Albanian-American poet, author, literary translator and teacher Ani Gjika recited a selection of her poems and a section from her memoir-in-progress on April 11.
Gjika spoke in the Heineman Ecumenical Center as the Miriam Levine Reader. She recited seven poems from her debut book of poems, “Bread on Running Waters,” that were centered on her childhood in Albania and her travels.
“I feel like I must have lived so much in my fourth and fifth year because a lot of my book comes from that period of my life, and the imagery there seems to be so alive,” she said.
A poem Gjika recited was “The Children’s Story,” which has four parts. She said it is a “strange poem” with half being real and half being imagined.
English professor Sam Witt said Gjika’s poetry is “haunting” and “startlingly terrifying but also lyrically gorgeous. … These poems just have an incredible complexity and depth to them.”
Gjika said she was born in Albania and moved to the U.S. at 18 when her family “won the green card lottery.” She studied poetry at Simmons College and Boston University, adding she also took classes at Framingham State.
After college, she taught in Thailand for four years and married an Indian man. “I have a lot of poems in this book that take you to places in Asia,” she said.
One of the poems Gjika recited was “Salt,” which began in Albania before it moved to Thailand and then India. She describes how her grandmother took a pinch of salt and “dubbed me with her long, gold fingers on my forehead, and on my chest, and both shoulders” before tossing the sand in the fire and telling her an Albanian curse.
The poem transitions to her students in Thailand and then to meeting her husband’s “oldest aunt,” who also threw salt into the fire before kissing her.
“You’d think I’d feel immune for life, but I feel marked, and every person I meet becomes another city I leave behind,” she recited.
Gjika also read a section of the memoir she is currently writing.
“I felt like poetry would not allow me to be honest enough, or maybe brave enough, so it just came in prose. Also, I figured if it’s doing this on its own, I should just follow it,” she said.
The section she read from was about her time in Albania from 1988 to 1998 after Communism fell. She said it was “a really strange time” because “young men just suddenly felt like they had the right to speak to women on the street. It was just a really strange culture in those 10 years in that men could do anything they wanted to and women would have to sort of become invisible.”
Gjika wrote about being slapped by a French Embassy police officer for having streaks of highlights in her hair and being sexually assaulted when she was 13 and going to school right afterwards.
She added the phrase Albanians use to describe this time of violence, sexual harassment, assault, rape and human trafficking translates to “the boys tease the girls.”
Gjika said, “People are funny. We ask how wrong something is and go on enduring instead of acknowledging something is wrong – period.”