Design in purple for the queer literature database

E&M author and Editor in Chief Fatlind Duraku spoke with Arbër Selmani, the researcher of the queer literature database published by Sekhmet Institute, with its focus on Kosovo and the Balkans.

Sekhmet Institute, an NGO based in Prishtina, recently published a groundbreaking database covering queer literature in the world, with a particular focus in Kosovo and the Balkans region. With a collection of books and other literary pieces ranging from renowned authors such as James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf to authors from the Balkans and Kosovo, the database delves into a singular and vital theme: the journey of self-discovery in a world which does not accept you as you are. The difficulties, the pain, the confrontation with norms imposed by a heteronormative society, the fight, and the courage it takes to put yourself out there. It is a magical force that gives power to marginalized voices, giving people space to be their authentic selves.

Sekhmet Institute, whose key  pillars are LQBTIQ+ and women’s rights, is known for its distinctive approach to fighting social injustices in an artistic way through murals, graphities, documentaries, podcasts, and different events. 

We sat with Arbër Selmani, the researcher behind the database, and discussed it thoroughly. Arbër is a renowned journalist and poet from Prishtina, Kosovo, whose literature has been awarded many times and translated in numerous languages.

Is it accurate to say that this is the first database of its kind, with its focus on authors from Kosovo and the broader Balkans region?

Based on the research made by us at Sekhmet Institute, I as a researcher and Dardan Hoti as Executive Director of the NGO, this is the first database specifically dedicated to queer literature, not exclusively queer authors.

Could you tell me more about the genesis of this idea? Will the database be updated? Can we count on a prolonged database?

Dardan was the first one to conceive this idea before I joined Sekhmet Insitute. Given Sekhmet’s primary focus on LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, Dardan initially proposed it at the Regional Network for Cultural Diversity (READ) as a project. However, we plan to continually update the database. Rather than reaching out to people to submit their work, we want to make an open call through which authors can submit their book, poetry, or any kind of material. In the currently published database, we reached out to people and did our own research. In fact, we wanted to secure a spotlight also on new authors instead of only publishing the work of authors who are more established and known for their queer literature. While selecting books and queer materials it was more straightforward for us to research world literature compared to Kosovo’s and generally Balkans. This database will be very flexible and continual. There will be activities as a follow-up to this project. One of them was the discussion panel on queer literature where Agon Rexhepi and Bardh Rugova took part. Another activity was the poetry night held at Bubble Pub in Prishtina, where four authors shared their queer pieces. This is only a starting point of something bigger.

During your research for this database, did you come across queer literature in Kosovo and the Balkans which was written a long time ago, but remained relatively obscure?

Without underestimating it, when we started the database, the idea wasn’t to research queer literature which was hidden, say, 50 years ago.  Our priority was to publish authors who still contribute to queer literature today. Nevertheless, we stumbled upon a few somewhat concealed pieces written by authors in Albania and Kosovo, which were imbued with a queer spirit. During our debate on queer literature, Bardh Rugova explained that during that era literature was dominated by men and the narratives revolved around heteronormative topics. So, it was impossible at that time to decipher them, and even today it is very hard to conclude if a poem or any other material is queer. In the near future, we will also include these pieces but the database is neither a monograph nor retrospective. Its focus is on authors who write today, and storytelling which is current. We as Sekhmet Institute sense that a new genre is being born, a new literary movement.

When you say a new genre is being born, which are the specifics that differentiate queer literature from the already widely accepted heteronormative literature?

You can see it clearly. There is this love, emotion, and storytelling beyond the hetero bubble. Sure, there are books where two of these worlds coexist. When we started the database, I first chose some already known pieces in the Balkans, which was relatively easier to do compared to Kosovo, where the genre is slowly coming to life. For us, a poet is someone who has a story to tell. We tried to find poems that were more erotic, which speak to the same sex, about social resistance, homophobia, transphobia, etc. These momentums that are part of the queer community.

You said you were the ones who reached out to people while researching the database. We want to know if somewhere along the way you encountered negative answers or if authors hesitated to share their work with the public?

It was essential for us to establish a culture of trust and empathy with the person who would be part of this database. The database is already very personal, very intimate, fragile, sensitive, and happy. A database where millions of emotions flow in each sentence. When reaching out to people, we did this in a very therapeutic way by giving them also the option to stay anonymous, even if our purpose was not to collect anonymous pieces. Because what happened with this database is something historical, because it will stay there. After many years people will read it and will know who wrote queer literature in the year 2023 in Kosovo, a time when heteronormativity still rules the country. When it comes to Balkan books, there were authors  we didn’t ask because we didn’t see it as necessary to ask for permission for pieces that were already published with the author’s name.

We mentioned that, especially in earlier times, a queer piece was hidden between the lines. Camouflaged. Did you encounter this in the pieces you collected? Is there a difference between the world’s queer literature, which is open and explicit, compared to the one in the Balkans, particularly in Kosovo?

There is much more material in other regions of the Balkans, compared to Kosovo or Albania. What I encountered there was this new wave of Balkan authors who are writing queer literature. We did not encounter significant differences since the idea was to collect pieces that were not camouflaged and did not conceal their inspiration. If you go through the database, you can clearly see that many Balkan books are unapologetic and do not hide anything. For example, the books of Pajtim Statovci do not hide the relationship between two men; there is love and genuine emotion. I don’t want to overlook the fact that, of course, there will be literature that will be camouflaged for various reasons. But, as you said, our purpose is to find the pieces that are exposed and not concealed. In Kosovo, Albania, and the Balkans, there is a new wave of authors who are determined to write queer literature, regardless of any obstacles they may face. They will be very open and very aggressive.

Other activities happening, such as the poetry night, are happening as part of this project. Can you provide our readers with more information about it?

Our purpose is to organize those kinds of events continuously and not only in Prishtina. Our goal is also to invite authors from abroad. We lack these kinds of events. The group of poets that read that night was a youthful ensemble, brimming with anger, joy, and freedom. The public was also very impressed, and their reaction was extraordinary. Everyone was committed and interested in hearing what was being read. So, by reinforcing the database, we also strengthen the collaboration between our authors and those from the Western Balkans.

I want to direct the conversation to you. The poem “Adam” and many other pieces have been written by you with a queer spirit. In a country where homophobia is still very prevalent and only heteronormativity is considered normal, it is a message to young queer authors about the challenges they face in freely expressing their sexuality in their literature. How difficult has it been for you?

For me, it is not important how you characterise my poetry. It is enough if you read it. In addition to being queer, my poems also delve into topics such as love, birth, death, and family. When someone writes, it should be because they want to express their feelings without worrying about how others will judge or categorise their work. My first poems with queer character were written when I was twenty years old. Some of them are public, while others are not. I have never written poems with the intention of being queer. My best poem is the one about my father, which can be compared to poems about death or family. It is not of great importance to me how a particular poem is categorised, as long as it is being read and appeals to the reader. One piece of advice I would offer is that if you decide to camouflage a feeling, find a good poetic way of doing it. It is better to express your feelings openly, even though it will face backlash, even if you will never be accepted in the patriarchal literature in Kosovo. If you want to write, write from the bottom of your heart, and it can eventually be queer.

Cover designed by Zana Begolli.

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