Excerpt from By It’s Right Name

By ANI GJIKA

Ani Gjika is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

By Its Right Name is a courageous and profoundly intimate story of recognizing and reclaiming the power of one’s sexuality. Ani Gjika intricately reconstructs her personal history in America, Albania, and beyond, naming traumas that often remain unspoken. By Its Right Name is a different kind of immigrant story, one that demands that we consider the specific, insidious ways that patriarchy controls a woman’s relationship to desire and sex, as well as to her body, mind, and expression. With a poet’s ear, Gjika finds language for confronting patriarchy, misogyny, and the male gaze on the most intimate of terms, ultimately revealing the transformational power of self-discovery through the written word.

 

Sometimes there’s a father I wish I had. He picks me up at school high-fiving me just as I run out the door into the schoolyard.

“How was it?” he asks. “How’d you do in the exam?”

“I nailed it!” I say, all joy and pride around my father.

“Didn’t I tell you?” he says. “If you put in the work, you can do anything.”

We walk the school yard together and all the boys, who’d later become men, who’d later ambush and stalk me, look at us admiring how well I get along with my dad. I’m not afraid of them. They all just wish they could be like my dad one day. So when the time comes when they want to ask someone out, they are no longer patrolling streets as they will in the ’90s of my past. Instead, I see them all walking about their own business until their path crosses with that of someone they find they’re curious about and they know how to speak—they are all language and no touch. There is no need for them to grab girls by the wrist against their will because they simply open their mouths and say hello and the girls speak back to them if they want to. Hello.

Actually, no. The boys who became men who ambushed, assaulted, raped me and others will never know what it’s like for someone to want to go out with them of her own free will. I have no forgiveness for them. Not even if I were to fictionalize it. They can all stay ingrained right there in the ’90s streets of Tirana, Albania, thinned out smoky black shadows begging to know color.

The father I wish I had and I walk the school yard together, then cross the gate. The whole walk home he asks my opinion about all the things we pass on the street. This father is a friend of my mind.

The father I wish I had greets me after a long vacation away opening his arms wide as a flag and waits for me to hug him first.

This father reminds me of the father I did have who took me to Theth National Park where the famous Accursed Mountains—the Albanian Alps—stretch out for more than 40 miles and three countries, Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro.

When I got bronchitis, the winter I was seven, the doctor advised I change climate. This is the childhood vacation I’ll never forget, because my father let me play outside a lot and played ball with me in a wide green meadow. We were shielded by mountains, tall and gray like tsunami waves that would never break. At dusk, he would talk on the porch to other friends he’d made and I could hang out and listen although the moths collecting near the porch lamp had my undivided attention, as did the green lacewings I wished would tell me where they’d come from.

During the day, my father and I went for walks and I kept running into or accidentally stepping on the crunch of dead cicadas in the grass, their bodies hollow shells like hard, tawny cellophane.

Where had the flesh gone?

My father didn’t know. Neither did I, that it takes cicadas two to seventeen years of living underground before emerging as nymphs then shedding their skin so they can finally begin to live their adult lives.

But the father I did have, became the father I learned to avoid like all other men, when I became a teenager. He’d slap my butt at times, in passing, so very early on, I learned I didn’t want to be on the same path as my own father. He did no more than that and yet that was enough to learn I was embarrassed of my father.

This is when I learned to be on guard with men—the only story I told myself.      

At one of my readings, years and years later, the father I wish I had, or perhaps the father I’ll one day have, stands at the end of the room and claps harder than anyone, telling them all that that’s his daughter. Some people mistake him for mad because he’s too enthusiastic and won’t shut up, but if they take time to listen they hear him say: “That’s my daughter. Right there stands my daughter. But I didn’t make her. She birthed herself.” And from the way his eyes and voice soften when he says that, they know he means what he says.

*

When I say, “he’d slap my butt at times, in passing,” I mean in the way that typical adult men do it, in jest, as so many men have done it across cultures and time. The coach in PE would do it, when I was in seventh or eighth grade, and I’d often lie that I was sick and sit by the school wall to avoid running with my classmates past him. I’d seen boys walking on the boulevards lifting their own sisters’ skirts up for sport. It was fun for the boys. It was humiliating for the girls who had no choice but to put up with it. Decades later, I’d learn from my brother how the boys of my neighborhood had heard that a girl had gotten raped. “They’d sneer pointing at her when she walked by,” my brother said. He’d been just eleven years old witnessing the sneering and pointing, absorbing the language.

Children learned misogyny in the family when guests would arrive on special occasions and toast for the long life of the son in the house even though a family might have also had daughters. Daughters. Sisters. What were they? The lesser sex. In Albanian, the word for “mother,” the root of which is almost the same across Indoeuropean languages, is attached to the word for “sister.” Moter means sister in Albanian. It is the only language where such a phenomena occurs, and it’s a testament to a sister taking on the role of the mother for her siblings, mothering them, because the actual mother had duties and responsibilities to maintain the house, clean and cook, go to work, and serve her in-laws and husband. It fell on the sister to provide emotional support to the siblings when the actual mother couldn’t.

My father didn’t know, didn’t realize that he’d made me uncomfortable. I never told him. Like other men around him at the time in that culture, he didn’t know what boundaries were needed. He had two sisters. One of them, 15 years older, was his math teacher at school, whereas the other one was much younger than him. Neither of them mothered him in the Albanian sense of the word.

Albanian men’s outlook on women in general was to see them as objects. There’s never been a civil rights movement or sexual revolution in Albania. Men’s role models were other men in the Communist party or other historical male nationalistic figures who’d fought against the 500-year Ottoman oppression. And yet, being raised with sisters in a secretly Christian home in southeast Albania, and being a man of letters, made a difference, because I’ve known my father to be more understanding and self-reflective on women compared to typical men of his generation. At one of his recent book launches in Albania, he made it a point to ask his male friends to come to the reading with their wives.

*

When I think of my father, I think of the man who always came home after work and when I’d ask, “dad, what did you bring me?” he’d reply, “I brought you dad!” with a big smile. It was a sweet joke and I’d forgive him since all the other times he would bring me books I loved from the library or bookstores in town. My father brought me all the Greek myths and legends and all the Albanian ones. The Odyssey. The Illiad. All the Aeschylus tragedies which I read cover to cover and went back to the beginning to reread several times. I was drawn to the power of the gods and goddesses and the wit of the humans who were sometimes smarter and often had a much stronger will than the gods.

The Albanian legend of Rozafa captivated me. It originated from the town of Shkodra which is a two hour drive north of Tirana, sharing a border with Montenegro through Lake Shkodra, the largest lake in the Balkans. The Castle of Rozafa stands on a hill overlooking the meeting of two rivers, Buna from northwest and Drin from the southeast. The castle is over 2,500 years old, with its first stones being cast a long, long time ago, when the Illyrian tribes of Labeats and Ardians lived in the land.

According to the legend, a thick fog fell over Buna river, covering it for three days and three nights. After three days and three nights, the fog lifted, the wind sent it over Valdanuz hill where three brothers worked at building a castle. But the walls they built during the day came down at night, all their hard work going to waste.

An old man happened to pass by and the brothers asked him if he had any advice on how to keep the castle walls from being destroyed every night. Hesitating at first, the old man asked them all if they were married.

“Give your word of honor to each other,” he said, “that you will not tell your wives when you go home today what I’m about to tell you.”

Then he told them that for the walls to stand, they had to sacrifice the wife who would bring them lunch the next day. She’d have to be buried alive in the foundations of the castle for the castle to stand strong and last. The brothers promised one another that they wouldn’t say a word to their wives at home about this. However, the oldest brother told his wife advising her to come up with an excuse to not bring the men lunch the next day. So did the second brother. Only the youngest brother kept his word and didn’t say anything to his wife.     

The next day, the mother-in-law asked her eldest daughter-in-law if she could bring lunch to the men. The eldest daughter-in-law said she couldn’t, because she was sick. The mother-in-law asked the second daughter-in-law, who in turn also said she couldn’t, because she was going to visit her own family that day. So the mother-in-law turned to the youngest daughter-in-law who was ready to go, except that she was worried her newborn son would be left at home crying and needing to be nursed. The other two daughters-in-law quickly offered to take care of him, so the youngest one set forth to bring lunch to the brothers.

When her husband saw her coming up the hill carrying a pot of wine on her left shoulder and a tray of bread under her right arm, he threw down his hammer and started cursing the stones.

“Why do you curse the stones, love?” Rozafa asked him.

“Cursed is the day you were born,” the eldest brother responded, “we’ve agreed to bury you alive in the foundations of the castle so that the castle walls will last.”

“May you prosper,” she replied, “but I have one request: when you bury me, leave my right eye exposed, my right breast, my right arm, and my right leg. Because my son is still so little. When he starts to cry, I will watch him with one eye, I will caress him with one hand, rock his cradle with one foot, and feed him with one breast. May my breast turn to stone and the castle stand strong. May my son grow to be brave, become king and reign a long time.”

Afterwards, they buried her. The castle walls were built tall and lasted for centuries. They say the stones at the feet of the walls are moist, covered in moss, because the mother continues to cry for her son.         

Albanian women love hard, from beyond the grave.

*

 

The state of the Albanian middle class family during Communism was a peculiar one and it was the same as that of the lower class family. My father would stand in line at 2:00am, at least once a week, to buy a one liter bottle of milk which arrived at around 4:00am or sometime before sunrise; the whole family was allowed half a dozen eggs, half a kilogram cheese, and one kilogram meat per week, rationed in such a way that that one kilogram of meat comprised of 300 grams bones, 200 grams fat, and only 500 grams actual meat; my parents’ salaries would often run out before the next salary came in. And yet, they would make time for vacation, every summer, as a family. But when I ask my mother about it now, she replies, “what vacation?!” and laughs with a little unease as someone does when trying to polish over the rough truths that just escaped her mouth: “I was mostly indoors cooking all day for the whole family, or your father’s friends who joined us sometimes.”

It’s true, those friends, or my aunts and uncles and their children would join us for a few days at a time, sometimes for the whole two weeks. It was fun to have all these friends the same age as me, but I hardly thought or watched what the adults were doing. For my brother and me, these vacations were what we looked forward to, to go splashing on the beach with all the other children, to build another sand castle on the shore, collect the next razor, scallop, or conch shells. There were moments when I remember my mother yelling at times and only now I hear her frustration. The happiness and success of a vacation for the entire family fell on her—the role of the Albanian woman during Communism was the same across Albania: she worked full time outside of the house; did all the housework when she came home; looked after the children; cooked; looked after the in-laws if they lived in the same house, and this kind of triple or quadruple-fold job followed her on vacation depending on who went along. Remember Rozafa? While I was someone who kept everything in, my mother lashed out. I could almost predict a lash out when the house would start to sparkle. It used to build up like irregular bursts of static frequency at first—“damn!…. another dish!…..I’ll scream if I want to, let them all hear!” and then grew louder as if her mouth was a conch shell booming right into my ear. I knew this meant she had worked hard, a thankless job. Sometimes I’d play outside in the dirt and I could hear other mothers, their frustrations issuing out of open windows on the third floor, or the fourth, or the one on the bottom, to the right—little balloons that could never lift off, but puncture and go flat as soon as they escaped from windows.

*

The father I have is so much older than the father I remember telling me stories when I was a child. The father I have used to fall asleep mid-story because he was tired after work. Once, he was telling me a story I’d memorized and as he was reaching its end, he was beginning to drift off in sleep, mid-sentence. How could he do that? How did the story end?!

“I hadn’t slept for a second or two,” he tells me, “when you slapped me across the face demanding ‘fol mirë, jo glirë!’”

“Fol mirë, jo glirë!” is Albanian for “Speak clearly, not ‘glirë-ly’” where glirë is a word I made up at that moment not knowing one I could use to describe the slurred way he was speaking. The father I have remembers and tells this story with pride, “you see,” he says, “you were both making poems and translating at the same time since three years old, naming things!”

The father I have is exactly the father I’d always wanted when he knows things about me before they come true and allows himself to see my light and stand within it without impatience or dictating to adjust its brightness. He is so much older now and cannot walk me anywhere but he can try to listen and is taking more time to. 

Once, out of the blue, my father sent me an e-mail telling me how much he appreciated the work I had put in translating poems by my mother so that a collection of her poems could be published here in the U. S. He said he knew how busy I’d been that year and he appreciated most the time I took to complete this work.

When I think of the future, I see my father waiting for me, tall and gray, a mountain. He is waiting to tell me something. When I reach to where he is standing, he says:

“I am sorry. I wish I had been the father you wanted, the one you most needed. I’m sorry I made you so uncomfortable that you never came to me to tell me what you were struggling with.”

The father I have may never say these exact words to me. It doesn’t mean I haven’t already forgiven him. It doesn’t mean I needed his apology to shed all of my old skin.

 

An Albanian-born writer, Ani Gjika is the author and literary translator of eight books and chapbooks of poetry, among them Bread on Running Waters (Fenway Press, 2013), a finalist for the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her translation from the Albanian of Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space (New Directions and Bloodaxe Books, 2018) won an English PEN Award and was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize, PEN America Award, and Best Translated Book Award. She is a graduate of Boston University’s MFA program where she was a 2011 Robert Pinsky Global fellow, and GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program where she was a 2019 Pauline Scheer Fellow. Having taught creative writing at various universities in the U.S., and Thailand, Gjika currently teaches English as a Second Language at Framingham High School in Massachusetts.

Read more excerpts by the finalists for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

Excerpt from By It’s Right Name

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