I first met Ani Gjika in the summer of 2022 when we were both resident fellows at Millay Arts. With a warm, generous smile and effusive laughter, Gjika has an obvious, irresistible spark to her personality, and it was this shock of authenticity that first drew me into her work.
An Unruled Body (Restless Books, 2023), her newest book, won the Restless Books Prize for Immigrant Writing. The memoir tells a different kind of origin story, somewhere between prose and poetry, from a woman listening to her body, intuition, and desire.
An Albanian-born writer and literary translator, Gjika moved to the U.S. with her family at age eighteen and earned an MA in English at Simmons College and an MFA in poetry at Boston University. She is the author and translator of eight books and chapbooks of poetry, among them Bread on Running Waters (Fenway Press, 2013), a finalist for the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her translation from the Albanian of Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space (New Directions, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 International Griffin Poetry Prize.
I had the privilege of talking with Gjika via email and phone about the language of memoir, her kaleidoscope of characters, and her beloved grandmother—the ultimate muse for everything she does.
The Rumpus: An Unruled Body is a memoir, but your readers have known you as a poet and translator. How did you decide on this form? Had you planned to write a memoir?
Ani Gjika: I didn’t plan it at all. I sat down, one day, in August 2015 and took the whole day to write a three-paragraph scene: the car scene of the prologue. I knew from that moment, that’s how the book would begin. The next day, I wrote about a hundred handwritten notebook pages. The third day, I wrote another seventy, and that was the first rough draft. I rarely write like this—in bursts—it’s only happened once before, when I switched to writing poetry in English. It’s not a conscious decision, but it’s exciting and I follow it. It feels liberating. The whole process of writing this memoir felt like a process of liberation from those first three days of writing in a fever to the eight years that followed writing, rewriting, cutting, and restructuring it.
Rumpus: This feverish direction—this initial burst of kinetic energy—sounds like a kind of possession, a haunting. I love that out of it came what felt like a liberation for you. Is writing a memoir anything like or unlike writing verse or translating? Any easier or harder? What is the relationship between these acts? How did your experience of writing and translating poetry inform the latest genre and new work for you?
Gjika: I think no matter what genre I write in, I find myself deeply listening. I’ll write a line or two and keep listening for how to say something that expands or complicates the previous line or image—their effect on the reader’s experience. What I mean by listening is quieting myself to hear how or what I want to communicate. I think this is similar to, and something I’ve gained from, my experiences as a translator. I’m constantly listening for how the author will surprise me, pushing myself to bring the same effect to a third person, the reader in the target language.
My first instinct is to say, “I don’t see writing a memoir as easier or harder than writing poetry or translating. I find each, equally, brings me joy.” But when I go truer, I think writing a memoir is, in fact, harder and more mercurial. I have often felt, in the process of revising this book, like I had to hold a whole ocean in my hands—an impossible task that’s mesmerizing and terrifying at once. The story was so large and slippery, I couldn’t capture everything I wanted to say. There was more frustration and fear of failing in this process than in the process of writing a book of poems or translating. I felt a great responsibility to portray each character in the book fairly, nuanced, and to show their humanity—a difficult task because they’re real people who aren’t finished becoming themselves.
In terms of form, I believed for a while that I couldn’t write it in verse, that somehow poetry was not the right medium to be vulnerable enough. As I developed the story, the characters, the structure, I found I had to write in layers. The form became something that wasn’t fully poetry or fully prose, but a weaving—a stitching and unstitching of all different ways of writing—because this is the story of many selves, in different voices, as we all embody within a lifetime.
Rumpus: You bring so much complexity to your characters, adding layers to their humanity, even writing into their imagined selves. You portray your mother and father, as well as Ishan, your ex-husband, as characters who possess very complicated and sometimes contradictory emotional truths. How did you do this? Has your experience with translation trained your listening ear?
Gjika: You make this listening habit sound so cool, and in many ways it is. It’s very exciting when I arrive, in writing, at something that I know is part of the DNA of the book and won’t be deleted through drafts. But the process of getting there, especially in terms of developing characters who are real people in real life, is very difficult. After writing a scene, for example, or an expository passage, I had to let time pass and trust it would reveal where I had to push next, where I had to dig further to show a character from other angles. I relied on a notebook where I listed questions from time to time and made an outline after that first feverish draft. Those questions and the outline pointed to things I had yet to write about, so that the characters were more kaleidoscopic than one-dimensional. We are all so diverse from one another and, within ourselves, we are so different one day from the next. I deliberately wanted these characters to be seen as individuals outside of any labels that medical, societal, or cultural boundaries dictate. I hope that I have seen them well enough to have done a good job with that. I mention, in the book, that I struggle with anxiety, but I never mention what mental illnesses some of the characters struggle with, because it never felt right to label them. That’s not my story to tell.
Another challenge for me was patience. As soon as I wrote that first feverish draft, I worked on it for a year by myself. Then, all I wanted to do was submit excerpts from it to various journals for publication. I got rejections everywhere, but I did get into GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program within a year of writing that draft. Something told me to withdraw before the class started, even though I was excited about it and had won a scholarship, because this wasn’t the time to have the manuscript workshopped by other people. I had figured out structure and plot, but there was still much more character development, this complexity you mention, that I hadn’t yet mastered. So I didn’t go [to Grub Street’s Memoir Incubator class] in 2016, but I applied again when I was ready, in 2019. I felt strongly that I had developed a full draft and needed readers to see what I should do with this manuscript. In that class, one of my classmates, Rita Chang, wrote about her father. It made me wish I had a similar relationship with mine. That’s when I wrote a new piece that made it into the book about the father I wish I had. In order to navigate writing about complex characters, aside from listening to seethe multifaceted individual, it’s necessary to read a lot of literature already out there about similar characters, in similar roles, and pay attention to how a writer chooses to portray these people. Is there something you glimpse in these characters that your characters lack and if so, how does this difference illuminate the relationship you want to portray on the page?
Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear you talk about how you managed those early years of birthing this book, with a lot of patience and self-restraint. The waiting, this thing we do as writers, for things to germinate, for acceptance for publication, for the words to come, seems to be one of the hardest things we have to contend with. Your book deals with a waiting of another kind—desire. The book opens with a masturbation scene in a car, the DNA of this work, and traces the evolution of that desire through different relationships. This evolution of bodily desire and your claim to it runs parallel to your writerhood, to language. Is the evolution of power what you’re speaking of? Can you talk about the power you’ve had to wait to claim, including your body and language?
Gjika: I had a healthy relationship with desire as a child, then lost it, or turned numb to it, in adolescence, and then later in a marriage, for various reasons I examine in the book. To answer this question clearly, I have to go back to my grandmother. I witnessed how she waited for nearly fifty years, a crypto-Christian, before she could get baptized. Somehow, she knew that she would live to see the day she would get baptized. She had faith in her one true desire being fulfilled. For the longest time, I, like so many other women and marginalized people, have been told that we don’t know how good we are. Their message was delivered in a tone meant to give us courage, when in fact, it is from a deficit mindset. I believe each of us knows exactly who we are, what sort of power we possess, but maybe fears get in the line of vision, sometimes—that’s okay—but that’s why it’s important to wait until we’re centered again, clear about who we are, and then move onwards. How do we center ourselves? Hopefully by surrounding ourselves with friends and mentors who do see us for who we are, with books and films and art where we feel represented. Can you imagine a world where we don’t tell our students, or people we claim we love: “You don’t know how amazing you are?” Instead, we say, “I’ve noticed this thing you do so well . . .” and go from there.
Rumpus: Your grandmother is one of the anchors in your work, a larger-than-life character who seems to have inhabited an almost mythological dimension in your consciousness, affecting every facet of your and your family’s narrative. How does having such a strong matrilineal heroine in your family narrative affect your identity as a woman, as a writer? Where does she live in your memory?
Gjika: As soon as you asked that, I see her sitting on her bed—
She had a small twin bed in what used to be the kitchen of our one-bedroom apartment. My parents placed her bed there so she could have her space with her Greek Bible and all her notebooks. She reflected and translated verses by hand daily. My parents closed off one of the balconies with glass windows and turned it into a kitchen, so that way all of us had a little more room in our five-hundred-square-foot apartment.
My grandmother sits there on a bed that’s covered in a white blanket she has handmade, herself dressed in black because her husband had passed away and that was the custom back then—to wear black after your spouse dies—and has her palms resting on the bed to her sides, her silver hair around the nape of her neck in a horseshoe braid and she’s looking up, smiling, like she’s been waiting for me to come home from school. She is someone who I feel like is always there and knows everything I’ve done, ever since I left Albania in 1996, even though I never saw her again. Her presence gives me so much strength that I can be who I am even when who I am is a quiet person. There is certainty in that quietness, that I am following my convictions as a writer, as she did her religion, even when she knew her husband wanted to divorce her for it.
Rumpus: The profound love you have for your grandmother is so palpable! I believe in that quiet certainty, so small and quiet, and yet grounding the earth. You’ve also drawn other extraordinary female characters that terrify and fascinate the reader at the same time. What does this duality mean to you, this type of power? Do you see the same thing in yourself?
Gjika: I don’t know if I possess this power. Let me rephrase that: I think we all possess it. We are all multifaceted, or at least will one day come to face and accept this quality of being human. To be human means to be forever shifting with the emotions of the day, of the hour. We are never just one thing. Maybe this is part of the reason why I wrote this book: to illuminate the hidden women’s stories, those well-behaved women, to show that strength isn’t always measured by what a woman does but maybe more so by what she chooses not to do.
Rumpus: I love how you talk about your adopted language, English, and about all of your great literary ancestors—many of them well-known poets like Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Maya Angelou, Wallace Stevens, Ai, Auden, and so on—and how encountering poetry early on in your immigration history (when you were eighteen) has shaped your listening, and your writing ultimately. How did this happen? How has poetry shaped your sensibilities, as a writer who navigates multiple linguistic planes, with English as a second language?
Gjika: What I remember is puzzling over [Emily] Dickinson’s lines and loving the taste of her word choice. Every single line of her poems had words I had to look up when I was still building my English vocabulary. Also, the enjambment of her lines excited me because while I was in the process of discovering what a word meant, I was also simultaneously discovering multiple possibilities of meanings as the thought came to an end in the following line. When you read Dickinson, you enter this space where you think you know where she’s going and then you’re completely surprised! You had no idea you were going to land where she took you.
While learning new vocabulary, at the same time I was learning to pay attention to how a line unravels, and that made the process of language-learning so much more exciting for me. I was focused when engaging with Dickinson’s poetry, paying attention, whereas reading any other text in English those first few years in college gave me headaches because I could not concentrate or understand enough of what I was reading. With Dickinson, and soon after with Wallace Stevens, I was using a dictionary while being exposed, through their lines, to unique ways of seeing the world. The vocabulary would stick with me much more authentically and quicker than if I were learning vocabulary under any other circumstances. I think both Dickinson and Stevens, in particular, did this for me. [Their work] made me more attuned to listening for language and its various possibilities of meaning.
Rumpus: What other books or authors have stayed with you throughout the years? What do you look for in a good book, poetry or otherwise?
Gjika: Wislawa Szymborska’s Poems New and Collected; anything by Louise Glück or Rumi; Nina MacLaughlin’s memoir Hammer Head: the Making of a Carpenter; Katherine Angel’s Unmastered; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—too many others to name. In terms of your second question, I’m reminded of the famous Kafka quote: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I can’t say it better than that—I look for a book that can change and transform me in a fundamental way, a transformation that will last and become part of how I navigate the world from then on. I think all of who I am and am still becoming, I owe to books that have shown me how to be a little better at being human.
Rumpus: What thoughts do you have for aspiring young writers, especially women of diasporic heritage?
Gjika: Women writers of diasporic heritage are often marginalized and unseen, and so I wish for them to write their stories standing from a place of power that comes from knowing, seeing, and loving themselves for who they are. They carry a superpower, a multilingual brain, and they are capable of bridging cultures in new and exciting ways. I feel blessed by Meropi and my other ancestors, and I feel they are with me or that they are me in some way. I wrote the book to honor them and I hope they inspire readers as much as they’ve inspired me.
Author photograph courtesy of Ani Gjika