The poet and photographer talks about the consequences of migration and finding her place.
Elona Beqiraj was born and raised in Germany in 1997, the country of her ancestors -— Kosovo, she only knew for years from stories and summer vacations. She began writing only for herself. Then her first book of poetry “And We Came Every Summer” was published by Resonar Verlag in November 2019, followed by her first photography book, “Malli-Sehnsucht” (Longing).
Questions of longing for belonging followed Beqiraj from an early age. Diving into her diary and reflecting on her position in society, Beqiraj realized that what made her different to others was not her “foreign” non-German roots but the balancing act of dealing with life in Germany and the memories of elsewhere.
On social media, Beqiraj gives hope to young people from the diaspora, and she is an example of how to find a healthy way to live between two nationalist identities or cultures.
With art and literature, Beqiraj found a way to channel her thoughts and emotions. But most importantly found a space that lies beyond notions of nationality, a framework that adjusts to her fragmented identity that is more complete than before.
Kosovo 2.0 sat down to talk to Beqiraj about loss and the everyday, the diaspora blues and activism through literature.
K2.0: Your first book “And We Came Every Summer” came out in November 2019, before we dig deeper into your writings, can you tell us about it? Maybe by explaining the choice of title?
Elona Beqiraj: I was born in Verden, Germany, where I also grew up. But ever since I can remember, I always thought I would “return” to Kosovo one day. For many years, I used to live only for the summers. Studying and working in Germany; living a rather passive life in Germany, and neglecting my quality of life here just waiting, waiting to visit Kosovo every summer.
Did you ever stay in Kosovo for longer than just the summer holidays?
Yes. So the change between worlds and not feeling fully accepted in [Germany] was difficult. So difficult that after high school, I decided to spend my gap year in Kosovo. But I only ended up spending some months in Prishtina. I was looking for something to find a routine. But it did not work. I was there to really get to know the people and the place; I had friends but was unable to bond with the people as I wished to. So I got depressed to be honest, as I had to face the reality; that I had romanticized my homeland as a place where I could find belonging. I then moved to the Rugova mountains, where I am from, and stayed there for three months alone — writing.
Is this how you wrote the book?
The thing with the writing is strange actually. When my publisher told me to send in manuscripts, I first had to get 13 to 14 diaries from the cellar. My poems were never supposed to be published in a book. Actually, I was just writing to myself because I did not want to burden my parents with all the identity crises and questions I had that could not be answered easily. But because I knew they had other worries, they left their homeland and tried to survive everyday. I did not want to burden them. So writing in my diaries was a way to deal with the, at times, overwhelming emotions. It was the only cure against loneliness.
I detect some guilty feelings, were those the catalyst for your writings?
As a young adult in diaspora, one grows up with guilt because your parents repeatedly remind you that you were the reason they left their homeland. “We left for you to have a better future” is a phrase, I heard so often I cannot recall how often. So there is a constant pressure “to make it,” to be self-confident and successful. And then you are weak, because you are overwhelmed and unlike others confronted with a hurdle of things related to your migration background. So instead of talking about it with them I talked with myself through the diary. Finding the words stemming from insecurity gave me safety. And all of the writings were just for me, it was the space where I could process my identity crisis.
Elona Beqiraj’s books deal with migration and war and center on her own experiences of being part of the diaspora. Photo Elona Beqiraj.
You said it was mainly about identity crises, can you elaborate on that?
So when I talk about my identity crisis, I mean inner conflict; I felt fractured. And this did not start in puberty but before during childhood. What to others is childhood, was young adulthood to me at an early age. Because in my opinion those who grow up with a migration background in a “foreign country,” grow fast into adulthood because you have to take responsibility at an earlier stage. For instance, one has to function as a bridge between the institutions and the family, translating, handing in documents. Therefore, the phase of reflecting on oneself and your role in society begins way earlier.
I waited all year to come to Kosovo in the summer and when I was there, I realized how differently I was viewed by the Albanians.
So this was also the age where you felt the fractured part in your identity or did this come at a different stage in your life?
Yes, it starts with seemingly incidental things. With schoolteachers and others who would judge your parent’s broken German. And I felt ashamed. Many times I wished to change my name into “Lena” or “Anna.” I always wanted to chill at my German friends’ houses after school. To change to their upper class milieu from my migrant neighborhood with tower blocks. I was the only “migrant” in my class, among a few more in high school, and where I lived I was only surrounded by migrants who did not go to the upper school. Today, I feel super ashamed for making myself so small. But when growing up amid these power dynamics, at a young age you just try to be better off and to be accepted.
Beqiraj grew up believing she would always return to Kosovo but her relationship with the country has now changed. Photo Elona Beqiraj.
When did you learn to make the distinction between external identity or something that comes from within? Or, did you come to a clear conclusion at all?
That is a fascinating question indeed. I must admit I thought for years that identity is something given from the outside. That is why I was in such a deep crisis. I had made my own self-image and identity dependent on how people in Kosovo and people here in Germany would view me. In Kosovo, I was called a foreigner, in Germany I was called a foreigner. So I never was fully welcomed. I waited all year to come to Kosovo in the summer and when I was there, I realized how differently I was viewed by the Albanians there. And the same happened in Germany. And this went on for years. It was very difficult.
Did the process of writing the book help you to realize this?
Yes, so much and so definitely. Finishing and publishing the book I realized that I can choose between two worlds. That I am a mix of both — and that this is fine. And no matter in what circle I am, it is my choice to state whether I am Albanian or German. And ever since I decided that for myself, I do not have big crises anymore. For two years, since I made my circle in Germany with like-minded people, reaching out to activists in social media communities. And also networking with similar people working on the topic of being between the seats.
How long did it take for you to compile it into a book? Was it a stream of consciousness or more of a timid tentative process?
I started writing more intensively when I was in the Rugova mountains three years ago. So when I planned a book in 2019, 50 percent of all my writing was old notes and diary entries. And the other half ought to be poems that had to be written from scratch. Again, I went to Kosovo for a few months, again, longer than in the summer months. But while I was there, I was still in the process of collecting impulses and letting all of the experiences sink in. Only when I got back to Germany, could I begin the writing process.
A part of my identity was being taken away every time Germans acted as if it is so hard to pronounce my name but then they know how to pronounce every "Game of Thrones" character’s name.
Your poem “Dear Baba” ends with “Dear Baba, please forgive me for raising my voice, but can’t you see I had no other choice than to make this place my own, this foreign place that I call home.” It seems like an apology but also like a wake-up call, an ascending resistance?
Indeed. Realizing the illusionary home that I had built in my mind with Kosovo, helped me to confront that Germany, the place that I was born, is my home. If it doesn’t feel like home, I have to fight for it. There is much more “Alman”(German) in me than I wished would be. I like to deny it, but it is true. I realized that the foreign land that is foreign to my father, is not obligated to be foreign to me.
Can you tell us about your poem “I Love My Name,” where you reflect on the resentment toward your name in Germany and in the history of Albanians. How did it come into existence?
Now I have to be very honest because this is a funny story. My book was already ready and set to be printed. And one night before at 4 in the morning, in an insomnia state, thinking about our history, the history of oppression. I woke up and started to write this poem. Afterward, I asked my publisher if he could include this one into the print.
With the poem, at first I just wanted to reflect on the theme that I wished to have the German name “Lena” when I was little, as no one could pronounce my name and they located it to some outlandishness. And then I thought no fuck it, I love my name. And I reflected on my name Elona, where it comes from, how it came into being and what it suffered to still be alive today. It burst out of me.
So the poem “I love my name” comments on both sides of ripped off identity through the denial and degradation of your name?
Yes! I realized that a part of my identity was being taken away every time Germans acted as if it is so hard to pronounce my name but then they know how to pronounce every “Game of Thrones” character’s name. And thinking about the history of oppression of Albanians, and their names in the face of dominating regimes. I realized that already my name is so politicized.
And I said to myself, if this is the case I might just owe it to myself to own it. To make a statement and yell to the world that I love my name, precisely because it survived resentment. This is how the marginalization across generations and countries confluences into my writing as one haunting story. My name being a problem here and elsewhere and back then and now.
It took Beqiraj years to reconcile both of her identities: Kosovar Albanian and German. Eventually she embraced being a member of the diaspora world. Photo Elona Beqiraj.
And this is something you do consciously or unconsciously?
Completely unconsciously. This is the beauty of it. Once I share and read my poems to the public, the feedback makes me realize what I am combining, what belongs together, what runs parallel, what goes apart.
So the conjunction is being treated as foreigner from elsewhere back in the day and now in Germany. In both cases facing the condition of being the Other imbued with Orientalizations.
Yes, I mean the poem was not planned that way but there are similarities as here we are treated as the non-European Muslim Balkan other; and in the history of Kosovo and Albanians we were treated as Muslims or Albanians not belonging to what was envisioned as Slavic and Orthodox Christian. [We are] depicted as uncivilized, undeveloped, barbaric others.
Did your parents tell you about the history of Kosovo or was it something you had to look for?
Both. I think my parents spoke more about the war than others. There is still a big silence on what happened since it’s only 20 years ago and the historical revisionism goes slowly in Kosovo. But I was confronted with it at an early stage, with the UÇK nostalgia and Shkurte Fejzes Songs.
What do you think this has to do with growing up in Germany, this refuge and inner exile?
I think one causes the other. When I was 18, I was looking for my own flat, but the landlord canceled the contract deal literally saying that he hasn’t heard anything good about Albanians. This is discrimination that I experienced, among others that seem minor but make up the sum. Not all Albanians have faced discrimination, but many — and I think the vast majority I have met— did.
Beqiraj plans a series of readings in Albanian eventually to speak to Kosovars about life in the diaspora. Video trailer courtesy of Resonar Verlag.
Do you think when growing up amid identity clashes, and having to decide between two nationalized identities, that art leads the way to dealing with oneself and empowering oneself? And what is the asset of art and literature that public political discussions lack?
In my public readings, I discussed the part of my book where I write on right-wing terrorism; back in the 90s the incident in Mölln, where residencies populated by Germans with a “Turkish migration background” were burned. And now more recently in 2020, Hanau, the killing of Germans whose origins are located outside of Europe or at its borders. Making them automatically non-German, non-European, so turning them into foreigners even though Germany was their birthplace.
And I realized that these poems were shared in social media over 1000 times. I believe that resistance has different facets, it can be violent but it does not have to be. My resistance is lyrical. Bio-Germans send me messages declaring that I changed their worldview or that they began reflecting on the racist past and present in Germany. It is shocking how many people are unaware and ignorant about these incidents and circumstances.
I really believe that an explainer post on social media, would have never reached the minds and hearts of the people. It would just have been swiped away. When emotions are triggered you can reach people better and cause more change. I think emotionally triggering people can be more transformative than fighting and discussing on theoretical and political terms.
Triggering emotions, but also and most importantly sharing emotions, is what you do with your engagement and work. You make yourself vulnerable in front of an anonymous, wide range of audiences. Isn’t this a big part toward reconciliation as well?
Sure, totally, it is the biggest part and sharing the very personal is not always easy, but then once it is in the public it is very rewarding.
Does it change you in a way that you yourself and the world are not as much separated as before? Is there a bridge?
When I realized that we are many, I did not feel alone with my issues and this definitely facilitated a stronger bound between my own private world and the public. The identity crisis ended because I formed a home and belong to the diaspora with a network of other “neither-nor” people. A home that is independent from one side or the other. I was never that proud to be a Kanak, to be a diasporic being. [Now] I see it as an asset.
Beqiraj hopes to find a more sincere connection with her ancestral home. Photo Elona Beqiraj.
And is this diasporic home only for Albanians?
No. It doesn’t matter where you are from, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kurdistan, all of those who had similar struggles are part of my social network that I call home. It is my community. A community that is free from dominating normative identities but still stands for its cultural richness and history.
When you say you gave up on Kosovo, do you mean you gave up on the hope to find belonging to its community?
It is beautiful how you summarize my thoughts in such a clear way. Yes, this is exactly what it means. I did not let go of Kosovo, I will never. But I let go of the greedy need to belong to its community. Today, I decide not to decide and live my hybrid identity. A mixture of both, changing from one situation to another, making my well-being the priority.
Still it has been the case in arts and literature that hybridity as a lived concept became celebrated sometimes too hastily overlooking the socio-economic structural boundaries. But isn’t this a false image of a rare case final stage? Isn’t it still unfair that one has to fight these fights in the first place? Is the living act of hybridity not just a remedy to not feel overpowered while the structural issues remain?
Yes, this is such an important key point. The issues remain, but I try to live not only with but through these differences and boundaries, I create something new, a third culture. But the issues remain indeed and need to be named … I still do not know if and how all of this is something I will and can address.
How do you think you can reach out to Kosovars with these topics to make them understand life in diaspora better?
I am planning to make a tour of public readings in Albanian. But another point is that in my book I also address the questions of feeling estranged in the home country of your parents. I made a survey with the question “When did you feel foreign in your homeland?” And the responses were so painful from those in the diaspora visiting Kosovo.
These I would like to share with others living in Kosovo, to discuss and talk about it to find a better and more sincere connection than superficial visits during summer. I will translate those in Albanian, as I got feedback from Albanians in Kosovo that my writings helped them to understand us, to not laugh at them and call them “Shacis.” This brought me to tears. So my approach is to tackle these matters in Kosovo.
If you had one wish for Albanians in Kosovo, what would it be?
With respect to all the difficulties they face, just a little bit of understanding and less judgment toward why we are the way we are and what struggles we are facing. I understand that during the summer we import annoying things, and drive fast with our Mercedes cars; but they should know that we share a two-room flat with eight people back in Germany. That we are a discriminated minority.
Of course this goes with irrational decisions, buying a Mercedes to show the family back in Kosovo that they made it. Maybe as small consolation for the sad gray everyday life in the diaspora. I would like to transmit to them the feeling of non-belonging and how painful it is to hear the “Shaci” word when you are called an immigrant all your life already. Still, Kosovars face problems that are not comparable to the issues in Germany, which are way more existential. This is why I decided to spend time in Kosovo, to go back to get to know their everyday lives. But I first had to face all the judgments to get through that. Soon I want to return and share what I learned through conversations with others, which is still the most enriching experience when writing and publishing.K