Address on the occasion of TILF 2015, "Literature in Transit"
29 October 2015, National Theater
There is a reason why I remember my first poem, published roughly 24 years ago on a literary journal. The poem was called "The Sinking of the Titanic" and someone I had just met and who would later become my husband, interpreted it as an allegory against the communist regime. Of course, I didn't reply "No. You are wrong; it's not an allegory", since it was the moment when I'd do anything to impress him and it felt good to know that he thought I was more mature both politically and artistically than I really was. But the fact was that it was just a poem about the Titanic. That was all.
Many years later, as a student attending a program of Master of Creative Writing in United States, I repeatedly found myself in the position of such a reader, of the 'over-reader'. "No, Luljeta", Stephen, my professor told me peremptorily – "a bee box is just a bee box – don't vest it with a symbolism it doesn't have. Don't over-read into things!"
It goes without saying that I wasn't worried about the fact that Sylvia Plath's bee box happened to be just a bee box, but about my way of perceiving things. The only explanation I was able to offer myself was that everything is connected to a reading culture.
I belong to that typology of Eastern European readers for whom not being direct, speaking in a laconic way, full of innuendos and undertones, being hermetic, for decades on end, was a style of living, or rather, a style of surviving; every short story, poem and every published work-- was closely scrutinized, desperately seeking political implications, humane, or at least the tiniest hint of aesthetic rebellion, to an extent that the comment on a literary work gained more importance than the work itself.
So, to keep it short, I gathered that as a grown-up reader in such an environment, I had developed another sense, that of suspicion and of giving literature excessive attributes.
The two above-mentioned instances serve as indicators of the long distance between author and reader. Who will read me? How will they read me? And above all, why should they choose me and not someone else? All questions you, the author, ask yourself and try to come up with answers reflected in your choices.
The worst compliment you can pay to an artist is: "Your work reminds me somebody else's", even though that "somebody else" happened to be one of the bests. Similarity to another author is the last thing a seriously ambitious writer would like for himself. For instance, if you can say to an author "the end of your novel was so weak", there's no doubt that the author would feel bad, but if you say him that "your style reminds me Faulkner's style", it would be shocking for him, and fell into an identity crisis, and loss of self-confidence. Faulkner, by the way, as Joyce Carol Oates, one of his admirers suggests: "People probably know that Faulkner tried very hard to be a poet and he failed egregiously. Then he wrote a novel that was a very bad imitation of Hemmingway and failed. Then he wrote a novel that was a very bad imitation of Aldous Huxley. It was a failure. Then when he was about 28-years-old, he started writing about his old Mississippi and he found his voice." So he became the great Faulkner we already know, when he found his way, his style.
But are the writers aware of their audience when choosing both subject and style? Many writers would be against it in principle, but almost everyone feels the need to prove himself or herself to the reader, need their feedback, starting from the closest persons. Thomas Mann, for instance, gathered his family, his wife and his six children, and used to read the short story he had just written to them. "I cannot deny that I am aware of their existence. On the other hand, I never feel that I do things to satisfy them. I also believe that my readers would sense it if I did. I've made it my business, from the very beginning, that whenever I sense a reader's expectations I run away. Even the composition of my sentences—I prepare the reader for something and then I surprise him." Therefore, even when pretending he is pushing the reader, in reality Pamuk is using another appealing approach, another "seduction" way, and of course, it's always the writer, who drives this game.
But is it an easy job for the writer to identify his or her reader's profile so that he or she is aware of the addressed group? It would be more interesting to capture a curious reader, an eloquent reader, an informed and sharp reader, both analytical and patient, both conventional and unconventional, who would represent the perfect reader. This would perhaps be the reader Dickens wrote for, but not the XXI century's reader, who reads in train, at the station, waiting at the dentist, when he has had a fight with his wife and sleeps in another room, or when he suffers from insomnia. The time of the evening ceremonial reading, in front of a cup of tea, contemplating life, is over. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to define a clear cut profile of the modern reader, but there are a couple of things I am very well aware of: your work should be neither tiring nor boring for the reader. As a result, being under such a considerable amount of pressure, aiming to adopt themselves to this profile of reader, the authors have to narrow down their own space.
When I look back at my own experience as a poet, I guess that being under the reader's pressure, there is not a thing I haven't tried: going from toppled reminiscences of social realism, to hermeticism, imagism, objectivism and eventually to a kind of narrative poem– a hybrid between poetry, fiction and film. I do not know whether psychological profiling of the reader from my perspective has been wrong or right, but in my own way, this type of reader seeks for philosophy in simple things; this type of reader considers the rhetoric as a form of imposition, so you are supposed to leave many things to his imagination. This means that it's the shoe that fits the foot and not the foot that fits the shoe. The reader is what he is; it's up to you to adapt to him.
Another challenge, or rather difficult transition, as far as the writer is concerned, is big audiences. Every writer's natural right is to aim, be it implicitly or explicitly, at publication in the big languages, not only because of the market, but also because of the promotion infrastructure. The most unfortunate, naturally, are writers in the smaller languages, as is the case of the Balkans languages, i.e. our own language, Albanian. It's a historical paradox that languages created and protected vehemently by our people as a form of identity, become an obstacle in another political reality. In an essay written in 2007, Milan Kundera raises the question: "Kafka wrote solely in German, and he considered himself a German writer. But suppose for a moment that he had written his books in Czech. Today, who would know them?" Just like Kafka, Herta Müller lived in Romania, a small country, but just like Kafka, she wrote in a bigger language, German, and we were lucky to get to know her really quickly. There are success stories of authors writing in small languages, as that of Isaac Bashevis Singer in Yiddish, but they are rare and accidental. I still insist: with the small languages, it's a matter of fate, a reality that does not depend on us. There might be some future improvements of balances in this issue by the European cultural policies or even local cultural policies, but it would require time and it would not be an easy task.
But, even when one of us overcomes geographical and linguistic barriers, he would have to face another challenge, some sort of ready-made national-cultural and national-historical identity, a kind of stereotype shaped without our individual contribution. Based on these stereotypes, different literatures bring about different expectations in the readers; from the English to the Bulgarians, from the Egyptians to the Chinese and so on. Moreover, there are different expectations even on a sub-culture level, i.e. there are different expectations about Italian literature of the continent versus Sicilian literature, when these subcultures cater to our imagination in different ways. I am not claiming that ready-made expectations and stereotypes result in an inevitable handicap; historical disadvantages as isolated cultures for instance may sometimes turn into advantages for writers, creating sensation in the literature market. What I'm trying to point out is that you have to adapt to these expectations willingly. A cosmopolitan, comic, let alone a sci-fi story is the last thing an European reader expects from an Albanian writer, as it would be the same as buying cigars from Estonia or mozzarella from Pakistan. Stereotypes are so deeply rooted. By the way, I often recall a TV commercial for bottled water that used to run on Albanian televisions, which didn't stop at showing the factory that used German technology, but it also showed on video the German engineer who confirmed in German language that the water was spring water from the mountains. And since it was the German that confirmed it, the quality of the water is unquestionable.
More than anything else, literature seems an export of history, but a packed version of it, encapsulated as pills, to mask the unpleasant and bitter taste of it. It's because of this quality that we've learned more about Russian history from Tolstoy and about French history from Balzac and Hugo than from history books. And that is why the European reader expects a communism history from the Albanian writer; he expects the myths, the traces of tribal codes which can be still evident here and there even as a very isolated phenomenon, a romanticised version of it; from the Balkans he expects by and large themes linked with ethnic and religious conflicts, or at least stories in between the two wars. And so on… The European reader seeks something that will satisfy his historical curiosity and a history which offers drama, pathos, emotion. And stereotypization helps saving time and energy.
This is the principle of the market to which publishers try to adapt despite their own preferences. And as a result of the commercial condition, the author is often introduced as a "dissident", as a "Holocaust survivor", as a "labour camp victim", as "persecuted by the secret service", introductions which usually are embarrassing for the author as the qualities aforementioned don't represent any aesthetic quality, not even moral in most of the cases. A Canadian poet, Iman Mersal, in her essay about literature in exile, brings a very significant illustration from The Unbearable Lightness of Being of Kundera, that of Sabina, the character, who protested vehemently when confronted with the way she was portrayed in the catalogue of her exposition in exile: "Do you mean that modern art wasn't persecuted in the communist era?" they asked her. "My enemy isn't communism; my enemy is kitsch", replied Sabina.
And is it the political witnessing, a mission of the writers? In most of the cases, it is not, at least in their beginning. They write about what they know, about what they experience. Herta Müller for example, in an interview for the Paris Review, tells: "I never set out to write literature. When I started writing, back then in the factory— I wrote because I had to, as a matter of self-assurance, because all doors were closed." And Wislawa Szymborska, another writer from the communist East, often interpreted as a poet of political hints, was very clear against it in her claim: "No, there's absolutely nothing political in my poetry, I write about life, about human beings." And of course, when you write about life and mankind, there is also room for politics; you have to be either fool, or insensitive, to be totally apolitical. But since a political literature is preferred on the book market, writers sometimes are misinterpreted, or even misused from the market propaganda.
While we complain about stereotyping, aren't we the ones who perhaps unintentionally cater to it? I think we do. I will begin from myself: both novels I've been thinking about, which might never be written, are focused on the communist period, despite the fact that the plot has nothing to do with the communist terror. Many writers of my generation as well, prefer to refer to that period, although we've been living more than half of our lives in the post-communism era. Is it nostalgia?! No. Are we on the lookout for extreme emotions? I don't think so. The most convincing explanation can be that communism was a period that offered a unique reality, an authentic setting, a kind of minimalism that deconstructs clearly a human being on "good" and "bad" and where the fundamental values of a human being are exposed. It can be compared to a sterile laboratory where you can conduct all kinds of experiments. Whereas, quite on the contrary, the transition era or the post-communism years, offer a space devoid of identity, very susceptible to globalisation, with its commonplace absurdity, a mishmash which metaphorically brings to mind the picture of a farmer on a cart holding the latest model of a mobile in his hand.
Last but not least, it's the challenge of the writer in his own country. What could surprise the reader with whom you share the same language, the same history, the same collective emotions, what could make the reader that knows you "inside-out" to turn his eyes towards you, especially when he has to choose between you and world classics on bookstore shelves? How can you surprise this reader? It's the hardest task to "manipulate" this kind of reader, the most sceptical of all. It's my conviction that if you pass the test in your own country, every other test is much easier to pass. Furthermore, this kind of scepticism often intervenes with a dose of nationalism, as is the case with Kundera and his compatriots criticizing him by saying that he wrote books for a foreign audience, or Pasternak and his "Doctor Zhivago" criticised for discrediting Russia's image, or Akira Kurosawa's harshly criticised for adopting Japanese film to a Western audience, pandering to Western values and politics.
"Now", Orhan Pamuk states, "Turkish people are more worried about the international representation of Turkey in my works than about my art." It can be compared with the emotion of a goal scored by the national football team. Of course, there is something respectful and romantic about all this national sensibility, but at the same time, it's irrational and unfair to impose the same emotional response to a writer. If we see deeply, nothing seems completely irrational indeed, but simply pragmatic, since a positive image of our country, enables a better and easier communication of each of us with the world.
From the above arguments it seems as if writing is just a series of tiresome calculations and little is left to magic. Writers have always had to face such challenges and some of them, nevertheless, succeeded in their efforts.
I will close my argument citing Hemingway:
"We need more true mystery in our lives", Evan Shipman once said to me. "The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance."
Translated from Albanian by Ines Ekonomi