Krisela Karaja

Krisela Karaja

Krisela Karaja

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krisela karaj

Krisela Karaja, 2015. Photo credit: Arben Bici Photography

***The following two stories – “Krisi, 5, Ready For Shkollë, August 1997” and “Krisela, 23, Pendululating on Lori’s Bathroom Window Ledge, December 2014” – are not official Fulbright Program articles. The views expressed in these stories are entirely those of their author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. Many of the names mentioned in these stories have been altered out of respect for the privacy of others.***

 

antiojosKrisela Karaja is a Fulbright Research Fellow and the founder/editor of the emerging international literary and art journal, ANTI/\OJOS (www.antiojos.com; www.facebook.com/antiojosjournal). She is currently seeking submissions for Issue #1 of ANTI/\OJOS, which will showcase contemporary Albanian literature and arts (both in Albania and in the diaspora) in an international dialogue with other, non-Albanian creative works. More information can be found at www.antiojos.com/submissions

 

Krisi, 5, Ready for Shkollë, August 1997

When it comes to firsts, I’m more accustomed to a pink-and-red on a blue-black background. Floral patterns, you know what I mean? Always have been. My mother was a floral fan. Or if she wasn’t, then circumstance made her so. Here she is wearing an ostentatiously-patterned dress, looking fuller than she actually was. Her hair, dyed at the time with henna or këna for an extra reddish glow, was unrulier than intended.

Floral, however, wasn’t on our neighbor Mira’s mind. She bedecked her son in a t-shirt and shorts combo, flaunting a striking tribute to the national pastime of this new land. Yet, despite this All-American baseball get-up, something’s still off. Ah yes, there he is, Liri, looking elfin with his 1960s-style Eastern European side-part and oversized dork glasses. Not to mention the matching protective string around his neck. And there I am at his side, left arm outstretched as if to bop him in the back of the head for this paparazzi-induced moment. The glorious memories: my sumo-wrestler-esque corpulence barely contained in a church-style dress, the cuffs biting into my arms, my pudge inelegantly bulging. Only two wisps of my hair were long enough for Mami to harness into a ponytail in true cabbagepatch-kid fashion. Hell, maybe that was why I didn’t have a single cabbage-patch doll growing up – I was my own lifesized version.

Had it indeed been 1960s Albania, we may have been priceless trendsetters, Liri and I. Unfortunately we were anything but trendy in ’97 USA. Liri has a half-smile pasted on his face, as if he’s resigned himself to his fate: Yes, a nerd living in limbo I have been and shall continue to be from this day forward, from my aqua blue watch to my matching tube socks. I, however, am reluctant to swallow this pill. I have a permanent grimace on my face, as if I’ve just caught a whiff of Liri’s aforementioned socks at the end of a long game of tag in the sun. That same sun hits my left eyebrow at a weird angle, dyeing it blond and making it seem like I only possess one – my poor lonely right. Goddamn, I must be thinking, there’s no way out of this. All of this. I’m stuck.

At least that’s what I think I was thinking. But who knows? Maybe I just had a killer wedgie or hadn’t eaten enough fiber for the past week. It was the 90s, after all – the bad old days.

And although those days really were bad if you were to ask my Babi or Mami, I cannot help but smile when I look back on them. The tableau overflows with the ridiculous: Liri’s rotting teeth, my overly-fatalistic attitude, our first day of kindergarten. Later on, the attendance-takers at school would ask, “And who are you?” and I would sweat straight through my socked-sandals before sealing my fate: “Umm…K-Krisela.” No, I hadn’t said “Krisi” which could have potentially blended in as the standard American “Chrissy”; I’d said my full name. Bam, there goes baby Krisi with the bathwater.

But that fate-sealing moment would come about an hour later. This photo is taken an hour before, right in front of the almost all-Albanian apartment complex on our street. You can’t see the brick building from here, because we’re standing in front of our neighbor’s ketchup-colored car. It, along with Babi’s old clunker, was our collective treasure since licenses and cars were rarities for us in those days. There was little-to-no support network beyond ourselves. We were among the first wave of newcomers, as the borders had opened only a few years earlier.

But I know the building’s there – its countless washed-out pink bricks situated less than ten steps to the right. It’s so tempting. I could just reach out my hand and –

I’ve touched her. I often daydream of this – one last grip, one last floral memory. The dress is something between silky and cottony. Not too good to actually be silk. Not fuzzy enough to be worn-out cotton either. She must’ve embraced me before sending me off. Or before helping me into my dress, she might’ve tickled my jelly belly and kissed my bottom in affection. “Mamiii!” I would’ve squealed in between bits of laughter, but she would insist on pinching and poking every last centimeter of me before getting me photo-ready.

Photo-ready is what I insisted on being this morning, too. My stepmother styled my hair with her professional hair dryer. “It won’t burn your hair, and you’ll look just like a caramel!” she lovingly exclaimed in the mother tongue. She means well; she is supportive and caring in this moment of transition and I love her for that. Yet this time, thankfully, all parties involved in the grooming process neither tickled my tummy nor pinched’n’poked me. My hair is the same length, but the cabbage-patch cowlick-gone-awry has been upgraded to a bob. And stripes have overrun floral. That’s right, I’ve got bleach blonde highlights because a girl’s got to experience some change when moving off to college.

And there is pixel proof of this day as well. Of course, Mami wasn’t exactly available to take this photo. Transportation from the afterlife is hard to come by, even in this overly-connected day and age. My stepmother wasn’t the photographer either; she and Babi had already driven home. Mira wasn’t present – we’d lost touch with her and Liri sometime in the past. Thirteen years ago, I think.

No, it was my roommate’s mom. And there we are, my roomie and I. No red car in the background, just a giant inflatable mascot looming behind our heads. My roommate is cheesin’ for this fresh beginning. And I’m brandishing a smile too, desperately sucking in my cheeks to hide my inner sumo. “Ready, girls?” Mrs. B asks. Suck ‘em in for just a few more seconds. “One, two…” A few more… “Three!” Goddamn, there’s still no way out of this.

There’s a flash.

There’s grass on the ground, the student Co-Op to the left, the football stadium on the right, a handful of passerby with arms uplifted, most of their backs to me. My teeth unclench from the inner flesh of my chipmunk cheeks. I move my mouth in the routine post-suck calisthenics. They provide little comfort. It was futile, really, taking this photo. These cheeks are, like everything else in my life, inevitable: the genetic predisposition of a third of my real hometown in Albania.

With a photo all too similar to the original, I resign myself to planning the weekend ahead of me. Classes start on Monday. Today is Friday. My roommate’s talking about some party, but I know that there’s textbook-shopping to do, a schedule to finalize, emails to check, and the occasional anxious call home.

Run, Krisi, run.

          I’m stuck.


 

Krisela, 23, Pendululating on Lori’s Bathroom Window Ledge, December 2014

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Seventeen-and-a-half years after kindergarten, four-and-a-half years after the first day of college, and two years after writing the previous short story: I still find myself supremely stuck. Literally, this time: I am gripping Lori’s windowsill for dear life. Here I am dangling: too afraid to climb back down into her bathroom (the door of which has finally been pried open by a party guest), and also too paralyzed with fear to use a seatless chair in order to climb down onto the rooftop. Yet again, the tableau overflows with the ridiculous: Lori’s broken door handle, my need to pee, the resulting bathroom lock-in.

This is me.

My name is Krisela Karaja and in this moment, I am a U.S. Fulbright Student Research Fellow to Albania. In this moment, I am also hanging from the precipice of a mentor’s bathroom window in Tirana, and in this moment I am presenting my thoughts and not those of the Fulbright Program. Furthermore, in this moment I find myself stuck – physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I am suspended and capable of touching neither the bathroom floor nor the rooftop’s stable concrete. I am suspended, yet I am certain that I have finally hit rock bottom.

I am Krisela Karaja, the namesake of my grandfather. I was born in Albania during a time of transition and was brought to the U.S. at the age of two by my father who received U.S. citizenship from his father. My grandfather immigrated to the U.S. sometime around 1917, and then returned back to Albania as an American citizen around 1933, at which point he created a family and failed to leave the country prior to the closing of the borders. He, his wife, and his children were, incidentally, also stuck.

Like I said: I was fortunate to be born during the early years of transition. Being the child of a naturalized American, my father immigrated to the U.S. not long after I was born. He then brought the rest of my nuclear family over as well. Our anniversary for landing on U.S. soil is more than two decades ago.

Now, more than two decades later, I find myself repeating old patterns and it is this repetition that alarms my father, me. Like my grandfather, I have returned to Albania. Yet my father insists that he, himself, left this place for a reason; that he never wants to return. If I – the audacious girl who majored in English and Spanish Literature instead of becoming a doctor/lawyer/engineer – want to become a writer, editor, or even a comparative literature professor, my father says, I should do it here, the American way.

However, what my father fails to realize is that I am aware of this repetition; that I am doing everything in my power to avoid any other uncanny cycles of history, memory, postmemory; that I lock my door with four bolts the second I enter my apartment and protect my U.S. passport like a paranoid dog guards its last piece of meat. Unlike my grandfather, I have not returned because of the economic instability of the Great Depression, nor have I returned in order to settle down and find a spouse; though my eyes wander over the foreigners and expatriates here, I am certain that no Albanian man would ever want me and I am also certain (perhaps stubbornly, absurdly so) that I do not want an Albanian man. Instead, I am here as a U.S. Fulbright Student Research Fellow, studying contemporary Albanian poetry.

Why have I come back? (Moreover, can I even use the phrase “come back” in reference to a country that I barely remember?; can one “come back” to a motherland one does not recall – a motherland that one has only visited on occasion?; should I just use the word “come”?)?

This is the question that everyone asks me.

For my career, I say. I applied for the Fulbright in order to enhance my career. It made logical sense, of course: me, a lit major, wanting to take time off between undergrad and grad school. What better way to enhance a potential grad school or job application than a Fulbright? Unfortunately, with me it’s never that unemotional, never that cut-and-dry.

I almost didn’t apply. I spent a month in Albania a few summers ago, laying the groundwork for both my senior undergraduate thesis and also for my Fulbright application, yet the fear of my family’s reaction kept me from applying. With two weeks left, panic overtook me – a dance with fate, a primitive sort of pendululation (the word I like to use for the sense of the hyperreal that sometimes overcomes me; a cross between “pendulum” and “ululation” – the state of hanging, suspended in limbo whilst lamenting a recurring, unsolvable life motif). I somehow wrestled together the necessary documents in time.

When I learned I was a finalist, and then received the Fulbright, fear kept me from wanting to accept it. Fear almost made me foolishly decline it. Fear of what? Fear of my family, I told myself. Fear of what they will say or think when I tell them that I am going. Fear of having to defend my reasons for going (and convince them of the necessity of my going) when I am the one who is most unsure about it. Fear of figuring out a part of myself that I’ve been desperately clawing after for years.

I used to think that life was a series of coincidences stemming from fleeting obsessions. It is only now that I realize that my life is in fact completely guided by longstanding, deep-rooted obsessions, cravings, longings – what Julia Alvarez and the Dominican campesinos call antojos in How The García Girls Lost Their Accents. My collegiate antojo was getting to know the Albanian side of my personality (if there was one); this therefore led me to a series of seemingly happenstance but purposeful choices. I joined the Albanian student group at my old university because I was curious, I told myself, to see what Albanians in my age group were like – to see just how similar or different they were from the Albanian parents that raised me. Embarrassingly enough, I remained in the group for the first few months because of a boy. Yet I became a leader in the group throughout the years because of me: I wanted to know more about a culture that had inadvertently influenced the trajectory of my life – a culture that I often resented without realizing why, a culture that I felt I knew little about, but that had nevertheless given my liquid self some kind of form.

My involvement in that extracurricular led me to apply for the aforementioned summer research grant, which then led to the Fulbright. I am therefore here, in Tirana, on a Fulbright grant, panicking on Lori’s windowsill, not for my career (though that is a factor), but mostly for me: to satiate old antojos, to work through some cognitive dissonance, to come to terms with the Albanian portion of myself (if any), and to finally articulate the thoughts that have been simultaneously swimming-suspending-firing in my head for, if not 20+ years, then for at least the last four-and-a-half. I am here to give myself a definition, as I’ve developed a habit of being a borderless blob, bleeding over everyone and anyone who will listen, without realizing what I am even attempting to articulate to my listener-witnesses. It is time to put me in a jar, say: there I am, finally contained.

However, it is strange that I – an Albanian up until the age of two – am here in Tirana. A few weeks ago, I met an authority figure at one of the universities here. She mentioned that I will always have a vexed – almost distancing – relationship with Albania, as I am “practically” second generation. As third generation, my (hypothetical) children, she states, will want to find the Albanian portion of themselves, as a means of distinguishing themselves in American society. I, however, will always want to squash the Albanian in me; will always seek to Americanize myself as much as possible. I am fascinated by these remarks. They are valid, but I want to point out that, were I second generation and had I only wanted to distance myself from Albania, I would not be here right now.

My senior thesis advisor often used the term 1.5 generation in reference to me. While this is a good description of me (much better than either first or second generation immigrant), I do not believe that this is enough. 1.5 describes the older immigrant children who remember the homeland, but who come of age elsewhere. My problem, however, is that I don’t remember my birthplace at all. My anxiety demands a more precise definition. I believe I’ve found it in a 2004 article by Rubén G. Rumbaut :[1] 1.75 generation. Rumbaut defines this generation as such:

“those who arrive in early childhood (ages 0-5)—whom I have elsewhere labeled the 1.75 generation because their experience and adaptive outcomes are closer to that of the U.S.-born second generation—are pre-school children who retain virtually no memory of their country of birth, were too young to go to school to learn to read or write in the parental language in the home country (and typically learn English without an accent), and are almost entirely socialized here [in the U.S.].” (1167)

I am elated when I find this term. Yet, my anxiety requires even more specificity when I realize that there are people I know who are on the older end of the 0-5 spectrum, and these people do bear some memories. These individuals harbor child-memories, which in most cases tend to be nostalgic, full of longing, and full of positivity for Albania. My pessimistic nature cannot fit into the 1.75 group comfortably. So I break it down into .05 increments: 1.75 for 5-yearold child-immigrants, 1.80 for four-year-olds, 1.85 for three, 1.9 for two, and 1.95 for one-year-olds. There we have it: I am 1.9-generation Albanian American.

What now?

I had already attained this definition prior to being on this windowsill, but the cognitive dissonance remains. I dally; I dangle.

Later on in the evening, many hours after this window-scene, I will call Lori, crying, pendululating once more. I will tell her that I don’t understand why I keep repeating self-destructive patterns of behavior. I speak in circles and wail, making no sense. Lori tells me to take deep breaths and offers to be my witness. She tells me to write, as if I’m writing to her; to tell her everything that is swimming-suspending-firing in my head. I tell her that I am too afraid to write; that I am too afraid to come to terms with my mind. I want to tell her that after the window incident, I was romantically rejected by an American man. I then, in turn, lashed out at an Albanian man that I mistakenly thought was making an advance. The windowsill prompted these two incidents, and these two incidents prompt me to call Lori.

I am horrified by my actions; horrified at how I have thrown my affection at the American man in a desperate attempt to reach equilibrium after the window. Horrified that I’ve attached a sense of “America” to this American man; that his rejection of me weighs like the rejection of a nation. Horrified that this man probably has a lovely American girl to love – someone my age named Amy, or Jane, or Lisa, or Sandy. Horrified that my name is Krisela and I will never be a Kelly. I am also ashamed for yelling at the Albanian man, for telling him to “get his hands off of me” though he was being friendly, not inappropriate; ashamed that I transferred my own insecurities to another in such a fashion.

After this, my mind is a suspended mass of self-hate and worry; my brain wades and ebbs, I pendululate over my own lack of form without end. Several days later, I have an unpleasant conversation with the American man, who accurately tells me that I think too much, that I am stressful, that I make mountains out of insignificant molehills, that I make certain situations seem hyperreal. I try to explain to him: I am American intellectually and politically, yet emotionally, psychologically, and physically, I am a stunted Albanian, bearing the postmemory of 50-years’ worth of repression and hundreds of years of Kanun writings that leave traces on even the most open-minded of Albanian families. His words have hurt me deeply because they are true, but at least he somewhat understands what I have just said. I cringe in horror once more.

I believe that what I am always saying – in one incarnation or another – to anyone willing to listen is that I abhor the Albanian vs. American divide in my personality because it is this neurosis that prevents me from connecting with others, while simultaneously causing me to want to connect with others. It is this neurosis that makes me feel like the constant “other” in every room; that keeps me up at night, too panicked to sleep.

The week after the window incident, the holidays arrive. I debate going to my Albanian hometown because the air is heavy there – one quaffs it. 2,400 years of history, of tradition, of life accumulate; it is magnificently, alarmingly constricting. I decide to not go. Then I decide to go. I flip back and forth between decisions until I say “I’m going” because I can no longer stand my own head; can no longer handle the loneliness of my thoughts, nor the pull of familial obligation. I pendululate inwardly as the bus chugs into town. Yet, later that evening my cousin puts on a few home videos, and thus commences a pleasant two-day holiday. Coming was a good choice.

I see clips of my family and me in Albania during the summer of 1995, celebrating another cousin’s birthday. I am three years old; we have temporarily returned to Albania for a three-month-stay, after which we will determine that it is best for us to remain in the U.S. for good. This video captivates me: the captured interactions, the nuances in tone, the toast that everyone makes at the end, the manner in which even at age three, I separate from the group and befriend a hanging towel. I ask my cousin to rewind to a part where my then-alive mother makes random conversation with a party guest. She is talking about stoves in America: how they function with electricity, not gas. I ask my cousin to rewind to this part again. I take a video of the video with my phone, apologizing profusely to her the whole time for the hassle. I cannot help myself though: I haven’t heard that voice in 13 years, hadn’t even remembered what it sounded like; hadn’t thought it would sound so Albanian, that it would have a slightly hoarse register even years before the cancer and the chemo; hadn’t even registered that it was a voice I should be missing, because I couldn’t remember the original.

The next day, my cousin and I go to the town’s castle-fortress to visit a family member. Up there, I see the mountain that had the name “Enver” carved into it during the communist regime and notice once more (as I had last year), that the name on the mountain now reads “Never.” This time, though, the re-discovery of this fact, along with seeing the snow-capped mountain across from it, and the cypress-lined road from the fortress to the town below, gives me a sense of peace. I take pictures of these tableaux with my phone, and post them on Instagram with trite captions like “Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard have probably (definitely?) already composed a song about this” and “View of Tomorri from the Kala; opposite a mountain now named ‘Never.’ For the first time in a while, my imagination doesn’t even compare with the magical-realism of real life.” Under the picture of Mount Tomorri, I explain to a friend on Facebook that: “When I saw this, there was this weird sense of vertigo and contentedness that I usually only find when reading a book or daydreaming. My senses finally felt satiated by something in front of me – so incredibly rare.” This was the definition of pendululation—the physical manifestation of what it means to pendululate – though in a positive sense. I never knew that it could exist positively; never knew that suspension, weightlessness, mind-flights could be full of awe instead of awful; could be calming instead of full of calamity.

The next day, I visit an uncle in a different town. At one point during my stay, he mentions that I am not Albanian; that it is ridiculous for Albanians in Albania to count those who have lived their lives almost entirely elsewhere as “Albanians.” In his efforts to show that he “gets” me, he calls me American, through and through. There you have it: neither culture fully claims me; I am often too liberal for Albanian standards and sometimes too personally prudish for American. I am learning – training myself – to not care. Benedict Anderson tells us that a nation is an imagined community, anyway. If this is the case, then I am part of the nation called Margalina.

I will never be able to stop the push-pull between the Albanian and American aspects of me. I will forever pendululate over a sense of loss – a loss at not having the necessary parts to be fully one nor the other, a loss of a mother that might have connected me more to the Albanian side. However, I have learned that my dead mother’s voice is the only thing that calms these pendululations. I hear this voice in old videotapes, now saved on my smartphone, and this voice is always in Albanian. If this is the only way for me to maintain a tie with history, memory, postmemory, mother, self, then I choose the suspension, the dangling, the groundless pendululations; I choose this because it is the only option I have, and I have-to-have-to-have-to morph it into something beautiful lest I fall into a state of limbo-induced lunacy.

My name is Krisela Karaja. I do not know much, but I do know this:

I have mixed feelings about being a namesake and even more mixed feelings about my full name. I am 23 years old. I am often anxious, often feel the ground creep beneath me, the waltz of the ceiling, the turn of the earth. I should, according to my therapist, fixate on a point in the room during these moments, and describe that point to bring me back to the here-and-now. I am anxious, and I need to sometimes move my eyes left-and-right, left-and-right, mimicking REM sleep in order to lessen this anxiety. I want to be in love, but am fearful that finding someone who is “American” intellectually, and yet “Albanian” emotionally (whatever that means) might be futile. I like learning about my dead mother and scavenging for factual crumbs about her personality, as if she were a character in a book. I like imagining what other members of my extended family are like, because they are either deceased or because I simply don’t know them. I often construct beautiful, terrible worlds in my own imagination and I retreat into my mind when I want a respite from the real. I want to be a professor, or an editor, or a publisher, but above all, I want to be a writer.

Let me say that again: above all, I want to be a writer. I want to be a writer because writers have audiences, witnesses; because I am planning to read Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman, and I too want audiences, witnesses; because the women’s movement says that the personal is political and my personal is political, too.

I want to be a writer, and when I think of how I will write myself in the future, the things that first come to mind are imaginings borne of that lonely but stately 0.1 between my 1.9 self and the 2.0 I fall short of; from the 1.1 between my 1.9 self and the 3.0 I should have been, had my grandfather not returned:

Krisela Karaja: kaki – selvi – olive tree – a mountain now-named Never –

straddling Lori’s bathroom windowsill, feet stretching to a seatless chair, too paralyzed to ever muster a jump, too transfixed by the newfound vertiginous comfort of being stuck – of perpetual pendululation – to ever want to.

Bibliography [1] Rumbaut, Rubén G. “Ages, Life Stages, and Generational Cohorts: Decomposing the Immigrant First and Second Generations in the United States.” International Migration Review 38.3 (Fall 2004): 1160-1205. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

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