Split In Syllables Bihler and Gjika speak about the connective power of poetry and literature

Kathleen Moore / THE GATEPOST

Starting in fall 2010, almost nine years ago, the Authors and Artists series prompted scholars within the FSU community to share their creative processes and the formative ideas behind their work, said Linda Vaden-Goad, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. 

“Sometimes people in the audience or other people in the University, within the community, have something that they’ve been wanting to write, but they haven’t exactly been sure about some of the logistics behind it all,” Vaden-Goad said.

Lori Gemeiner Bihler, professor of history, and Ani Gjika, visiting lecturer in the English department, discussed their books in the Heineman Ecumenical Center for the 18th Authors and Artists series event March 13. 

Both authors spoke about the personal connections they had to their work, how transformative their work had been for them, and what they learned throughout the process.

Bihler is currently a part of a group of refugee descendants who are lobbying the German government to change the “sexist and ageist” rule denying them German citizenship. She first started research for her newest book, “Cities of Refuge: German Jews in London and New York, 1935-1945,” almost 15 years ago. 

She pored through different archives and traveled around the world to multiple museums and libraries, where she read numerous diaries, newspaper clippings, letters, and advertisements. She analyzed all the “different levels of life for refugees,” such as where they settled, where and how they got housing, who they lived with, and where their meeting places were. 

“When we think about refugees today, we think about terms like asylum seekers, detention centers, separation of families, documentation, and trauma. Sadly, these are nothing new. As a historian, it comes naturally to me to look at historical cases of refugees, and experiences, to understand how policies and politics shape refugee experience,” Bihler said.

In her book, she said she examined the dispersion of approximately 200,000 of the 500,000 refugees from Germany and compared two specific communities – London and New York – which had an “active life” for refugees before the war was declared. 

Bihler found the 52,000 refugees in the U.K. looked and sounded British over time, some even changing their names. However, she said, they did not identify as British. They identified as refugees, continentals, or sometimes exiles.

The U.S. took approximately 100,000 refugees, and although the German Jews in New York spoke German, looked German, and kept their names, they identified as American immigrants and not refugees, she said.

Bihler questioned how one culture can go in two completely different directions and places. 

She established the place, immigration policy, proximity, and the response to the war had played major roles in how refugees survived and thrived.

In Britain, German Jews did not get immigration visas. Instead, most were put into transit camps and prevented from working, according to Bihler. 

Despite the fact most couldn’t work or stay there permanently, the Kindertransport allowed 10,000 Jewish children in Germany and Austria to stay in Britain temporarily and 20,000 German Jews to get domestic visas – her grandmother being one of them, she said. 

After Paris fell in 1940, 20,000 refugees in London were imprisoned for almost a year due to the threat of England falling under German Nazi control and the paranoia that scared British citizens into thinking there were German Jewish spies in Britain. Because of Britain’s response and proximity to the war, the refugee experience began to change, she said.

Across the Atlantic, Japanese Americans were imprisoned due to the attack on Pearl Harbor. German Jews received quotas and immigrant identification cards through the U.S. Department of Labor. This allowed them to work and start “a path to citizenship,” Bihler said. 

Gjika, an Albanian-born writer and literary translator, was granted 16 different awards and fellowships for her work in poetry, according to Vaden-Goad. Gjika most recently translated a collection of poetry by the Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku, creating her newest book, “Negative Space.” 

Lleshanaku, who was born in Albania in 1968, was not allowed to attend college or publish her poetry until the collapse of the regime in the early ’90s, said Gjika. Now, eight collections of Lleshanaku’s Albanian poems are published in her native tongue and in other languages. 

“‘Language arrived fragmentary / Split in syllables / Spasmodic / Like code in times of war,’ writes Luljeta Lleshanaku in the title poem to her powerful new collection ‘Negative Space.’ … As most of her poems and in these lines, we are encouraged to read the text as a personal biography, or as a biography of an entire generation that grew up under the political pressure of a communist regime,” Gjika said. 

Lleshanaku’s poetry was Gjika’s first experience with translating. She said she arrived in the U.S. at the age of 18, she attended Atlantic Union University, and, eventually, received an MFA in poetry from Boston University. At BU, she discovered Lleshanaku’s work and contacted her about translating a few poems. 

She said what helped her recreate Lleshanaku’s voice was paying attention to the language and syntax in the poem. 

“What’s ironic in one language might come across absurd in another. … Rendering some images proved to be quite challenging,” she added.

Due to Lleshanaku’s support throughout the process and her leniency for Gjika to change an image in her poetry when translating, Gjika said she has become more intimate with other works she translates now.  

“Much of my processing of translating Lleshanaku’s work is the story of my love and longing to connect again to the language. … For now, I say translation changed me. It changed what I do or what I knew about writing.”