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Jeton Neziraj | photo © Jetmir Idrizi
Jeton Neziraj | photo © Jetmir Idrizi
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How Jeton Neziraj Is Leading Kosovo's Emergence as Europe's New Theater and Literary Darling

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 2 August 2017
We spoke with Neziraj about the background of “Run, Lola, Run,” his views on contemporary theater, and the developments of contemporary Kosovo culture and society as an independent state.

The Republic of Kosovo is the second youngest country in the world, having declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Though less than ten years old, its arts and literary culture is already emerging as one of central Europe’s most vibrant. Among its most accomplished artists is the award-winning playwright and writer Jeton Neziraj. The author of over 15 plays and the founder and director of the theater company Qendra Multimedia, Neziraj has seen his work performed all across Europe as well as in the United States. This success has resulted in him emerging as a sort of cultural ambassador to his country, a role that carries some complications. “Our work could be perceived as a ‘cultural diplomacy’ or at least a ‘cultural statement’ on behalf of Kosovo,” he said over email, “but I personally do not want to perceive it that way. I’m afraid that this kind of ‘framing’ would limit us regarding the way we could address internal, political, and social problems. Therefore, I do not want to load myself with such a non-theatrical burden, despite the fact that it could be perceived by others to be cultural diplomacy.”

For Neziraj, whose short story “Run, Lola, Run” is included in our Global Anthology, this line between cultural diplomacy and artistic independence from it is tight-rope thin as many of his works are engendered by contemporary Kosovar culture, society, and politics, But rather than demur from reflecting upon Kosovo’s current affairs, he chooses to engage them thoughtfully and on his own terms, by authoring articles, essays, and giving a host of lectures. When he does choose to bring these issues into his work, he is careful not to overshadow the art. “Today, Kosovo-Albanian literature has been liberated from this ‘national burden,’ or ‘literature with a mission,’ or ‘big national and ideological topics,’” he wrote. “Its literature is more culturally critical and tackles micro topics and problems that were traditionally considered unworthy of literature. So, it is steadily concerning itself with less nationalistic concerns for more ‘daily life’ ones.”

We spoke with Neziraj about the background of “Run, Lola, Run,” his views on contemporary theater, and the developments of contemporary Kosovo culture and society as an independent state.

* * *

Your story, “Run, Lola, Run” is about a marathon that hints at a scandal and has the unlikely consequence of boosting Kosovo’s morale. There’s also a dying patient in ambulance that has had an illegal treatment. Could you talk about some of the complex themes or incidences that inspired you to write it?
While it is difficult to track down the exact origin of this story’s ‘inspiration,’ I can say that it is based on some events that happened a few years ago, when the media covered a medical scandal involving illegal kidney transplantation that took place in Medicus clinics in Prishtina. It was said that a Turkish doctor (who was later called ‘the Turkish Doctor Frankenstein’) was a key actor in this story. The scandal piqued international interest, and as far as I know, some of the doctors involved are now in prison. But this Turkish Doctor Frankenstein remains a fugitive.

As to the marathon from the story: in Kosovo marathons are quite frequent. But in “Run, Lola, Run,” the marathon takes a metaphorical meaning. In some of my plays I have dealt with collateral damage—if I may call it that—caused during big and important events. Often, during the excitement of victory and the period of celebration that follows it, anything smaller and inconvenient dramas reported by the state media will be ignored by the public. For example, on the same day Kosovo declared its independence, the medias reported on a marketing company financial scandal. But this news was quickly swept under the rug, so as not to ruin the jubilation brought upon by independence. For Kosovo to be seen as successful and healthy as it emerges as a newborn country, the blemishes of injustice and the impoverished are often covered, hidden, and forsaken. It’s like a form of national photoshopping.

Of course, as a writer, I am particularly interested in finding these voices that this country and its society neglects or suppresses. When I say ‘voices’ I mean marginalized social groups, unpleasant or compromising developments, or deeper problems of society, such as corruption or war crimes, which neither the state nor its citizens have the courage to tackle. So, I write about the victims of Kosovo’s own Doctor Frankensteins…

You have an accomplished career as a playwright and have even had some plays performed in the United States, where literary playwrights are less common than in Europe. In fact they are almost completely different occupations here. How do you balance the two genres? What do you see as the differences between theater in the US and theater in Europe?
In fact, I haven’t been that present in the United States—there have only really been a couple small theater productions and few stage readings. But now Laertes, my publisher and agent, has begun publishing my plays and I really hope that the interest for them in the US will grow. I haven’t written a lot of prose, and what I have published was mainly brought out in Albanian, Serbian and German. I soon hope to publish my first book of short stories, but in general, I am a dramatist. The plays I write aren’t meant to be read, so much as acted out. This means that I write for the stage and in most cases, I elaborate upon dialogues and scenes with actors and directors after rehearsals. What I just said may sound cliché, but what I mean is that as a playwright, I am as closely attached to the stage as I am to the page. And I believe that this attachment is obvious in the poetics of my plays.

To answer your second part of the question, what I have noticed is that American theaters have had little curiosity for European theater, which to me is more progressive, more courageous, and more attractive compared to American theater, that, with few exceptions, is still very much conventional. This is my impression, though this is not what many European theater managers think, in whose repertoire American plays are always present. I even daresay too present. Stylistically and thematically, I feel better with German theater as well as French and Balkan theater. The Balkans, in fact, have a very rich theater tradition. Some of that region’s directors will leave you breathless with their talent. Among them, I should mention Oliver Frljić from Croatia, Andraš Urban from Serbia, Dino Mustafić from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slobodan Unkovski from Macedonia, Arben Kumbaro from Albania and Bekim Lumi from Kosovo… The list is long. I believe that both Western Europe and America could learn a lot from the interesting theater that is taking place in the Balkans.

Jeton Neziraj plays (L) ‘The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower’; (R) ‘One Flew Over the Kosovo Theater’
Jeton Neziraj plays (L) ‘The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower’; (R) ‘One Flew Over the Kosovo Theater’

I first discovered your name on a bill for a Mexican literary festival and as mentioned above, you must do a lot of traveling as a playwright. In what ways do you see yourself as a sort of cultural ambassador for Kosovo?
Until few years ago, I used to travel quite a bit, though more recently, I have tried to reduce ‘unnecessary’ trips as much as I could. I used to attend different theater conferences, participate in different talks hosted by various universities, and was very involved in many international festivals and other cultural events. Now if I do any traveling, it is primarily with my theater company, Qendra Multimedia, where we produce up to three plays a year, and present them at different festivals across Europe. I will also to travel to attend premieres of my plays when they’re produced elsewhere in Europe.

Of course, our work can be perceived as a cultural diplomacy or at least a cultural statement on behalf of Kosovo, but I personally do not want to perceive it that way. I’m afraid that this kind of framing would limit us regarding the way we could address internal, political, and social problems. Therefore, I do not want to load myself with such a non-theatrical burden, despite the fact that it could be perceived by others to be cultural diplomacy. What we need to say is that Prishtina is a fantastic and inspiring city. Its cultural life may not be as rich as other places, but the arts and literature that we do produce, does have and brings in a large audience, mainly young people. So it’s this energy that is Prishtina’s great asset, and it’s a quality of our culture that matches even the biggest European cultural hubs, like Berlin.

Kosovo is still only a partially recognized state, with a volatile history in its relatively short period of independence. How has this impacted on its literature? What are some of the prevailing concerns of its writers? And who among them are some that should be more widely known?
Kosovo is a wonderful country with wonderful people and wonderful writers. It was and still is the homeland of many wonderful poets. Especially poets. Poetry is mainly borne out of poverty, emigration, political instability, and turbulence, so you can imagine that Kosovo is in a way a poetry capital with many native and excellent poets like Arben Idrizi, Ervina Halili, Shpëtim Selmani, Eli Krasniqi, Halil Matoshi, Xhevdet Bajraj, Sibel Halimi and many others. The prose in Kosovo is somewhat pales in comparison, however, we are not without some good writers; among them Gëzim Aliu, Adil Olluri, and a very two young female writers, Lura Limani and Rrona Jaka. In Albania, on the other hand, prose is excellent and it dominates the Albanian-speaking literary market. The most renowned name there is, of course, Ismail Kadare. But there are also other amazing writers such as Fatos Kongoli, Elvira Dones, Visar Zhiti, Arben Dedja, Agron Tufa, Arian Leka, Virion Graçi, Luljeta Lleshanaku (wonderful poet), Ferik Ferra, Ardian Christian Kyçyku, Ridvan Dibra and many more.

Let me get back to the essence of the question: literature always had its important place among the Albanian society resident in Kosovo. Most key political and social processes in Kosovo’s recent history were inspired or led by renowned our writers, such as Adem Demaçi, Ibrahim Rugova, Rexhep Qosja, Veton Surroi and in one or another way also Ali Podrimja, who was undoubtedly one the greatest Kosovo-Albanian poets. A verse of Podrimja’s poem Kosova është gjaku im që nuk falet (“Kosovo is my blood not to be forgiven”) has been a hymn for all those generations of Kosovo youngsters who led the peaceful resistance of the early ‘90s, as well as the armed resistance against Milosevic’s armed forces by the end of the decade.

In general, Kosovo-Albanian literature of the ‘90s had been concerned with national topics, lending a hand to the efforts for national liberation by giving it a voice. After the ‘90s, one of the main concerns of this literature was, naturally, the consequences of the war and its aftermath, and the lives of people who had to face its traumas. Today, Kosovo-Albanian literature has been liberated from this ‘national burden’, or ‘literature with a mission,’ or ‘big national and ideological topics.’ Its literature is more cultural critical and tackles micro topics and problems that were traditionally considered unworthy of literature. So, it is steadily concerning itself with less nationalistic concerns for more ‘daily life’ ones.

What are you working on now? Another play or more fiction? Is Alexandra Channer working on any new translations of your work?
I am writing a new play with the working title 55 Shades of Gay, about the first gay marriage in Kosovo—which has not ‘officially’ taken place. A couple of years ago, the media broadcast a news piece regarding a gay couple’s wedding in a small Kosovar town. Though this was apparently fake news, the Kosovo Constitution is quite vague in its Article on marriage, and does not give enough explanation as to whether two people of the same sex can marry. So this rumored marriage ended up producing a wave of gossip and intriguing debate.

This play will premiere on September 8 in Prishtina. And of course, as soon as I complete it, the play will be translated into English by Alexandra Channer. She has translated most of my plays, along with the short story “Run, Lola, Run,” and I am very happy with her work. She is a fantastic translator and I am very lucky to have met and known her.

Translated by Qerim Ondozi. You can read Alexandra Channer’s translation of “Run Lola Run” here.