Category: Guernica

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Words Are Delicate Instruments

Lucia Duero interviews for Guernica

Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku is interviewed by her translator Lucia Duero for Guernica:


Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.

When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.

Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.

Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.

My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?

Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.

Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?

Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?

Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.



An excerpt in Guernica from Amelia Gray's new novel

Amelia Gray’s new novel Isadora is based on the life of dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan. This excerpt in Guernica explores the childhood of one of Duncan’s mentors, Max Merz. 

The story of a Viennese boy who became a German man, thanks in unlikely part to Benjamin Franklin.

When Max Merz was a boy, he wanted nothing more than to grow up to become an intellectual. He was ten years old when he first had this idea, studying English under the casual tutelage of an American student who found in Max an eager pupil and extra income every other weekend at the Merz family grocery. To teach the boy clauses and tense shifts, the student loaned him a copybook featuring the writing of Benjamin Franklin. The words were designed to be traced, to hone penmanship rather than theory, but Max found utility in both. And so his very first experience with philosophy came to him in a new language. Florid and lush, Franklin’s paragraphs bloomed in his own hand, the central tenets half obscured by his own understanding but slowly revealing themselves, the curtain drawing aside.

He began to take an immodest pleasure in his book each night, arranging himself by the lamp and touching the silver nib of his pen gently to his lips as a serious scholar might before tracing Franklin’s words with passion and vigor, pausing at times as if he were inventing the ideas and then noting them swiftly, before they flew away. He repeated the action, laying sheet after sheet of parchment over the original and tracing until the words were etched onto the page.

Max loved the feeling of writing more than the process of thinking, and it was immaterial to him that the words he put down were not his own. He copied another page from memory, daydreaming of long nights at the dinner tables of his future professors at university. He would communicate with these men as equals and love them as brothers. Late into these intellectually rousing nights, the professors’ young wives would pour themselves another thimble of port and smile at Max with the same tender look of sentimental pride they had once given their husbands.


With Love and Love and Rage and Love

Stephanie Anderson for Guernica

Stephanie Anderson’s poem in Guernica:

Wednesday we discover several things.
First that some consider memory
to be a lilting luxury. But it’s science she says

and reading is the most beautiful
posture. I agree, I can’t explain, I throw it up.

We use several because singularity sounds
like woe. How can they not believe in science

out the window white water. Lyric sounds
like pretty nation but we’re going to spit it up.

Why do I leave furrows in all these texts dragging
my bad memory beside. We’ll show these men
our lyric. It’s not modesty it hurts she says

what they forget. Lyric is supposed to
hurt he said while I choked it up.

All these minutes of questionable consent.
When I spoke he said how unfair.

They sang of sweets as the girl starved.
It’s not a simile it’s a scene it’s not an allegory

it’s an event. On the map, great gasps
of land are already gone. When we sleep
we are heaving about power.

Out of the Iron Closet

Masha Udensiva-Brenner for Guernica

In search of acceptance, a gay Russian man seeks asylum in the United States:

March, 2015

Sitting in his seat, the plane scheduled to leave JFK for Moscow, Lev noticed how nonchalantly the passengers browsed their computers and iPads, their papers, and magazines. The doors had just closed, the flight attendants were giving their safety speeches, and Lev felt himself falling into a wild panic. It was March 2015, and he had been in the US seeking asylum for nearly two years when he felt he couldn’t take it anymore—his lover, the only person he had become close to during his time in New York, had just left the US for good; he desperately missed his friends and family; and his asylum proceedings were plodding along with no end in sight. He decided to go home, where at least he could see his mother, but now, with the plane doors closed, he couldn’t breathe.

He grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, and told her he had to get off.

She didn’t understand, so he jumped out of his seat and ran to the front of the plane, where he approached the pilot as he entered the cabin.

“I am not going to fly,” he said.

The pilot looked around. “It’s not going to be easy to get you off.”

Scared of causing a commotion, Lev told him to forget it and rushed back to his seat.

Minutes later, both pilots found him.

“Will you fly or not?” the head pilot asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you have to decide.”

* * *

May, 2013

Though Lev spent his first nights in New York City sleeping on a bus-stop bench near city hall and brushing his teeth at Starbucks, he maintains the experience wasn’t traumatizing. As soon as his flight from Moscow landed at Kennedy Airport in May 2013, he felt so free that nothing could have brought him down—not the fact that he spoke almost no English, nor that his living arrangements had dissolved, nor that he didn’t know a single person in the entire city. When he emerged from the A train on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, he was in awe.

For three days Lev wandered the streets, gazing at the throngs of people and savoring his newfound happiness—even the sky seemed iridescent. On the fourth day, unable to bear the possibility of never seeing his mother again, he went back to the airport and, with his meager savings, bought a ticket home for the following evening. But when it came time to leave, he lost his nerve and stayed.



Laura Kasinof writing for Harpers magazine

Laura Kasinof travels to Djibouti to investigate the Yemeni refugee crisis in the gulf of Aden, for Harpers magazine:

We traipsed across a muddy, trash-strewn creek bed in Djibouti City. Om Sakhr had insisted we chat someplace pleasant, and this was the way to the garden. She was dressed in a wispy black abaya and hijab, her lips painted a tart red. Her strappy heels weren’t exactly suited for the walk. But after several minutes, we reached a wicker table beneath long palms, tucked away in one of the city’s residential districts, a welcome respite from the afternoon sun.

A few weeks earlier, in April, 53-year-old Om Sakhr, along with her youngest son, Sakhr, arrived in Djibouti by boat after fleeing their home in Yemen’s southern port city Aden, now the center of the country’s civil war. (Om Sakhr translates to “mother of Sakhr”; she asked me not to use her real name.) In Aden, she had been a women’s rights activist. I asked her what she does with her days in Djibouti City. “Here, I don’t have any work except flipping through CNN, Al Arabiya, BBC, and Al Jazeera,” she told me, so she could keep up with the war in Yemen, where her husband still lives. “It’s not good for your psyche, but what else will I do?”

Om Sakhr suffers a common feature of refugee life: she waits. She waits for peace so she can return to her home, or for options—a job opportunity or a visa—so she can move on and try to establish a new life. Right now, none of these are available. Some Yemenis I met in Djibouti said they didn’t like being labeled refugees because they associate the term with the thousands of Somalis who used to pour into their country, fleeing violence and famine—but now they are desperate too.

Yemen’s long-simmering conflict reached a tipping point in February, after a rebel group of Iranian-supported Houthis attacked cities throughout the country and forced out Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In March, a Saudi Arabia–led coalition responded to the uprising by carrying out a series of airstrikes on Houthi targets. Later in the month, the coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen’s ports, cutting the country off from crucial imports such as medical supplies and fuel. The Houthis, with support from fighters aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been engaged in bloody street battles in Aden for nearly two months.1Neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.

When Om Sakhr’s boat took off from Aden’s shores, she watched her beloved home, a beautiful coral-white city, disappear in the distance. “I never thought I’d leave Aden like that,” she said. “I was born in Aden and spent all my life in Aden, so taking me out of Aden is like breaking me down. It is not something I want to think about again.”


I, Cyborg

Jennifer Gersten writing for Guernica

Jennifer Gersten Skypes Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, the world’s ‘first cyborgs’, for Guernica magazine:

My Skype call with the cyborgs drops for the second time. They’re traveling, they explain, and the Internet is bad. The app gurgles, failing to connect us. I end up addressing my questions to their account’s profile picture, an image of the Earth. In a corner of the screen, a small rectangle reflecting my upper body floats like a minor planet.

The account belongs to Neil Harbisson, who is one half of the cyborg duo. His username is “Neil Harbisson’s Head,” which is fitting, as he’s connected to Skype through the thin black antenna that he had surgically attached to his skull about thirteen years ago. Our technical difficulties persist and we never do get to see each other, a circumstance I’m left trying to reconcile with the knowledge that for many, what he and his artistic partner Moon Ribas are doing represents the cutting edge of human ingenuity. Millions have watched the TED talks in which Harbisson and Ribas explain how their cyborg bodies came to be and the art their extended senses allow them to create. Harbisson, thirty-four, was born with achromatopsia, a type of colorblindness that limits his vision to black and white. Curious about what seeing color would be like, he developed an antenna that gives him a kind of synesthesia, allowing him to hear color waves translated as sonic signals; the first colors he heard belonged to a Windows logo on a nearby device. “It was really magical,” he recalls. Ribas, thirty-one, hoping to deepen her connection to nature, had a chip implanted in her elbow that sends tremors down her arm whenever earthquakes occur.

They haven’t seen Westworld, the western android TV thriller based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name that debuted in the fall of 2016. They’ve heard of Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” considered a founding text in cyborg theory, but say they haven’t read it. They’ve never cared for science fiction. While growing up together in Catalonia, they were interested in animals and the natural world. Technology, by contrast, was cold and distant. They spent most of their time in the woods. “My aim was not to become a cyborg,” Harbisson says. “It was to sense color.” Being able to hear colors, including ultraviolet and infrared, which are invisible to the human eye, strengthened his conviction that “human” failed to describe his new self. Eventually, he felt no difference between where the technology ended and his human body began. “The only word that really described this is ‘cyborg,’” he says.

Their surgeries took place in secret—their doctors feared losing their licenses over the probable media backlash—and were not without risk. “We were never really scared,” Ribas says of the process. “It was exciting, it was always an experiment. When you are so curious about something, everything else doesn’t really matter.” At first, their brains rebelled. Tremors from larger earthquakes woke Ribas up at night before she grew accustomed to the sensations. “Now I feel like I have two heartbeats: my own, and the earth, beating at its own rhythm,” she says. During his initial months with the antenna, Harbisson suffered from headaches and was often exhausted. “It was an overload,” he remembers. “I was hearing color everywhere. It wasn’t a good start. But after five months, my brain got used to it.” Though his mother disapproved, she eventually came around.

The press has salivated over their apparent novelty, Harbisson’s in particular. The BBC described him as “the first legally recognized cyborg,” as in 2004 he was permitted to pose for his United Kingdom passport photo with his antenna intact. Sometimes this title is shorthanded: a Google search for “the first cyborg” yields Harbisson’s name in the first few results.

Assertions of cyborg primacy are precarious. Over the years, news outlets have named various cyborgs “first.” In the running, too, is Steve Mann, a Canadian inventor who is considered the “father of wearable computing.” Decades before Harbisson, Mann negotiated for and won the right to fly with his implant, a self-designed computer vision device which he calls the EyeTap. According to Motherboard, however, the first cyborg was Kevin Warwick, a British engineer and professor who in 1998 had an RFID transmitter implanted in his arm that allowed him to control lamps and other nearby devices via the Internet. If you ask Discovery, the first cyborg was a man named Johnny Ray, a Vietnam veteran who, after a stroke stripped him of the ability to speak, lived for a time with an electrode implant in his brain that let him relay messages with his thoughts. Or perhaps the first cyborg was a rat.


Clive Oppenheimer: Werner Herzog’s True Virgil

Rebecca Bates in conversation with Clive Oppenheimer for Guernica Magazine

Writing for Guernica magazine, Rebecca Bates talks to volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer about exploring pyrotechnics and his latest journeys with Werner Herzog while filming Into the Inferno:


Guernica: First, how did you and Herzog choose the locations for the film?

Clive Oppenheimer: We wouldn’t have gone to North Korea, except for the fact that I had been working there for several years. Because we wanted some pyrotechnics, we filmed at Yasur Volcano on Tanna Island, which has very spectacular explosions.

Also, we wanted a deep time perspective. Why, even if we don’t live on a volcano, can we watch imagery of a lava lake and just find it so awesome and just get sucked in like a moth to the flame? I think, in some ways, it’s because we have an echo of the experiences that we acquired as a species in the Rift Valley one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand years ago. Growing up in the shadow of huge volcanoes. Using their resources, obsidian lava, to make our precision tools. Using lava flows as physical barriers to corral prey. Then, from time to time, fleeing from eruptions.

Then, we wanted to have to have a look at contemporary risk. You can’t just walk up in somebody’s village and say, “Okay, our seismometers tell us you need to leave now.” You need to have already talked to them about what could happen, understand aspects of their livelihoods or belief systems. That’s partly why we look at their cosmologies, their oral traditions.

Guernica: When you speak with Chief Mael Moses of Endu Village on Ambrym about the experience of looking into the lava lake there, he replies, “I thought I was looking at the seawater, but it was red. And I didn’t understand. I started to think about why is there water there. And I didn’t understand. I thought, this fire is something that comes from the seawater, so I was very frightened.” Can you talk a little bit about how you saw some of these communities finding ways to describe the experience of living near a volcano, people who don’t have access to the same scientific language that you do?

Clive Oppenheimer: That was really so sincere, you couldn’t not believe how he explained things, even if it was not a scientific description. I remember particularly where he says at the end of the film that he goes up and he looks in at the liquid, the molten magma churning away and crashing against the sides like the waves in the sea, and he says, “It looks like water, but it can’t be water, because it’s red. So, what is it?”

If you’ve got a geoscience degree, you’ll say, “Okay, well, it’s silicate magma and it’s got some crystals and some bubbles in it, the polymerized silicate melted between.” If you don’t, then you’ve got to find an alternative way. There’s no power in these villages. You can’t really ignore the fact that there’s a fiery glow coming from the crater outside of the village every night. It would be very strange if there weren’t belief systems, cosmologies that have come up with an explanation of how volcanoes work.

Guernica: When you’re speaking to Chief Moses about the spirits he believes reside in the volcano, you ask, “The molten rock, is that part of the spirit?” It’s like you accept, for that conversation, that that’s a truth, if not a fact.

Clive Oppenheimer: Nothing was choreographed; there were no storyboards. We just took what came at us. We had a lot of serendipity in the places we went and what was going on at the time, meeting the chief and other wonderful interviewees. I’m not an anthropologist—I really just asked what I thought was interesting, what I wanted to know, what made me curious.

Guernica: At one point in the film you ask Chief Moses whether he wonders why anyone would come to Ambrym to study the volcano.

Clive Oppenheimer: And he’s giggling away.

Guernica: Yes. How do you generally couch what you do to someone who is especially far removed from the scientific community?

Clive Oppenheimer: We didn’t talk about it, but I imagined, after the camera stopped rolling, that we then had a discussion—the two of us exchanging our interpretations of volcanic activity, me trying to convince him why it was interesting to go and study it.

I’d probably go back to basics of our understanding of the earth. Why is there molten rock inside of the earth? It’s been around for 4.5 billion years, shouldn’t it have cooled down by now? Okay, where is the heat coming from, that clearly being one of these key ingredients in making this stuff liquid?


The Clown and the Caliphate

Jennifer Percy for Guernica

Jennifer Percy recounts her encounter with ‘a man so bizarre ISIS wouldn’t keep him.’ The full article can be read on the Guernica website:

In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, in the lobby of the Tangram hotel, my interpreter Salar and I watched the newest ISIS execution videos. Salar had access to videos that weren’t public. “The Chinese thought of this one,” said Salar, a fifty-year-old Sunni from Kurdistan. Four men in a cage were lowered into a swimming pool and held underwater until they drowned. They were raised wet and limp. A prisoner’s mouth oozed foam. “It’s not very nice actually,” he said.

A restaurant on the third floor of the hotel overlooked a detention center for terrorists. In the front lobby there were free apples, but not many customers. Our waiter, Basim, a young Iraqi Christian, served us coffee.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bartella,” he said.

“I was just there,” I said.

“Did you see my house?” he asked. “Did you see if my things were still there?”

Salar and I laughed. But Basim was blinking. “Did Daesh take my stuff?” he asked. We didn’t know. Bartella was still under the control of ISIS, I said. We were close enough to see the village through the lens of a telescope.

In the next video, ISIS fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a car soaked with fuel and packed with prisoners. The men burned alive. Another video, called “The Reality of the American Raid,” was a response to an American raid on a prison in Hawija. It began with an ISIS fighter sawing the head off a Kurdish prisoner while three other prisoners watched. The camera zoomed in on the men’s faces while they watched the beheading. The executioner set the severed head on the body. Though the head was no longer attached to the body, the mouth opened and gulped for air.

After that we saw a video of a Kurdish peshmerga soldier and a young ISIS fighter in a ditch. The peshmerga soldier gave water to the ISIS fighter, and the fighter kissed the peshmerga soldier’s hand. “Who are you?” the fighter asked. “We are humans, just like you,” the peshmerga soldier said. Then the peshmerga soldier climbed out of the ditch and shot the ISIS fighter. No news outlet would publish the second half.

Basim sat down next to us on the couch. “Tomorrow I’m leaving,” he said.

“You are fleeing ISIS?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m trying to find love.”

He had been in love with a woman in Bartella. They dated for many years and planned to marry, but her family didn’t like Basim because he wasn’t from a wealthy family. They tried again and again, but the family wouldn’t approve the marriage.

“I’m going to take the boat to Greece,” he said. “I hope I don’t die.”


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