations do to transform the way the writers write. Moreover, I love my Albania as dearly as I love my America, but Albania and Vietnam are more dissimilar on many levels. Vietnam became independent from Imperial China in AD 938, whereas Albania declared independence from the Ottomans in 1912. The Turkish attempted for nearly 500 years to convert Albania from Christian to a Muslim region, and even though they failed to annex Albania under their territorial umbrella, they succeeded in converting more than 75 percent of the Albanian inhabitants to Islam. The French endeavored to convert your people into Catholics as well, just to find out that such a mission was impossible for them. Vietnam's first national university, The Temple of Literature, was built in 1070 at the time of King Lý Nhân Tông, whereas The University of Tirana, the oldest university in Albania, was founded in October 1957 under Enver Hoxha's government. Now Albania's less than 4 million citizens live under the rules and regulations of a parliamentary democracy, as Vietnam's more than 90 million inhabitants follow the leadership of their socialist republic. Albania is still one of poorest countries in Europe, and Vietnam's economic growth rate is among the highest on the planet — in 2011, it had the highest Global Growth Generators Index among 11 major economies. So even though there are similarities between our countries — such as the spirit of sacrifice to defend their respective lands, immense individual and national pride and honor - I will embrace both the differences and similarities between our people during my visit in Vietnam. I know that I will enjoy my stay in Vietnam to the highest degree. Even though one of your Vietnamese proverbs teaches to "chưa khỏi vòng đã cong đuôi," I am very excited about the opportunity to meet with the Vietnamese authors and the people who are the epicenter of their very being. Especially during my doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, I have studied Vietnam history, culture, and literature extensively and have developed a true appreciation for the Vietnamese society. Consequently, I feel that I have matured academically by learning from some of your greatest intellectual minds. I have strengthened my character by studying the history of your people. I have enhanced my soul by your traditional kindness and hospitality, and have become a better poet, writer, and literary critic by digesting some of your indigenous and influenced oral and written literature, including your contemporary poetry and prose. For all that, I am extremely grateful to the Vietnamese people.   



BV: Although you are already a famous writer and poet in the United States, you still have a special place in your heart for Albanian literature. Therefore, since 1991, have you noticed any significant developments to Albanian poetry in the literary world?


GM: It has been nearly a quarter century since the fall of communism in Albania, and with a few exceptions, the best writers and poets who composed their work during the communist era are still the best today. That stands for other art forms as well. From this viewpoint, the overall quality of the Albanian literature has not achieved the “facelift” that we all have hoped for. This has astonished the Albanian reader a great deal, since during the period of what we called the "Literature of the Socialist Realism," most people entertained the idea that there must be a number of writers and poets of superior talent who, because of their political status, were not allowed to publish their works. Unfortunately, that did not happen on any notable scale. What's more, the substantial literary progress that took place during the second half of the 20th century has been subject to a gradual flatness in terms of literary eminence, while the number of published books has increased drastically in the past 23 years.



BV: How do you explain such increase in book production but not in literary quality?


GM: This might be due to gaps created by the political system change. During the socialist Albania, literary writing had some great incentives in addition to the joy of writing for your general or specific audiences. The former Albanian government, in order to promote their socialist ideology, awarded the status of "professional writer" to many authors. Under that status, with some exemptions, all they had to do was write and the government provided them with a reasonable monthly salary, moderate housing in major cities, and an opportunity to become members of the political system. Their books were edited several times by professional editors, printed and distributed to every bookstore and library in the country at no cost to them. These kinds of advantages, including the idealized image of the professional writer, inspired not only the professional writers to be more focused on their job, but the young talents who wanted to become writers and poets as well. In the past 23 years of the Albanian democracy, that idealized image of the professional author of the communist era has not lost its importance, but, sorry to say, it totally lost the other mentioned benefits. Now that literature has only literary value, the good writers who are also writers in the spirit sacrifice their time to write books, along with the personal and often family income to publish them —  which in most cases will not be distributed outside of their own city, and as a result will not make any serious money. They simply write because they are writers and that is what they do. Yet those authors make up only about half of the published contemporary Albanian authors. The other half consists of authors who are not academically trained writers, who do not have the necessary education to uphold the national and human responsibility of a writer, who do not write because they are writers, but because they have something — what they consider important — to say. Somehow, they have the financial means to print a few hundred books and distribute them as gifts to their friends and families. This is not necessarily a negative phenomenon, because every book has its own value, but it makes it a little confusing for the reader to know who the real quality writers are. This might be an explanation for the lack of identity of the younger generations of writers, who have yet to establish their unique style of writing and their elite circle of known authors, which had happened for every generation of Albanian writers until the 1990s.



BV: In your expert opinion, what are some of the significant trends currently present in Albanian literature that can have worldwide impact?


GM: The best of the Albanian poetry is world-class poetry. While poetry is still regarded as a fundamental creative act employing language, its distinctiveness is being challenged by a process of elimination rather than a course of innovation. Albanian poets still use a variety of poetic forms and expressive methods to suggest a degree of difference in the interpretation of their works, but sufficient evidence exists that, slowly but surely, they are departing from some of the poetic styles that earlier generations had utilized. One such departure is the avoidance of the hermetic approach of poetry. During the socialist Albania, there was a tendency to compose mystical and alchemical poetry that could be read as having two distinct meanings. This was considered a safe way of criticizing the government. In case of danger, the poets would endeavor to preserve themselves as innocent by sticking to the first connotation of their work. Depending on the severity of their criticism, sometime they could get away with it. But if the condemnation was measured as unfair to or too destructive for the party, they were imprisoned for up to 25 years, or ended up getting hanged in the middle of the city. That trend continued until the introduction to the democracy. In the past 23 years, where the Albanian government consists of two major political parties and numerous minor ones, the need for hermetic poetry is eliminated. The traditional political, economical, and social problems still exist in different forms, but the politicians got so much better at criticizing, offending, vulgarizing, threatening, and mocking each other in the parliament, on television, and during their re-election campaigns that they made the hermetic poets look like out-of-style amateurs. In addition, contemporary poets have parted ways with long poems, with poems that are pro or against the central government or local officials, and with poems that are structured in metric feet, in traditional four-line stanzas that rhyme systematically and tell a story in the epic style. Poetic prose, or what we used to call poetic sketches, has also fallen totally out of favor. Additional propensities include creating a kind of poetry that consists of a condensed and elevated language, a sort of poetry that expects the reader to have a great poetic knowledge to understand it. Even though Albanians are extremely well trained to read what is not immediately visible on the page, this highly intellectual style of poetry seems to have alienated the general reader to the extent of avoiding it altogether. On the other hand, lyric poetry about love, family, nature and so forth is extremely popular. Most poets are more concerned about how the text is displayed on the page than about the various poetic forms they present it in. However, it seems to be fashionable for a poem to fit onto one book page, but it must be empowered by profusion of masterful metaphors, beautiful imagery, smart similes, and other carefully selected poetic devices such as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm to be considered a total poem. When that entirety is accomplished, the Albanian contemporary poetry competes at a very high level with any other poetry in the world.



BV: We know the best-selling Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, from his novel, The General of the Dead Army, and other literary works translated into Vietnamese.  As the winner of the Man Booker award and a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize, Kadare is well known worldwide. If he had not left Albania in 1990, do you think he would have had the same success?   


GM: If we were to classify Ismail Kadare, he would be considered an Albanian-made, communist-model writer, and not a French or an international product. He happened to have been born in the same city as former communist leader Enver Hoxha; he was educated and taught at the university that was founded under and named after Hoxha’s regime; he served as a member of the Albanian parliament from 1970 until 1982 under Hoxha; he was permitted to continue his studies in Russia, the country of the founding fathers of communism, by Hoxha; and he wrote and published work including "The General of the Dead Army" you just mentioned, which is one of the best novels he ever wrote, on Hoxha's watch. Kadare became one of the best writers in the world under Hoxha's strict supervision. Most of his major literary prizes, including the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca (1992), Man Booker International Prize (2005), and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature (2009) have been based on his works published during the Hoxha era and not necessarily for his works composed after he left Albania. But Kadare is so much more than any one of these accomplishments. Ismail Kadare is a great human being who loves his county and the entire human race. He is a man who can create like a distinguished writer and think like a celebrated philosopher. Under very difficult circumstances, he has dedicated his entire life as a writer to the betterment of the human race, and should be recognized for his contributions to Albanian and world literature by the Noble Prize Committee. Kadare is an Albanian writer who belongs to the entire world, and that has very little to do with his circumstantial in-and-outs to his own country.    



BV: But he has stated that "As long as genuine literature attracts interests, there is no need for political writers." He also made another very interesting claim: "I am not a political writer. My works are not as rich of the political nature as the products of the Greek ancient theatre. Under any institution, I can also be a writer." I have heard many writers say the same thing. But at last, Mr. Ismail Kadare himself left Albania as an institution not suitable for him to become a great writer as he is known nowadays. Do you have any different thought about this issue?


GM: Kadare has never affirmed himself as a dissident writer. But since — with all due respect — some people tend to question the validity of his personal statements, we will never know if he left Albania because he sensed that his socialist benefits and dangers were approaching their end or if he left out of the fear of what the new and inexperienced democratic system that he saw coming would do to him. Or better yet, if he really did it because he believed that, as he claimed in 1990, “Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible." What we do know for sure, however, is that he wrote two works under the fate of being a man: The Great Winter (1977), which most people thought was a procommunist novel, and a politically satirical poem called The Red Pashas (1975), which most people know was an antigovernment poem. All the rest of his literature stands right in the middle of "good and evil," if you will. And since he has no logical reason to mislead us in relation to the way he feels about his work, I suggest we listen when he tells us something. 



BV: With regards to our Vietnamese poet Mai Văn Phấn, whose poetry has been translated to other languages in countries such as Great Britain, France, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Switzerland and Albania — from an objective point of view, what are your thoughts since you translated Mai Văn Phấn’s poems into Albanian?


GM: I will have the pleasure to meet Mai Văn Phấn for the first time when I come to Vietnam, on Sunday, June 1. My hope is that I will enjoy conversing with him in person as much as I enjoyed conversing with him though his poetry. As I mentioned, I have dedicated a great deal of my time during my PhD studies to Vietnam literature and culture. It was during that time when my mentor and former professor Frederick Turner introduced me to Phấn's poetry. His work left me with the impression that Phấn had fulfilled his fundamental duty as a poet, which is to tell the truth in an exceedingly poetic manner. It was that kind of truth about his own life and the lives of the Vietnamese people whom he adores, that inspired me to undertake the challenging and rewarding task of translating and publishing a collection of his poems into the Albanian language. His poems projected vividly in the mirror of my imagination the beautiful Vietnam with all its love and hospitality, with all its pride and courage, with all its challenges and achievements as it progresses into a better future. His first-rate poems inspired me to visit Vietnam now, instead of next year as I had intended, and to cherish the opportunity to meet with him and his fellow poets whom he prized so highly during the conversations I had with him via email during the translation process. He is a world-class poet and his poems deserve a second reading from everyone who is concerned about the state of poetry today.



BV: In the ancient Greek time and then the Middle Ages in Europe, people performed poems in public in front of a crowd in the form of a poetic play, reading verses, extemporizing verses according to tradition. In recent years in Vietnam, we have had the Poetic Festive Day organized in the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. But many people think that poetry can't be exposed in a noisy way. Do you think it is possible to organize somewhere a performance of Gjekë Marinaj and Mai Văn Phấn's verses?


GM: I would absolutely love it. It is the quality of the poetry and the artistry of the performer that stimulates the audience's attention and determines if the verse under consideration serves as a noise-cancelling or a noise-generating poetic device. But for me personally, poetically speaking, just stepping into the Temple of Literature would reach the climax of my highest joy. I would consider that specific moment as the shortest distance between me and God. And only entering the Temple of Literature, being surrounded by its incredible history, and being involved either as an attendee or as a participant in a poetic festival would narrow that distance.



BV: On a less serious note for our last question: In Vietnam, there are many people who can write melodious verses, which can also be considered to be poetry.  Imagine there is a time when everyone has the ability to compose poems inspired by what they see in nature and from what they feel in their heart and soul, without the need to provide any explanations. Anyone can compose a poem by just looking at a painting or listening to instrumental music. Poetry would then be the universal and biblical language, one that everyone can fully understand.  Through poetry, one can experience laughing and crying to be the same, without the need to differentiate between the nationalities, cultures, or political regimes.  If that day comes, in your opinion, then will the world be filled with happiness or calamities?


GM: What you are describing can be perceived more as the possible contents of a dream than a state of reality. A fraction of good poetry, or poetry as an art form, can be utilized as an occasional spiritual medication. It that sense, an overdose can have some unhealthy side effects, entering one into a state of a figment of the imagination. But since you really want to know, if this phenomenon would prove unavoidable, would it be good or bad for mankind, I would rather refer you to my therapist William Shakespeare — to the Tragedy of Hamlet — particularly to the words found in Act II, Scene 2: "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."


BV: Thank you so much!


(*) Writer Bão Vũ was born in 1942. Before being a writer, he was an architect with many meritable achievements in architecture. Writer Bão Vũ is the author of 6 short stories, 4 novels and many articles on urban architecture, art, culture and literature studies. He has won many national awards in architecture and literature, among them are awards from Vietnam Architects’ Association and Vietnam Writers’ Association. He was also nominated for the ASEAN Literature Prize. Works of Bão Vũ are available in major libraries in many countries such as the British Library, the National Library of France, the Library of Congress, Harvard University Library, and libraries in many schools and states of the United States. His works “Vết thương trong không gian” (“The Wound in Space”), “Cô gái không biết khóc” (“The Girl Can Not Cry”) and “Ca nương” ("Sing-song Girl") have been translated into English. Many of his literary works have been adapted in films. He used to be in the prose council of Vietnam Writers’ Association.















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