A Manchester-based secondary school teacher, Naomi Hamill has worked with women and children in Kosovo for ten years as a volunteer following the 1999 conflict. Her debut novel follows two women – one is married and follows a traditional path of motherhood and the other goes to the capital city, Pristina, to study at university. The novel How to be a Kosovan Bride (Salt, £8.99) follows their choices, challenges and the conflicts they both face between societal expectations and the desire to shake off the shackles of conformity.
Tell us about your work with Manchester Aid to Kosovo and why it is still vital today.
Manchester Aid to Kosovo was founded in 1999 to offer humanitarian aid to those living in refugee camps and in the UK during the war. The charity’s role then changed and it offered help and support to those who were evacuated to Manchester. A group of children (who were medically evacuated) asked that a park be built in their hometown in Kosovo as they had found the parks in Manchester so important in their healing process. The Manchester Peace Park then began to be created in Podujevë. I personally became involved around 2004 when a teacher friend asked me to go and help her to run some summer activities in the park for children. It’s now 2017 and I think I’ve been every year since, sometimes more than once a year.
Did you have any reservations writing about a culture that’s not your own, and how has the book been received in Kosovo?
This is a really good question and, yes, of course I have been really anxious about this in some ways. I wrote the novel as part of an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at MMU and wasn’t really expecting it to be published, so I wrote very freely. I mainly wrote about Kosovo as it was a passion for me – I guess I saw it as a real opportunity to write about a country that was not very well known in the UK. When I knew that it would be published, I was worried about how it would be received. I really hope that I have been sensitive enough in talking about the war. As you’ll see from the acknowledgements, I did speak to many people when writing the book. In August, I spoke about the book at the National Library in Pristina and those who listened seemed very excited about it. Since then, some young women who live in Kosovo and who volunteer with the charity have read the book and have told me that they loved it, which obviously makes me feel really happy.
Both the Kosovan Bride and the Returned Girl are writing. Through your outreach work in Kosovo, have you encouraged people to record their stories and can you recommend any published Kosovan authors?
The charity has recorded a series of oral histories called Voices of Kosovo in Manchester (vokim.org) and this collection captures the stories of those who arrived in Manchester in 1999. I ran a writing workshop at the People’s History Museum as part of this work but none of this was connected to my novel. In Kosovo, I listened to and recorded stories as part of the research for my novel and I’ve also run writing workshops in schools there with teenagers and children. When writing the novel I read a wonderful book called Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones. I also looked at the work of Robert Elsie who has translated many Albanian and Kosovan folk tales. Probably the most famous Albanian writer is Ismail Kadare.
What are the implications of being the youngest country in the world?
I find Kosovo to be exciting, ever-changing and it feels as if anything could happen. There’s a monument in Pristina called Newborn, designed by artist Fisnik Ismaili and I think that it really sums up the feel of the capital city. Every year, on 17 February, the anniversary of the day that Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, it is painted with a new design. This year the ‘N’ and the ‘W’ of ‘Newborn’ have been laid down on the pavement and ‘No Walls’ has been painted on the ground. I find this so exciting – not only is it a comment on the visa restrictions that many of the young people find so frustrating in Kosovo, but it’s also got something to say about the world that we live in at the moment and some of the negative attitudes that exist.
Your book is a ‘how to’ guide – in name at least. Is this reflective of Kosovan Albanians still themselves attempting to understand what it means to have those duel identities?
Yes, I think that’s a good interpretation. Of course, this isn’t actually a ‘how to’ guide and I hope that the title raises more questions than answers. It’s about the fact that of course, in general, there’s no one way to be anything. I actually played around with the idea of writing an alternative travel guide for Kosovo, with the stories I was writing making up different sections of the guide, but I tried it and it didn’t work – I guess the title is sort of a remnant of that.
Why do Albanian Kosovans so readily look to the west?
I think that attitudes to the UK and the USA are so positive as both these countries are seen as being responsible for help and support during the war. Some people have said to me that someone from the UK will always do what they say – I’m not sure that this is always true, but I’ve certainly encountered this as an attitude many times. There’s a political party in Kosovo, called Vetëvendosje – a party many young people support – and they certainly really challenged the idea of being over-reliant on the west. This is explored in some ways in the novel.
Are attitudes towards women progressing or becoming more ‘western’?
I’ve noticed a real difference in the years that I’ve been visiting Kosovo. When I first started going there, I wouldn’t really see many women in the streets, in coffee shops and restaurants. This is something that has really changed. Some of the young women who volunteer with the charity talk about sexism and sexist attitudes towards them and they definitely talk about the pressure, from some people, to talk about marriage and to settle for a more ‘traditional’ life. However, I know that there are many organisations which are working really hard to promote equality for women and I know that this has really helped. We work with some fantastic young women who are at university who are determined, fearless and who have amazing leadership qualities.