by Daax Ukaj
Daax Ukaj (b. 1993) is a cross-disciplinary artist and writer working in a diaspora between the Balkans and the Bronx. Their practice dances with intergenerational pattern making, intimate spaces invaded by necropolitics, and the family home as a bodymind. Their work in essay and installation is rooted in rituals like the valle, the gjama of the north and the polyphonic sounds of the south—Albanian folk traditions which manifest in pattern and swerve, circularity, gesture and rhythmic bodies. Intersecting with diasporic traditions of the Bronx, the work is made primarily in a learned language and steeped in the birthplace of hip hop as well as native dialects that defy borders. Ukaj's current work, Nobody’s Home, is concerned with inherited anxieties, misplaced memories, displaced lineage and pattern alteration within failing surveillance states.
Baby On(e More Time) Fire
My mother tells me once, in my distant memory, that she wishes she could put me back inside her belly. Make me small and squeeze me back into her womb.
* * *
I am eight years old the day that I follow a classmate to her apartment building to borrow a Britney Spears cassette tape. I am not small. I have stretched myself thin and towards the sky.
My friend’s building is next to the senior center where my mother works. I trade a CD for the tape—can’t remember which one. Maybe it’s Michael or Whitney, from my mother’s collection. Don’t even know how she got it.
My friend, whose name or face I can’t recall now, runs upstairs as I wait on the corner. I pace back and forth, waiting for it to come down to me. The cassette is …Baby One More Time—it came out two years ago, which I guess is why she doesn’t want it anymore. Kids bore easy, discarding obsessions like eggshells.
But I haven’t heard much Britney before this year, which is why I want to save the tape. I place it in my sweater pocket and hold it between my belly and my palm until I get home.
* * *
The pop icons I knew before this moment are the ones I remember from the television in my grandmother’s kitchen. Grandmother is a friendly term since I was rarely allowed in her kitchen, but on this day I was. I was there to be a plaything for Emirjona to entertain herself with until her mother came to get her. Once my aunt arrived, the next portion of the program depended entirely on her mood, and halla’s mood was always up in the air.
On this day, Jona was sitting at the head of the table drawing Sailor Moon characters again. Some weeks before, we had watched the ending of Titanic together. Today, when a Backstreet Boys video played, I asked, “Didn’t we just see that guy in the Titanic?” At the time, Nick Carter had a bowl cut that he parted in the middle, and I could swear Nick and Leonardo DiCaprio were the same person.
Parted in the middle.
Could have fooled me.
Jona couldn’t stop laughing. The video continued on screen, and my face turned hot. I felt stupid for not knowing something so arbitrary. But this is how I knew who the Backstreet Boys were—peripherally.
Once I came to the States though, all the boys fell by the wayside.
It was Britney who was everywhere.
Her flat stomach was plastered all over the billboards. On the television constantly. She was sweet and sexy and dipped in honey. I should say that before this year, I was mostly an awkward-looking boy who ended up becoming a girl. My mother had shaved my head when I was younger, and I never quite recovered. Everywhere we went, people would compliment my mother, marvel at how tall her son was already.
It didn’t bother me, and I don’t remember my mother correcting them either. They were all strangers anyway—towering faces of tangential adults bending down to get a better look.
The point of cutting my hair was that it would grow back thicker, but it took forever to even grow back at all. I spent years with the same bowl cut Nick and Leo shared.
In the next 20 years, my Nana will tell me as many times as she finds the opportunity that I was supposed to be a boy. Says that’s how I started in the womb, as a boy.
“Je nis për djal.”
This helps her explain things, like my faulty ovaries and imbalanced hormones and the dark hair on my arms. She thinks I need the explanation too.
* * *
When I am in front of the apartment building waiting for Britney, my hair is still only barely at my chin.
And when I find her, she is the epitome of soft.
The cassette tape has no cover, the album’s image having drifted towards some random corner of the previous owner’s house. But I know the cover well now. Britney is on her knees. Her knees are pointed inwards—touching, but barely. There is a sliver of darkness reaching up towards her skirt, the edge of which is furled upwards—almost revealing, but not quite. If there was no shadow between her legs, we could see it all. She’s leaning forward, palms resting on the sides of her feet, soft on the floor. She tilts her head and opens her eyes to look up at you.
There it is.
An American smile.
I have never seen anyone’s body go so soft. The only women in my life have straight backs. Deep voices. Hands that could slice through you like knives.
But Britney, she’s something else.
She’s a real girl.
* * *
I spend years after my unwrapping of the cassette tape trying to be Britney.
There is a large mirror in our living room that takes up almost the entire wall. I hop onto the arms of the couches, balance myself on my toes, feet arched. I lift my shirt up and fold it under so it looks like one of Britney’s shirts. I don’t know what crop tops are yet, and Forever 21 isn’t selling 3000 of them every week yet. I think maybe Forever 21 isn’t around yet, but it doesn’t matter because, right now, being able to buy something from the Strawberry on Fordham Road is my idea of hitting the fucking jackpot.
I fold the shirt under and tilt it backwards so it stays up. I am tempted to cut it, but I know my mother won’t appreciate the experiment, so I settle for the fold. I hook my thumbs into the waist of my jeans and pull them down to see where my hip bones are. I check to make sure I do have hip bones. I tilt my head back. I loosen up wherever my bones connect to each other. I must be soft and limp—a real girl.
By this point, I am approaching middle school, and I take on the names of any girl whiter and blonder than me. When the Palestinian boy next door asks me what my name is, I say Lizzie. Short for Elizabeth. It sounds better than the name my parents made me, even though I’m sure he can pronounce that one.
This same year, I ask the Italian man who cuts my hair to give me blonde highlights. When he wants to know how to cut my hair, he asks me which pop star I want to look like, but he refuses the highlights. Says it’ll damage my hair.
He doesn’t understand how much he’s keeping me from.
He doesn’t understand that there is another thing that Britney and Hilary Duff’s child star characters have that I want: a certain whiteness. There is a level of whiteness that goes beyond the skin, and to be honest with you I lucked out even with the skin. If I had come out dark like the others, Nana would resent looking at me as much as she resents her own reflection.
Instead, I constantly hear about the snow, my skin, my skin that looks like snow.
It is somehow an accomplishment—mine. But that accomplishment doesn’t buy me the full American package.
That shit is deluxe.
I’m talking kitchen islands.
Lizzie McGuire’s mom has a whole other slab of countertop just to cut up her vegetables. They have a car and carpooling and friends to carpool with. Stocked refrigerators and family dinner. They have rooms with doors that close when their friends come over. They have backyard parties and everyone is invited, and they all come, and none of them want to kick the mother out of the house. They have every serving spoon ever needed.
I have lemons to squeeze on bread because the fridge is empty. I have social security flagging me as an alien every time I apply for a job or financial aid.
a mother in the hospital
doctors who can’t pronounce her name or mine
the bags she packed during her latest episode
a report card where she has an A in psychology
a diary from the late 1980s that ends a year after my birth
too many fucking rosaries.
I have an old passport with my picture stapled to hers. This is how we came to America: stapled together.
* * *
Suddenly, I am back in Klara’s house in Albania. The first floor is her kindergarten school, and I am her student. My mother brings a birthday cake and goodie bags. My mother is meticulous, the kind of woman who scrubbed floors with rags because her hands were better than a mop on a stick. My mother is meticulous, so the goodie bags are well decorated and considered. But I am upset all day because everyone else has their birthday parties at home. My mother explains to me that I am different. That she doesn’t have a home of her own to invite people to, and that we need to have it at the school.
No, she doesn’t explain this to me.
This is what I know now.
She tries to convince me that it’s somehow the better choice to have a party at the school. I spend all day trying not to be ungrateful. If you look at the home video from this day, you can see it on my face. You can see it on my face before we even arrive.
The camera man my grandmother hired is walking backwards and away from my frown. I make my way against the traffic on the sidewalk that is only inches wider than my little body, all the while shoulders rising to my chin and fists closed so that they would not be held.
When I look back on those years in Tirana, I try not to remember the small room that held four people—two parents, two children—a kitchen, a desk for homework, a makeshift dining table and all the possessions that go with life, including a keyboard that I can’t hear sometimes but use for practice anyway. Mami says it’s good to practice without the sound, anyway, for the finger work. At Klara’s, my mother asks me to play piano in front of the other kids, even though I will quit before my recital this time next year and never play again once we move to America.
When the cake is served, Klara submerges my face into it after the candles are removed. I don’t remember making a wish before I blew them out, but perhaps the wish is an American thing that did not exist in my world until years after this moment. This face in the cake tradition does exist though, and it’s supposed to be funny.
What Klara doesn’t understand is that I already feel like a clown.
* * *
Decades later, I will be watching Britney Spears twirl on Instagram in her underwear. The captions will rarely make sense. Sometimes they will feel like messages, and I will wonder if anyone else is getting them.
It seems family failed her too.
And probably her mother before her.
Being born American and blonde and talented doesn’t quite save you from any of that.
* * *
My mother tells me once, in my distant memory, that she wishes she could put me back inside her belly. My limbs bend and reach for my center, curl into my stomach.
Maybe if I get small enough, I can crawl back into hers.