Tag Archives: Virginia Quarterly Review

Albania’s Blood Feuds

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Our neighbor accidentally drove over our lawn, dislodging a decorative boulder that I put in, but he never mentioned it. We could see the tire tracks from his side of our shared driveway. He probably saw me digging another hole to put the giant rock back in. It was just a boulder, but his un-neighborly silence irritated me. We avoided a feud because I decided an apology didn’t matter as much as our peaceful relationship. So I forgave him, and he kept being his painfully shy anxious self, gentle and unable to deal with the challenges of sharing a driveway. Forgive and forget, I figured. Not in the Balkans.

For Virginia Quarterly Review, Amanda Petrusich traveled to mountainous northern Albania to examine its culture of vengeance. For some Albanians, forgiveness is shameful. Someone must die to right a wrong, and families go on and on for generations, murdering the murderers or the murderers’ relatives, only to get shot themselves and continue the feud. Many blood feuds start over trivial acts, like refusing an alcoholic beverage. Feuds have killed an estimated 12,000 Albanians in the last 25 years. Traveling the region’s rough roads, Petrusich spent time with a negotiator whose job is to facilitate a détente between various parties. Some negotiators get murdered, too.

Per ancient edicts, the avenging family should hunt only an able-bodied adult male (the elderly, women, or boys who are too young to carry arms are excluded), though in recent years those dictums have relaxed, and it is no longer unusual to hear about the retaliatory murder of a young boy or girl. Feuds can begin over most anything, though a high percentage seem to involve property disputes. Despite earnest intervention by the church and the government, reconciliation between feuding families is rarely (if ever) brokered without blood, and the object of a feud—and his family members—are forced to spend decades barricaded inside their homes, hiding. To venture beyond the property line could mean a forceful and immediate death: sudden bullets from on high. Children are pulled from school; jobs are lost. Untethered from the rhythms of a regular life, and unable to conceive of a peaceful future, people drift into depression. Life is at once terrifying and terrifically boring. Families rely on donations to survive. Maybe friends bring food, boxes of groceries. Everyone watches a lot of television. Suicide is not unheard of.

That sounds like a horrible way to spend your life, and for what? Vengeance  seems to only bring more pain. Petrusich looks deeper to understand why this practice exists here and what retribution gets people. Albanian vengeance isn’t lawlessness. It’s an ancient code, so was there something in the exchange that made sense, something that connects back to humanity’s most basic collective unconscious? Most people don’t want to discuss resolution. They want revenge, and targets, as one told Petrusich, just wait for the bullets.

Despite believing these feuds to be barbaric and philosophically flawed—savage by any Western standard—I wondered if the blood feud was also the purest distillation of justice as practiced by a modern society, the least complicated restoration of some essential psychic balance. Blood let for blood let. By any accounting, it was a cathartic reckoning, to avenge a crime properly. It surely facilitated a particular kind of healing. Besides, what did it mean to witness and absorb something wicked, but not to correct for it yourself? Intellectually, I understood it was a mark of maturation and empathy and civilization to defer justice to a court, to some impartial entity separate from the family. But I thought, too, of the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel and his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? “The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep,” Sandel writes. Was justice not, at heart and freed from any attendant subtext, simply a faithful restoration of equity?

Vengeance is not merely prevalent in rural enclaves here; the notion of vigilante justice is threaded into Albanian culture. In 2015, Armando Prenga, a Socialist lawmaker and an elected member of Parliament, was arrested after getting into a barroom scrap with a sixty-six-year-old fisherman named Tom Cali. When members of Cali’s family went to local police to report the incident—Cali had been badly pistol-whipped—Prenga burst into the station with his brother and a cabal of associates, discharging several rounds of gunfire and hollering, “We will eradicate your tribe!”

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Can an Old Satire, Reborn, Survive the New Political Climate?

The Virginia Quarterly Review has a personal essay by Meghan Daum in which she discusses the recent reissue of her 2003 debut novel, The Quality of Life Report. Daum is nervous about the book’s reception the second time around. Fourteen years after publication, the book is entering a different kind of political climate: A satire about a New York television reporter who moves to the midwest, it pokes fun at overly sensitive liberals, coastal elites, and P.C. culture, and makes jokes about gender, race, and class.

The book can be buffoonish and broad (for better or worse, I was reading a lot of John Irving the time) but I’ve never in my life had so much fun writing anything. I remember sitting in my chair during those years and at times practically falling out of it from laughing out loud. This is not a regular feature of my creative process.

Last year, after not having looked at the book for a very long time, I reread it and found myself laughing all over again. I also found myself utterly shocked by some of the content. Though the reviews back in 2003 had been mostly positive and, moreover, made little if any mention of the risky humor around things like race, class, and gender (or the political undertones of sexually irrepressible farm animals) the humor seemed to me by today’s standards to be something bordering on unacceptable. Were the novel to be published for the first time today (and I suspect it might not be) there’s a good chance it would be the target of such excoriation on social media and elsewhere that its fundamental message—that liberals can be the most illiberal of all, just as urban coastal types can be the most provincial—would be dismissed as irrelevant, if not lost altogether.

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The Telescope That Sees into the Heart of Hawaii

I asked Coleman, again, about the political nature of the TMT controversy. Was it not true that the United States instigated an illegal military coup and then later stole these islands near the turn of the nineteenth century? So weren’t these internecine politics sort of peripheral to the fact that Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom that was robbed from the Hawaiian people? And was that robbery not at gunpoint? And was it not true that the astronomers and groups supporting the TMT were just tacitly benefiting from a major geopolitical crime that was never rectified? Wasn’t the fundamental question of developing anything on Mauna Kea solely within the purview of the citizens of this hypothetical Hawaiian Kingdom? This was, to say the least, an uncomfortable question to ask, but it was important to know what one of maybe three Native Hawaiian astronomers on this planet thought about it.

He said, “There are very large numbers of Hawaiians who think statehood is a great thing. People who say, ‘We want to be Americans. We love it. We were born Americans, we served in Vietnam and Korea. We want to be seen as Americans.’ And then there are people who say, ‘No, we don’t want to be Americans. We hate the place.’” He speculated how these two groups could achieve consensus and the cold wind picked up and I grew impatient.

In Virginia Quarterly Review, Trevor Quirk reports from a mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii, where native Hawaiians protested the construction of a telescope on spiritual grounds — the presence of which cuts to the very question of who gets to decide what happens on Hawaiian soil — and who the soil belongs to.

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Twisting History to Tell Universal Truths

Readers often wonder how much of an author’s real life ends up in their novels. In 2013 in the Virginia Quarterly Review, novelist Nina Revoyr described how she combined elements of her life with the real lives of silent-film era actors Sessue Hayakawa and Mary Miles Minter in her book The Age of Dreaming. Revoyr had become obsessed with their stories and used history to explore her own struggles with regret, fear and self-doubt, because, she said, it was easier “to pour my own deepest feelings into a character who appeared to be vastly different than myself.”

But despite the large backdrop against which it is set, the story ultimately centers on one flawed man. And the core of his feelings, and failings, are my own. When I assumed his voice—when I became Nakayama—I was able to explore and depict feelings of frustration, of sadness, of failure that I could never have admitted to as myself. Jun last appears in a film when he is thirty years old—the exact age I was when my own writing came to a halt. As I imagined an old man who hasn’t acted in forty years, what I was really exploring was this: What happens to someone when he stops doing what he loves? What does he become? How would I feel later on in my life if I never tried to write another book? And what if my abandonment of writing had nothing to do with a lack of ideas or bottom-line-driven publishers but was instead just a failure to persevere?

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Eating During the San Francisco Tech Boom

They have astonishingly well-paid jobs that they don’t like. Some plan to stay only until their options are vested. Then they will move on to their “actual” careers. This population of the possessed waiting to be dispossessed spends an inordinate amount of time comparing the gourmet kitchens of different website headquarters. The top digital companies in the Bay Area are famed for putting on lavish buffets and encouraging employees to invite friends from rival firms to join the feasts. The company cafeteria has arguably become the preeminent battleground in local corporate bragging rights. For many young workers in the internet industry, San Francisco is a salaried vacation between college and their careers, a well-earned break before starting their adult lives. So what do they do with their free time during this purgatory? They eat.

Theodore Gioia writing in Virginia Quarterly Review about the food culture that has emerged in San Francisco, fueled by tech money, youth, a sense of transiency and free time, and built on the foundation of conscious-eating laid by people like Alice Waters.

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