A Conversation with Ornela Vorpsi on Eroticism, Sexual Abuse and Harassment, and Selfhood

Interview by Seth Rogoff
Translated from the French by Helen Ferguson

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Ornela Vorpsi’s The Country Where No One Ever Dies (Dalkey Archive 2009) belongs among the very best post-communist novels. The novel, which was published originally in Italian in 2003, explores the traumas of authoritarianism, hyper-sexualized patriarchy, and violence in many forms, offering raw and poetic insights into individual and collective memory, migration/exile, and the meaning of art and literature. Vorpsi, born in Tirana, Albania in 1968, migrated to Italy when she was 22. She lived in Milan for six years before moving to Paris, where she currently resides. Since her astonishing debut with The Country Where No One Ever Dies, she has published numerous books in both Italian and French, including La mano che non mordi (2007) and Tu convoiteras (2014). In addition to writing, Vorpsi works as a visual artist, primarily as a painter and photographer. I am grateful to have had the chance to revisit The Country Where No One Ever Dies with Vorpsi now 15 years since its first publication. Given the recent rise in authoritarian, illiberal politics—and the culture that supports it—the novel’s relevance to contemporary life has only grown.

 

SR: I would love to hear about the process of writing The Country Where No One Ever Dies. It can be read both as a novel and a collection of short prose pieces. It was published first in Italian, but it is rooted deeply in the Albanian sensibility. It is a book of immediacy while being told with satirical or ironic distance. How would you describe how this book came together? 

OV: I was already in France when I began this book. The writing came towards me. I was wandering aimlessly and in turmoil concerning contemporary art, because I wanted to paint and at that particular time painting was outsider.

It was in this afflicted state that I sat down one day in a bar and wrote a brief novella. The language seemed obvious—Italian. I clung to these fragments that I was writing without knowing what I was going to do. I had never dreamt of being a writer but instead wanted to become a painter.  So, I clung on, persisting in despair as if to justify my existence, although existence has no need to be justified; it is sufficient in and of itself.

But the abysses within me urged me to “produce.” That is how this book came into being. In a state of wandering, feeling my way. Albania was present, of course. But it burnt my soul so much that I was compelled, unconsciously, to draw on a foreign language, a language devoid of childhood.

This book arrived as if in the language of painting—in fragments. I took a certain pleasure in connecting the fragments like a kind of puzzle—a book that you can read like a novel but also like distinct novellas. I think that this playful and less chronological spirit comes from my fine arts training.

SR: The politics of the body looms over The Country Where No One Ever Dies, especially the politics of the female body, including its adornment. A related politics of sexuality can be seen in works by other post-communist writers, like Herta Müller. How do you think this politics compares to that in “Western” Europe—in Italy and France, for example? Do you think there are ways of thinking about sexuality and power that can be drawn for your work for this current moment as women continue to confront widespread sexual abuse and harassment, which is coming more and more into public view? 

OV: These are very different countries and very different periods. It is difficult to summarize these enormous questions “properly.” In Italy I found similarities with Albanian eroticism. I shall put it in those terms. These are two Mediterranean peoples, not far apart geographically, and two peoples with a patriarchal slant. That’s with the exception of southern Italy, where the figure of the woman-as-mother— but as an aging mother rather than a woman— makes her a saint; there you find yourself in an almost matriarchal realm. I think a kernel of something akin to what is called in English “sexual abuse and harassment” is found everywhere in the world; as the Italians put it so aptly: Tutto il mondo è paese (It’s the same the world over). There are admittedly different nuances depending on customs and the history that has shaped countries. But I have seen and heard incredible and cruel stories in all three countries where I have lived. It is an enormous subject.

SR: In one chapter of The Country Where No One Ever Dies the narrator wishes to become a painter, an artist, at the grave of a mystical dervish. What was your background in visual arts in Albania, in Italy? What was art education like in Albania when you were in school there? I love this moment at the grave. Can you elaborate more on what went into writing this scene?   

OV: It was very difficult to get into the art school in Tirana. The entrance competition was very difficult. Young people came from all over Albania, and there were only around twenty places for those who succeeded. For the twenty selected, there were various disciplines to consider: set design, textile art, sculpture and painting. The teaching methods were imported from the USSR. We were taught figurative painting in order to produce “Socialist Realism.” Art depended on the ruling ideology. Our knowledge of developments abroad stopped before the Impressionists. In our artistic production, we had to sing the praises of our happy life, our heroes, the Motherland, and Commander Enver Hoxha. We were overwhelmed by this art that aimed, and was obliged, to educate us.

About the moment at the grave: I was on a military exercise, which was an obligatory part of our education; we had to be prepared in case the country was occupied. I don’t know how, but we had all deserted, to go nowhere at all. We just wanted to be free for a few hours perhaps. That is how we stumbled upon a village cemetery, a really small cemetery. The woman who was cleaning up at the cemetery told us about the dervish’s tomb. Not really believing, but keen not to miss an opportunity—for what do I know about the mystery that creates life!—so, as a good agnostic with an atheist upbringing, I encountered the mystery that makes the world and kissed the dervish’s tomb, asking to be accepting to the academy in Tirana. He granted my wish! But I felt such terror when confronted with his gentle face and enigmatic smile!

SR: How do you think your visual arts background impacts your writing? And how has the relationship between literature and visual art shifted in your practice over time? For example, in both The Country Where No One Ever Dies and in many of your visual pieces (photos, paintings) you are focused on the body—but seemingly in different ways. Could you reflect on this aspect a little bit?

OV: I think that I have been shaped by the education that painting offered me. That is where my love for the fragmentary comes from. Painting is a composition that crushes time to remain purely in the present. I confess that I have trouble with chronology—the course of time—a process that narration requires. I like to make tenses disintegrate (past – future) and the tenses I use in my narrations are often emotional tenses that are not inscribed in the logic of tenses that we generally respect—my tenses are erroneous. That somewhat bewilders my publishers, who try to put the book into a logical temporal order. I sometimes have to go along with their wishes, because apparently I use tenses that are so subjective that they confuse other people.

SR: In The Country Where No One Ever Dies the voice of the narrator shifts from story to story, as does the name of the main character. Did you intend to say something about the development and/or establishment of identity by doing this? Can you reflect a bit on the ways in which identity was shaped during the communist period and then how it was reformed or re-shaped in the years that followed?   

OV: I wanted the Albanian story that I was going to recount to belong to several characters. Like a kind of honesty owed to the lived experience we have been through. It was not enough for me to ascribe this story just to a female figure because I am narrating stories that an entire people has lived through. Then there was the pleasure of scrambling the tracks. Several female characters who could make people believe it was a single figure who changed her name. I think this composition always has something to do with my training as a painter.

SR: It would be very interesting to know a little bit more about your path from Tirana to Paris. What would you identify as some key moments in this movement, especially as it relates to your artistic and literary practice? 

OV: By way of key moments, I would mention encountering contemporary art in the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. Encountering the notion of private property, which was a very violent encounter, for that was an unknown notion before I left my country. Encountering capitalism in general. New foreign languages and the refuge they offer me. Encountering Freedom in a different form, an even more terrifying form than what I had known before. In Albania, one moved within compartments constructed by the State. In Italy, in France and elsewhere, an Albanian who had left his own country was outside of this compartmentalization. One had to tame this Freedom that one did not know. These were encounters that gave rise to earthquakes within me. I had to “reconstruct” myself with these other dimensions of life that I had just encountered. I did not emerge unscathed. But does one ever emerge unscathed from one’s life?  

SR: Mothers and fathers loom large in The Country Where No One Ever Dies. How is it possible to rebuild the family (or the idea of family) having experienced or witnessed such a shaking of familial foundations—or even the collapse of the family unit entirely? Or is a rebuilding necessary or even desirable? The relationship between mother and daughter is especially poignant in the novel. Can you reflect more on the ways in which this central or core relationship impacts your work as a writer and artist? 

OV: I recount the story of a mother and child affected by the “education” of the Mother Party that is in power. This Mother Party has imprisoned the husband of this woman, who is also the father of the little girl—the character in the book. Their life changes completely. They find themselves on the margins of Albanian society, condemned in turn because they are relatives of a political prisoner. The mother-daughter relationship is subjected to this drama. The mother is no longer able to be a mother, she is on the verge of madness.  

Whether it is desirable or necessary to reconstruct oneself— I think the answer to that is highly subjective. The figure of the mother is very present in my writing. I often wonder: Can every woman be a mother? A mother has enormous power over a child. As she loves, she can also kill it. 

SR: The Country Where No One Ever Dies evokes the importance of, and love for, literature. The girl(s) in the stories reads deeply, immerses herself in books, and in one story even trades away her mother’s valuables in exchange for stolen books from a teacher. Does this need for literature reflect a personal experience with books? If so, what were some of the key reading experiences you had a child or young adult? Or adult? 

OV: Perhaps yes, this need for literature reflects my thinking and my needs to a large extent, but I must underscore that books were almost the only escape route from our isolation. I can certainly say that my Albanian life was nourished by the classics, mostly Russian and French classics. Literature was censored, but there were still marvelous books to read: Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Mayakovski, Guy de Maupassant, Stendhal, Balzac.

I was very touched by Diderot when I was sixteen and also by Pirandello. Americans? I only remember Theodore Dreiser.

SR: In the Czech or Polish context, for example, a kind of larger than life myth of dissident culture has emerged to shape collective memory of the communist era. How do Albanians think about the communist past at this point? Are there heroes? Villains? In other words, has there emerged a usable collective memory, even if (deeply) problematic and/or fictional? 

OV: The Albanians, in my humble opinion, do not feel that they are heroes or villains. This is a people that has conserved an awareness of the coarseness and absurdity of the communist period. Today, they are trying to recover in every respect. I found them wandering and at work. Very rich and very poor, no middle class, not yet established.

There are quite a few Albanian artists, writers and filmmakers who have worked with the lived experience of this anti-human regime.  

SR: Where do you see your work going from here? And do you plan on publishing other literary works in English?  

OV: I cannot predict the course my work may take. From the moment it leaves my home, its life is its own and is uncontrollable. As to publishing in English, I think that today publishers are more conscious than ever of sales figures. Further translations into English are dependent on that. This time I have written a book in French, Tu convoiteras. It is a book that is disturbing, disruptive, because it raises many questions that we try to avoid. It is not a book that makes you dream or rubs you up the right way. It’s therefore difficult to sell, and I would add that it is a book that is politically incorrect for a country like the USA, which has a sometimes puritanical self-image.

Today I try to work with the feeling that I am making holes in water.*

 

*Translator’s note: In Greek and Italian this is an expression that means doing something futile.