Shpëtim Selmani: All my life I have been in search of another world - Kosovo 2.0

Shpëtim Selmani: All my life I have been in search of another world

Poet and actor Shpëtim Selmani talks to K2.0 about war, literature and theater. ​

Shpëtim Selmani does not remember when he started writing. A child of the ’90s, his encounter with literature, theater and music, had been the same as discovering the magical land of Narnia — a way to teleport away from the isolating and harsh reality of a village in wartime. Now the author of several books of poetry and prose, writing and literature for Selmani are still “a search for another world and a kind of mystical communication with oneself.”

In June 2022, Selmani published the book “Balada e Buburrecit” (The Ballad of the Ant), which, like his two previous prose books, “Shënimet e Grindavecit” (Hot-tempered Notes) and “Liberthi i Dashurisë” [Booklet of Love] consists of daily chronicles. Among other things, these books talk about love, anxiety, everyday obligations, being a parent, the war and the post-war period, as well as the author’s relationship with the literary scene in the region and in Europe. The three books, according to Selmani, “can be read as a kind of trilogy.”

In 2020, for “Libërthi i Dashurisë” (The Booklet of Love), Selmani was awarded the EU Prize for Literature, which is awarded by the Federation of European Publishers to recognize the work of the most promising writers in Europe. The book has been translated into German and French.

For Selmani, who is also an actor, “literature and theater are inevitably connected,” although literature, especially poetry, leaves more space for him to reflect on personal preoccupations and feelings. “In literature, I represent myself more, while work in the theater is more team-based,” he said. Selmani’s poems from the period between 2010-2017 were published in the compilation “Poezi në kohën e gjakut dhe dëshpërimit” (Poetry in the Time of Blood and Despair) by Qendra Multimedia.

K2.0 caught up with Selmani to talk about his newest book, making literature in Kosovo and tracing definitions of identity through literature.

K2.0: “Balada e Buburrecit” (The Ballad of the Ant), gives the impression that it can be read as a kind of continuation of “Libërthi i Dashurisë” (The Booklet of Love). Is that how you thought of it?

Shpëtim Selmani: “Shënimet e Grindavecit” [Hot-Tempered Notes], “Libërthi i Dashurisë” [The Booklet of Love] and “Balada e Buburrecit” [The Ballad of the Ant] can be read as a kind of trilogy. Together they cover the period from when I was 27 years old until now.

“Balada e Buburrecit” is divided into three parts. The first part is called Postlove and talks about my daily life. It’s about my publications, assignments, wife, son. A life that, at first glance, may seem idyllic, but which is filled with anxiety, stress, with the passion for literature, which is no longer primary, cannot be primary in relation to family care, financial insecurity, the small compromises.

The second part is called “Whitman dhe Karadzic apo Letër për Radmillën” [Whitman and Karadžić or Letter to Radmila] and comes as a result of a discussion that I had as part of a project that was done together by Kosovar, Serbian and Swiss creators. When we were discussing what to write about, we started talking about Srebrenica because one of the writers there had made a documentary film about it. One of the Serbian participants, Radmila, reacted very strongly about Srebrenica, denying that it had happened. [See Editor’s Note below]

I started thinking about what I was doing there, because I can’t work with someone who has a different opinion about what happened in Srebrenica. As a result I withdrew, first and foremost, because of my human principles. For me it was unbearable that such truths, like Srebrenica, can be denied so easily. In the end, the group agreed to write about the pandemic, but the next morning, I started writing about Srebrenica, about the war. So, the second part of the book is almost entirely a letter to the young writer in Serbia, to Radmila, and it talks about my relationship with the literary scene in Serbia.

The third part talks about one of my journeys to Switzerland, to Lavigny, to a very famous residence, where I stayed for a month. Camus, Sartre, Faulkner, Hemingway, Nabokov all have stayed there. A castle, facing Lake Leman, which was bought by one of the greatest German translators and publishers, Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt. I had some discussions with European creators, so the third part is called Lavigny and it talks more about my relationship with Europeans. These are the three parts of the book, which refer to the three identities.

I was missing the main title of the book, while I had all the titles of the excerpts. I was listening to [the band] Lindje, their song “Balada e Buburrecit.” The lyrics really impressed me, “I’m an ant, but I’m proud.” It was interesting, because it also talked about some of my experiences as a writer from a small country like Kosovo. Then I asked my friends in Lindje if I could use the title of the song as the title of the book. I am thankful that they allowed me to do this.

The book has not been promoted yet. It will also be published in Italian, by one of the largest publishing houses in Italy. It was published in Albanian by Dukagjini. Dukagjini also published “Libërthi i Dashurisë.” 

Before, I gave away all my books. I was not used to selling them. When I sold my first book, in Tulla [a cultural space in Tirana], in Albania, we drank using the money we had made right away. There wasn’t much, but it seemed to me that it had come from nowhere.

As in your previous books of prose, “Balada e Buburrecit” (The Ballad of the Ant) is a chronicle of everyday life, with a non-fiction narrative and an emphasis on autobiographical elements.

At this point, I like non-fiction, which doesn’t make much difference between the character and the person in real life. I think it’s a very fine line between literature and life. In some form, everything that is lived is literature.

It could be that I still don’t know how to write fiction, or it seems to me that life is too interesting to go beyond it, to fictionalize it. I have a few books I’m working on that are fiction, but I find that the everyday life we live is much more interesting. I remember a piece of advice Amos Oz gave to new writers. He said: “Write about the things you know; don’t write about things you don’t know.” And I write about things that happen around me.

Often, when I go back to the texts I wrote before, I am critical of myself. When I was giving a reading of “Libërthi i Dashurisë” in Bern, when my German publisher was present, while reading excerpts from the book, I often found them meaningless, funny. I told this to the German publisher and he started laughing. He said: “It would be pointless if [the book] seemed always fresh, because you are growing up, while the book remains at the moment you wrote it.”

I often think about why I write. Of course I like to be read and appreciated, but it seems to me that literature is more about myself; it is a kind of mystical communication with oneself, which is infinite. I still don’t understand why I do it. It seems like a kind of self-repair to me.

What is the writing process like for you?

I live in a rented apartment. We have a small room there, where we put a lot of things. It’s like lab work. It is a table in front of a wall. That’s where I write. It’s not that I have a routine of how and when I write. I cannot have strict time planning regarding writing literature. I often wake up in the morning and write. Sometimes something comes to mind late at night, although I’m usually very tired then. During the day I have tasks that I have to complete.

I wrote a text, “Çimka”, staged by [director] Zana Hoxha. Lately I’ve been writing dramaturgical texts. Now I am dramatizing a text by Çajup, which will premiere at the National Theater [the interview took place before the premier in November 2022]. Fatos Berisha is directing. It is a text that will be written in several layers. The research process for writing these texts has been very interesting, however, these are not personal preoccupations, as in when I write poetry.

When I write, I don’t claim genres. I am not a slave to forms or styles. I write as I feel and I never know what the creation will look like in the end, whether it is poetry or prose. There is a Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, who writes even more deeply about his daily life. He also has many poems, but he writes in prose. Lately, I’m more focused on prose. I’m starting to write poems, but I either throw them away or I feel like I should write something else. I don’t think it’s time for literature. I think it’s time for other concerns. The world is experiencing an all-out crisis. Now that I am a parent, my attention to global concerns has increased.

In literature, I don’t want to strain myself. Emil Cioran gave up in the end, he said, “Not even literature is anything.” When asked if he feels good and fulfilled after all the success, he said, “No, I’m just tired.”

It is best to write as you feel, without burdening yourself with what comes out at the end. It’s important to be real while doing it. Do not do it for the sake of literature, but because it is a need, like air. You see, I came to a cliché conclusion.

When did you start writing? And how does being a writer interact with being an actor for you? In addition to your books, you studied acting and are constantly part of theater and film productions.

I can guess, but I don’t know exactly when I started writing. About the question of when you started writing, the best answer I’ve heard is from the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, when asked by some children. He said, “When I was born, they asked: Is it a girl or a boy? And they said, ‘No, a writer.'”

I grew up in a village, which was very isolated. We had a cow, which I used to look after sometimes. I used to learn a lot at school and because of this, my friends, to a large extent, did not accept me. There was prejudice, a kind of bullying towards those who learned. It was a reality, for which you had to do hard work. A competition of who is physically stronger, who is more daring and adventurous. I wasn’t very strong, or I didn’t have the skills to start the competitions that were done at that time between my friends.

My father worked in a factory. At that time, the factory had a library. In the 1990s, when the political pressures, school closures and layoffs began, they also closed the factory library and, according to my father, burned some of the books. Then, he took books and brought them to me. Every Friday he brought me five titles: Çajup, Hill Mosi, Filip Shiroka, Albanian renaissance and classics. For me, it was my first encounter with the world of books. I read a lot and wanted him to bring me new titles as fast as he could.

I started reading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” as a child, but I didn’t understand it. I have recently returned to Dostoyevsky. His characters are very theatrical. Literature and theater are inevitably connected. Even more so when there are writers who were playwrights and also wrote prose.

In literature, I represent myself more, I am an individual, while work in the theater is teamwork. The actor is like a kind of tool, often. It is a noble and brave role, because the actor goes out and faces all those people, trying to convey emotions, but it is often underestimated. The actor has a tragic fate.

I started acting in elementary school. The first show was in the sixth grade. It was the time of police checkpoints. We did a play with a text about emigrants and people who were fleeing at that time. Then the theater was needed. After the war, I was part of the theater in Ferizaj. Even there it was like a type of therapy. I will never forget the first time I stepped on stage. I was 13 years old. It was a different world for me. Maybe all my life I have been in search of another world, which gives me peace. 

I get the impression that war is one of the central themes in your literature. Why?

I was a child of war. I grew up during the 1990s. I experienced the offensives. My father was kidnapped for eight hours. I heard the whistling of a bullet close to my ear. I cannot abstract these experiences. These are stuck in my head forever. We have never recovered from the trauma. We are a society that has never seriously treated the trauma of war. The trauma is constantly present, it has not healed. I see dreams about war all the time, because as the American Nobel laureate Louise Glück says, the whole world is a memory of childhood, a re-experience of childhood.

In “Balada e Buburrecit” I wrote about the period of resistance in Kosovo. How my father was a pacifist, a Rugovist, he resisted in his own way, despite the fact that a young Serbian soldier beat him. While another soldier, who was a KLA soldier, could not stand being beaten. People choose resistance based on what they are. The problem is that these two forms of resistance are not properly intertwined.

What is it like to write literature today in Kosovo?

In Kosovo, the book market is extremely small. Let’s not talk about the issue of whether books are read or not, because I have the impression that reading is now in crisis everywhere. But small countries always suffer more from the crisis. I think that Polip is one of the best literature festivals in the country, because it opens many doors, puts you in contact with literature from many other countries, with very good authors. 

As an author, you later realize that literature is also a kind of industry. In this industry, your book is then one of the products that is introduced to the market. It is very difficult to make a living from literature. In Kosovo, this is almost unimaginable. But in Europe as well. I have many fellow writers in Europe who are complaining about this.

On the other hand, my conscience doesn’t let me make a living from literature. “How the hell could I live from literature?!” It’s a kind of accusation against myself, because living from a passion is a luxury. But I don’t know what it’s like to live from books, I haven’t tried it. I would like to experience this feeling when I become older.

Even in “Libërthi i Dashurisë” (The Booklet of Love) and “Balada e Buburrecit,” (The Ballad of the Ant) there is a distinct sense of the comic. What place does the comic take in your literature?

It would be disastrous if we didn’t have a sense of humor in life. It is a human need to see life through the prism of comics. Since I write about everyday life, it is inevitable to include comic situations in my literature. 

Life has comic elements, otherwise it would have been completely cruel. I love it when I make my readers laugh. I would have been disappointed if at no point in the text did I evoke a sense of laughter. But humor also makes sense in a certain context. It is easy for the reader from Kosovo to communicate with my humor, but some foreign readers may not even understand it. This can often be seen from some of the questions that foreign readers ask me during various meetings outside Kosovo.

But it is interesting that when foreign readers read me, they want to visit Kosovo. Next year, I am expecting some friends, poets from Latvia, who, unfortunately, had to learn how to use weapons because of the war started by Russia in Ukraine. It was painful to hear about young poets attending courses in the use of weapons.

Often, through literature, you trace the ways in which different identities are constructed, in particular national and geographical identity. How do you use literature to reflect on personal and collective identities?

I come from a village. When I wrote in Ferizaj I had problems because of the geographical definition. Then when I came to Prishtina, it was the same. I see that, for people, these affiliations are very important, while for me they have no weight. That’s why I fought provincial prejudices very strongly, because I understood that when you go to Europe you are Balkan, when you go to America you are European. If you go beyond planet Earth, then you may be assigned another identity.

Man has many identities, which are already predetermined. In some form, man comes into life constructed. For that I use literature, to understand myself. The limitations of local identities have unconsciously pushed me to explore discussions about identities through literature.

Now it’s a problem for me, when I go to literary events in Europe and the first question I am asked has to do with my Kosovar identity and Kosovo’s relationship with Serbia. They don’t care about literature. Again, even as a writer I suffer the judgments and definitions that are made out of my identity. They don’t ask you about the book. The only thing that interests them is the conflict between the state of Kosovo and Serbia.

All the time you suffer from prejudicial and discriminatory perceptions about identity definitions, which are not dependent on you. This, in essence, is very painful.

Whether in your poems or prose, there are many references from song lyrics or from the creations of various authors. How does it work for you to include these references into your creative work? 

I have always listened to a lot of music and was part of a high school band. I had a dream to be a rock singer. I was also influenced by Fadil Bajraj’s translations, when I read poets who were also singers.

I listen to a lot of music when I write, and of course references are inevitable, because I’m interested in what the artists I listen to think. Or when I read, often some thought of an author makes a great impression on me and I try to find a connection between that author and me. Therefore, when I write a poem, I write it based on those quotes, on the experiences that certain verses give me.

I think that many themes in literature are the same, they are universal. We cannot escape the universal themes: war, love, hate. Then how you unravel these, what kind of hole you get into, is a matter of the author’s imagination.

Even in “Balada e Buburrecit” I have many references, because they nurture me. I was reading Robert Frost and he says “Coexistence leads us to forgiveness.” This immediately connected to the topics I was dealing with in the first part of the book about tasks in everyday life. And I close one of the chapters with this statement. I want to see the world through others. I want to revive writers who are no longer in this life. They are, in a way, eternal, but I want to make them a part of my life.

Editor’s Note (June 6, 2023): In this interview Selmani refers to a young Serbian poet Radmila who in a group setting “reacted very strongly about Srebrenica, denying that it had happened.” The poet in question is Radmila Petrović, who recognized that Selmani was referring to her. She sent a letter to K2.0 with a response which we publish here in part.

Actor and poet Shpëtim Selmani ascribed to me views I do not hold. Through the work I do, I advocate tolerance, dealing with the past and reconciliation, which is evident from my poems, media appearances and the projects I have been part of which aim to promote and protect human rights as well as to keep peace in the region.

I would like to emphasize in particular that I empathize with the pain of those who lost their loved ones. In the future, it is my firm belief that more and more people will make a stand against hatred so that past horrors, like Srebrenica, never happen again.  

Hopefully, my colleague Shpëtim’s book, regardless of where he drew inspiration from, goes on to contribute to mutual understanding, tolerance and reconciliation — a cause each and every one of us is surely committed to.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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