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.”
The wall above the desk in my childhood bedroom is covered in sticky notes, index cards, and fading color photographs. They are haphazardly layered, held up by torn pieces of Scotch tape and pushpins at odd angles. Each time I sit, spinning in my blue, cat-clawed desk chair, I reread and remember.
My first college English professor told us everyone should keep a commonplace book: somewhere to put words, ideas, and sentences we want to hold. He said it was a way to mark the passage of time and the changes of our minds. I was intrigued by the idea, but aware it was the sort of thing I’d begin and then forget in the bustling adjustment of no longer being at home. So I wrote down the word—commonplace—but started nothing then.
Before the arrival, there was a departure. A view of an airport gate through an airplane window.
I was eleven years old; my brother Nathan was eight. We had just completed the drive from our home in Norman, Oklahoma to Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. I was eager to board the plane and get to my seat so that I could look out the window, back toward the gate. My best friend Rachel had come to the airport with us, back when you could hug someone goodbye right up to the boarding doors. She had promised that if I looked out the plane window, she’d make sure I saw her waving to me, and she promised to keep waving until after the plane had pulled away from the gate and Nathan and I were far above the place where we’d grown up, in between two very different homes, two parents, two lives. I held onto this promise tightly, as if looking back to see Rachel waving was as far as I was going that day: boarding a plane just for this small moment.
Before I left to study abroad in Galway, Ireland, in the winter of 2020, I’d stumbled upon a lively online discussion amongst first-generation, Black Irish immigrants. From the comfort of my bedroom, I came upon a comment that stuck with me for quite some time: I have never experienced outright racism here, an anonymous poster said. It’s because the racists here are cowards. They will never say anything to your face.
“Your teeth hurt because you have some recession,” says my dental hygienist. I’m leaned back in the chair, gritty-mouthed from a cleaning. I’ve never had this problem before, so it takes me a minute to get what she means.
If I had kept a journal in the early fifties, when I was new in New York, I would have marked the day on which I saw the basalt bowl in a store window in Greenwich Village. It was small, and had an in-curling rim and the finest matte black finish. It cost fifteen dollars, almost half my monthly salary, so I got back on the subway and went home. I could not get the thing out of my mind. I desired it. “Beauty,” Stendhal said, “is the promise of happiness.” There was the Saturday I took the subway to the Village, but my bowl was gone.
It might have been twenty years later when I could afford the large basalt platter with a rim that flattens outward. It was a handsome piece, but it did not redeem the thwarted love for that first small black bowl.
There is something post-decadent about Versailles in winter. The fountains are off; there are not many tourists. Everything is still fiercely geometric and over-the-top, but in this gray, expired kind of way, at least for most of the day; sunset, and the crisp, clear chill of nighttime being the exceptions. Most of the sculptures are covered with tarps, and tertiary destinations like the amphitheater and “outdoor living room” are gated off entirely. As at all times of year, there is remarkably little furniture, the bulk of it having been moved to the Louvre in the name of égalité. I spent the first five years of my career working in grand museums, and this has always been one of my favorite things about them: that they are bastions of opulence that seem morally defensible, inclusive and elite at once. Because Versailles too is now a museum, the awesomeness of its grandeur has been contextualized into an argument against itself, its ostentation forgiven as a public good. At moments it feels almost Soviet, and you can’t help but be reminded that if you trace the political spectrum far enough left or right you end up in effectively the same place.
It was mid August when my mom and I made the trek into South Central Houston to visit Sidney. We wound through the dense medical district towards the massive complex of 5 buildings making up MD Anderson Cancer Center where Sidney, my mom’s former student, was being treated. As we made our way out of the parking garage, groping toward centralized air conditioning, I marveled at the sheer number of cars from all over the country occupying what was only a single corner of MD Anderson’s campus. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After dethroning Memorial Sloan Kettering as the U.S. News & World Report‘s best hospital in cancer care in 2015, MD Anderson boasted around 140,000 patients a year and rising.
It’s July 2020. I am supposed to be in Portugal for the tenth edition of the DISQUIET International Literary Program. Instead I’m at my home in Amherst, Massachusetts, about half a mile from the very common the magazine that you hold in your hands is named after.
It begins with her saying I’ve never told anyone and ends with me saying Neither have I. And in between, a single sentence on how the love we feel for a child is not necessarily immediate, on how we need time to get to know and fall in love with another being, even though they were once inside us. We talk over the phone; this may never have happened face-to-face, or as we looked one another in the eye.