Interview with Kosovar illustrator and writer Gani Jakupi on graphic novels, the position of Balkan artists in the west, and politics. Retour au Kosovo is a graphic novel (published in French in 2014) about the aftermath of the Kosovo War, illustrated by Jorge Gonzalez and written by Gani Jakupi, a jazz-musician and a comic-strip artist. In 1999 Jakupi returned to Kosovo to witness the aftermath of the war. Reflections on that experience, on the absurdity of the war, and on the suffering of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs are presented in Retour au Kosovo.
Why did you choose the genre of the graphic novel to discuss your experiences in Kosovo after the war?
First of all, I chose it because, artistically speaking, the graphic novel is my mother tongue. I have been drawing comics since a young age and I feel at ease in the style of the graphic novel. Secondly, the graphic novel is an efficient medium: it is less impressive than cinema, but by far less costly. It also has a great advantage over film since it can combine the visual with the written. An image can of course express more than a thousand words, but too often we underestimate the power of the written word. And, luckily, writing plays an important role in the creation of a graphic novel. I am a seasoned cinephile, I learn a lot from the form, but I hate the inferiority complex that pushes certain artists to imitate the effects of cinema. The same goes for writers too—particularly Franco-Belgian ones, who are more conscious of the power of writing and who take themselves for Maupassant and produce long tirades instead of efficient dialogues. The graphic novel is situated, like jazz, in a confluence of genres, and it has everything to gain in assimilating them but not copying them.
Why hasn’t Retour au Kosovo appeared in Albanian yet?
It is above all a question of cost. Gonzalez’s plates are extremely sophisticated and proper printing would entail substantial costs. This is not a small notebook or a cheap comic book; this is a large and lengthy format. Personally, I’d almost prefer for it to be published by an editor in Albania since the same publisher could distribute the graphic novel in Kosovo. The reverse situation would be nearly impossible.
Has your book been published in Serbian?
No, not yet. It might be possible to find a Serbian editor for it, and I would like to find one. This is an extremely delicate theme for the Serbian public but there are people in Serbia who are willing to deal with the opinion that I’m putting forward, even if they do not necessarily agree with it. The Russian edition, for instance, contains an introduction that expresses an opposing opinion to my own political views on Kosovo, but nonetheless recognizes the human and artistic aspects of my story.
Do you think that there is a (subtle) discrimination in the West towards art from the Balkans? For a work of art from the Balkans to be recognized in France, Germany, etc., it must talk about war and conflict.
Absolutely, yes. But it is useless to complain. We too, from the Balkans, are full of mutual prejudices towards others, towards those who are in a more lamentable situation than ourselves. In any case, we cannot expect fair treatment if we always position ourselves as in need of help. We should not demand attention, but rather try to captivate it. Personally, I speak of the war in Retour au Kosovo (but also in La dernière image) because I would like to rid myself of painful and traumatizing memories. Also, I am not happy with the manner in which this part of our history has been treated, but I don’t need it to draw attention to my works. My other projects are on themes that concern Cuba, Brazil, China… Les amants de Sylvia was hailed by the specialist French press as the most serious work on Trotsky’s assassination, in any genre, well ahead of the film by Joseph Losey or the writings of Jorge Semprun. So it is down to us to roll up our sleeves and to propose works that are important and prescient– in their form or their content—without taking into account whether the author is Kosovar, Serbian, or Greek.
In your graphic novel, your criticize the international presence in Kosovo. What do you truly think of it?
Just to be clear: I am happy that they are there. I am content that we were not liberated entirely by ourselves because historically, there is a certain dictatorial temptation amongst “liberators”. But I am deeply disappointed by the hardly positive (and often harmful) role of the international community in Kosovo. Of course, this hasn’t always been the case: there are individuals and organizations that have operated with sincerity and dedication that deserve our respect. But instead of battling with the endemic ills of the Balkans, so many in our region have instead lined their own pockets.
Why do you no longer live in Kosovo?
I left Kosovo more than thirty years ago, I made my life elsewhere and I have always been curious to learn about other cultures, other sensibilities and other ways of life. I have a small apartment in Priština, I try to be there as often as possible (I collaborate with a lot of Kosovar musicians). Yet I dream from time to time of living in Havana, or in Tokyo… more than of returning to Kosovo. It is not a lack of choice. But you never know, maybe I’ll end up returning there.
Do you think that the heart of the conflict between the Albanians and the Serbs in Kosovo lies in the idea, as propagated by Serbian politicians throughout the decades, that the Albanians are not entirely human beings in their own right? (There’s a quotation in the graphic novel where we read: “He confirmed the idea that was instilled in us over the years that Albanians were inferior beings,” p.89.)
No, this is not exactly “the heart of the conflict.” This idea is nothing but a means for Serbian propaganda to manipulate public opinion and to anaesthetize the public’s humanity. The real reasons are as always, crassly geostrategic and economic: cynical power games that profit only those in power and never the population at large.
The example of Balkan or Western “analysts” who seek to explain the region is the best illustration of this phrase: everything they pretend to know and the convoluted theories that they develop are impressive. However, my experience has taught me that the people who really understand the state of affairs don’t go running to announce it to the world. Take for instance what happened to me while I was doing research on the Cuban revolution. It took me 6 to 7 years to gain the confidence of people who kept sensitive secrets. The writers who preceded me couldn’t see the truth. A journalist from The Washington Post (a two time Pulitzer prize winner) and another from The New Yorker spoke to the same persons during their investigation. They had more resources than I did (their costs were reimbursed by their employers – not mine!) and it was more convenient for them (they didn’t have to cross the ocean to get to the witnesses), but they were entirely satisfied with the surface. They did not scratch beneath the surface, they did not invest themselves. You can’t win the confidence of people without showing them some sincere respect. You show this respect by learning about the culture of those you investigate, by being interested in their mentality and their sensibility. Otherwise, you only get what you “pay” for: “ready-to-wear” evidence.
Is it true that your comic strip La dernière image is the first of its kind in Kosovo?
Yes and no. During the Yugoslav era, plenty of newspapers and magazines published comic strips. By contrast, La dernière image is for sure the first graphic novel published in Albanian. We even had to coin a new name for the genre that did not exist before: to call it “a strip” would signify a sequence of cartoons, but La dernière image was published as a “roman grafik”.
Cover photo: cover of Retour au Kosovo by Gani Jakupi and Jorge Gonzalez. (Paris: Dupuis, 2014).