A Queer Albanian Refugee Creates a New Self in Every City

Pajtim Statovci, author of "Crossing," on writing about people who refuse to be defined by others

Small boat in the Adriatic sea
Photo by Lucijan Blagonic on Unsplash

The plot of Pajtim Statovci’s latest novel Crossing is set in motion when a young man and his friend (and sort of lover) flee war-torn Albania by sea for refuge in Italy. There the two explore what it means to live in a place that doesn’t want them.

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci
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The choice of following in the expected footsteps of those who came before them, or creating a new path comes up frequently on the pages as the Albanians adjust to their new lives as refugees. His characters yearn for belonging; both in their new countries and within their own bodies.

Born in Kosovo in 1990 to a Kosovar Albanian family, Pajtim Statovci and his family fled to Finland two years later during the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars. His first novel, My Cat Yugoslavia (featuring a self-hating talking cat) was first published in 2014 in Finnish then translated into English in 2017 to wide acclaim. The novel won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize for best debut novel written in Finnish. His second English-translated book, Crossing won the country’s Toisinkoinen Literature Prize, which is given out to an author’s second book.

I talked to Pajtim Statovci via email about writing about people who refuse to be defined by others.

Adam Vitcacavage: I have been talking to writers a lot about place recently. Some say their history with cities play a major role in how they think about setting in their works. Others have a more nonchalant relationship with how their hometown or current city plays a role in their literature. How has your history from Kosovo to Finland played a role in your writing?  

Pajtim Statovci: My background has affected my writing immensely—because where I come from, where I’ve lived and what I’ve experienced in the past has everything to do with who I am and what I do now. I write about dislocation, loneliness, racism, people that are in between places and beliefs. Like one of my protagonists, I, too, fled Kosovo and moved to Finland with my family at a very young age. The writing about these topics stems from my own life and my personal history–as well as from the lives of people around me.

In Crossing, the protagonist is a pathological liar, and ends up living in many different cities – Tirana, Rome, Berlin, Madrid, New York and Helsinki–experimenting with life as someone new in each of them. He does this because, ultimately, he’s ashamed of who he is and where he’s from, wishing to escape the stereotypes people have about his background. Although I have not lived in all of these cities myself, to my protagonist they represent and present a possibility to start again, from a clean slate.

AV: Your characters in this novel are seeking a sense of home and belonging. My Cat Yugoslavia also dealt in some ways with similar topics. Why do you find yourself returning to these themes?

PS: I respond and relate to stories that explore questions of identity, belonging and home, perhaps this is because to me there is no clear concept of home nor an explicit idea of a national identity. I wanted to express this with both of my books (among other things).

I relate to stories that explore belonging because to me there is no clear concept of home nor national identity.

I deliberately write about people who refuse to be defined by others. People whose actions and words are not always filtered through their backgrounds. People who don’t want their backgrounds to matter. Because do we actually think about where we come from that much? I certainly don’t go to sleep at night thinking about my relationship to the country I was born, or thinking about my relationship to Finland or the languages I know how to speak. I never explain my behavior with any nationality in mind.

Still, I frequently get asked whether I feel I’m more Albanian or Finnish. If I am being completely honest, I really don’t care whether I am considered Finnish or Albanian because my relationship to Finland and to Kosovo is like no other person’s relationship to their home country or home countries. I want my protagonists to find themselves in the same freedom of self-definition.

AV: What was your relationship like with your translator David Hackston for this book and My Cat? How involved are you in that process?

PS: I am very lucky to have a translator like David Hackston, and I admire his work most profoundly. He has translated both of my novels with uncompromising diligence and grace. I have a really good relationship with David. Until fairly recently, we both lived in Helsinki, so it was easy for us to meet, discuss and change ideas. I try to be as involved as possible, help in any way that I can because David puts a lot of time and effort into translating my work. Simultaneously, however, I have to keep in mind that David is an English native, and I am not.

David is also an artistic soul, so I want him to be able to have the freedom to create art based on my art in his own way. Because a translator is never just repeating the words that I have written in another language. He’s conveying symbols and allegories, creating interpretations. David is also very interested in and knows a lot about the history of the Balkans, and speaks some Albanian, too, which only emphasizes the fact that we’re a match.

AV: An example of what I mean is that (according to my use of Google Translate) your novel’s original title translated to either “The Heart of Tirana” or “Hearts of Tirana.” (Tirana is the capital of Albania.) The English title  is Crossing. What do the different titles allude to about the work?

Where I come from, where I’ve lived and what I’ve experienced in the past has everything to do with who I am and what I do now.

PS: The decision to change the title of the book was a sum of many things. We all – I, David, my agents, English publishers–agreed that the original title (Tiranan sydän, “Heart of Tirana”) didn’t express enough ambiguity in English, although the word “heart” has many meanings in both languages. Since this book is about constant change and shifting borders, we felt like the title should be as representative of that as possible. For a long time, we called it “Heartlines”, but then one day my US editor at Pantheon Books, Tim O’Connell, called and told me that he has a title in mind. “Crossing”, he said, and I said yes–because I truly think that this word in all its meanings truly captures what this book is about.

AV: Crossing was originally published in Finland in 2016. What is it like revisiting a work again three years later as a new audience discovers the book?

PS: I have to admit that revisiting my past work is not my favorite thing in the world. Because when I’ve finished a novel, I like to set it aside as much as possible and let it live in the minds of others. This being said, I do give interviews and will gladly speak publicly about my work because feel like I owe it to my readers. I want to acknowledge and respect my audience by answering any questions they may have for me and or about my work. Because I wouldn’t be here without my readers, and I am very grateful for each and every one of them.

Finnish is a small language, so to have my work translated into English and published worldwide means everything to me. The occasional discomfort that I may feel about going back to something I might not write or say the same way today, is completely pushed aside by the joy of my work being available in other languages.

AV: Looking forward, what are your next plans? What do you want your writing to explore next?

PS: I am actually finishing up my third novel, and it’s being published in Finland in August 2019. I’m also in a Ph.D. program at the University of Helsinki, and working on my dissertation on non-human representations in selected works of Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka. I’m very interested in teaching, too, so hopefully, in the near future, I get to do both.

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