Luljeta Lleshanaku

- Albania -

Luljeta Lleshanaku (born 1968, Elbasan, Albania) is an Albanian poet who is the recipient of the 2009 Vilenice Kristal prize for world poetry (past recipients have included Milan Kundera, Adam Zagajewski, Peter Handke, and Zbigniew Herbert.) She was educated in literature at the University of Tirana and was editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Zëri i rinisë (The Voice of Youth). She then worked for the literary newspaper Drita. In 1996, she received the best book of the year award from the Eurorilindja Publishing House. In 1999, she took part in the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. She is the author of four poetry collections, one volume of which has been translated into English: Fresco, available from New Directions. The writer, critic and editor Peter Constantine, in his introduction to Fresco, sums up her style in this way:

Luljeta Lleshanaku is a pioneer of Albanian poetry. She speaks with a completely original voice, her imagery and language always unexpected and innovative. Her poetry has little connection to poetic styles past or present in America, Europe, or the rest of the world. And, interestingly enough, it is not connected to anything in Albanian poetry either. We have in Lleshanaku a completely original poet."

Born in 1968, Luljeta Lleshanaku came of age in post-communist Albania, free to write as she chose but with her imagination shaped by what had gone before under the regime of Enver Hoxha.


After Hoxha's death in 1985 the dictatorship lasted until 1990. Lleshanaku's family had been opponents of the state, and she was forbidden to enter higher education or to publish her early work. Had she done so she would certainly have fallen foul of a system of censorship where even the most innocuous and conventional utterance was viewed with distrust.


The work Lleshanaku has gone on to publish is wholly unyielding in its fidelity to her own concerns. Hers are certainly poems about history, politics and power, but they are often cast in terms of local and domestic conditions in the old regime's climate of extreme provincialism. We hear of family graves with "four inches of space between them / lined up / like cars at a railway crossing", the war their occupants fought in long gone. We witness a trip to the cinema, study the second wife of a violent husband, overhear a family supper or the throwing of stones at a madwoman's roof. 


The world Lleshanaku often describes is like a room with no door, where everything that will ever be is already present: "The same war story told a hundred times / the same brand of cigarettes distributed by friendly hands / and those same eyes hovering, dark and lazy. / Only that."


In an essay reprinted here, Lleshanaku records that following a stay in the US she discarded most of the poems she had written while there, because "I felt as if I was following the wrong star … It was too easy to embrace the philosophy of a culture immersed in a long tradition of individualism … It is a philosophy completely alien to my culture."


Perhaps, though, life outside the literary enclave is not so wholly different once you take away the numbers and the noise. The powerful "Marked" depicts a series of immutable fates: "the redheaded woman waiting for her drunk husband to return / will go on waiting for one hundred years. / It isn't the alcohol; she is marked by 'waiting'. / And he only as guilty as an onlooker / pushed indoors by rain." 


This would certainly have made sense to a poet such as James Wright. But Lleshanaku is also original. When she turns her attention to love, the sense of human fate is unsparing. In "Particularly in the Morning" the familiar claim that love outbids history is turned on its head, to richly ambiguous effect: "although he is still sleeping / with the face of a stranger, the face of sleep, / a face without memory, / it is he and only he who knows my body's code / that flows like a river by a colony of gypsies / unaware of its source or estuary." In these conditions sentimentality seems inconceivable. The tyrant's insistence that there is no private realm has the unintended effect of making it necessary to write powerful and durable poems which suffer all the constraints imposed by confinement and yet have something ungovernable in reserve, namely their accuracy.


by Sean O' Brien