On Reclaiming Culture with Poetry

by Fortesa Latifi

There are friends I have had for 10 years who still can’t say my name right. It’s the e sound that gets them. It’s not quite ’eh’ and it’s not quite ’ay’ but somewhere in the middle. In a linguistics class my freshman year of college, I learned that every human is born with the innate ability to learn any language, but as time passes and they learn one language and use only certain sounds, the rest of the sounds fade away until they physically aren’t able to say them anymore.

This is how my culture feels. If I don’t use it, if I don’t pull it out of the closet and brush the dust off of it, if I don’t form my tongue around the first words my mother and father ever spoke, I’ll lose it. I won’t be able to access it anymore.

I’m Albanian. This is something I’ve known my entire life. It is as much a part of me as my name. I was also born in Houston, Texas which means that my siblings and I struggled, each in our own ways, to hold onto our culture all the while trying to assimilate enough into American culture not to be made fun of in school. The first time I noticed I was different was in elementary school when the other kids at the lunch table brought Lunchables and turkey sandwiches to school and I brought pite- a doughy, feta-cheese filled traditional Albanian dish. As time went on, I learned the survival tactics every foreign kid in America does. On the first day of school, I listened closely during role call and raised my hand during the long pause between names to explain how to say mine before the teacher stumbled over it. For-tessa, I said. For-tes-sa. It still feels strange to say my name in this boxed-in, white-washed, American way but I do, because no one can say it otherwise.

Now, I am older than that girl who coveted the American kids’ Lunchables. Now, I would pick pite over anything. Now, I am a writer. Most writers agree that their identity and cultural heritage affects how they write. For me, it affects what I write about. My family is Albanian from Kosova and many people can’t say where Kosova is on a map and if they know anything about it, it’s only because of the reports of the Kosovar genocide being splashed across their televisions in the nineties. Because of this, I feel a sense of responsibility towards my country. Although my blog is mostly made up of poems about love and friendship and growing up, I have spent a lot of time writing about the Albanian experience for magazines like Kosovo 2.0 and Femrat Magazine .

In my first book, you’ll find a poem called Prishtina, Kosova which explores the capital city of my country not as the stage for a devastating genocide but as the place where my parents first fell in love as college students, the bar where I had my first gin and tonic, and the apartment where my grandmother stood in the kitchen and licked her fingers to pinch flame after flame until my brother and I begged her to show us how she did it. That is my Kosova. That is my responsibility as an Albanian writer.

Not only am I trying to show the world more about Kosova, but in these efforts, I’ve found a new task: to open Albanian girls up to each other. In the Albanian community, as in many immigrant communities trying to find their place in America, there is a lot of pressure. In the girls that make up this demographic, it usually manifests itself in a competition to be the best “Albanian daughter”. Being a good Albanian daughter means staying home when guests are over so you can make and serve the tea. It means having only one boyfriend, who is also Albanian, and then marrying him. It means honoring your family and never acting in a way that could cast a pall across your last name. As a result of this pressure within our community, many Albanian girls don’t trust each other. We’re scared of not being seen as the ideal Albanian girl and daughter and because of that, we stay away from each other so that no one can ever find something out about our private lives that would get back to people who know our parents and hurt our family’s reputation within our tight knit community.

Now, obviously, if you’ve read my poems, you know that I threw many of these ideas out of the window and ended up writing two poetry books and countless poems which circulate online and detail misadventures in love, friendship, drugs, heartbreak, drinking, and many other behaviors that are far from the cultural ideal. I have become the opposite of the ideal Albanian girl, but in doing so, I found other Albanian girls who felt suffocated by our cultural ideals and longed to be among people who understood them.

Last March, I did a reading/discussion panel for the newly minted Femrat Magazine, whose founder, Alba Veliu, is an Albanian girl with a mission which is to unite Albanian women across the world and to create a safe place where we can discuss out experiences and how our culture has impacted them.

To say that rainy night in New York was the most eye-opening, raw, and rewarding night of my life is still an understatement. In the back room of a small coffee shop, I sat in the middle of a room full of Albanian girls and for the first time, we talked honestly about our experiences. We talked about the patriarchy that is inherent in our culture. We talked about what we love about our people and what we wish we could change. We talked about love and friendship and disappointment. We talked, without guards, without borders, and without fear.

As a writer, I write about the things that hurt me and the things that inspire me and the tragedy in the smallest moments of a life. As an Albanian writer, I write about our country and our people and most importantly, I write to bring us together, if only for a few hours in the back of a coffee shop.

Fortesa Latifi is a 21-year old poet/writer/bibliophile. She is trying her best. Her book This Is How We Find Each Other was published through Where Are You Press in December 2014. She has just released her second book through WAYP, titled We Were Young. Her work has also been published in Persona and Words Dance. She couldn’t stop writing if she tried. For bookings/interview requests, you can contact her at fortesa.latifi@gmail.com.

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