Life is war- listening in order to save the soul
Dealing with the communist past is no easy feat for societies which struggle under the heavy weight of understanding the purpose of their suffering and the degree of their guilt. “Life is war- Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania” of author and historian Shannon Woodcoock, comes at an interesting time when there are several efforts to deal with the past in Albania, most of which are unfortunately rather touristy, in both scope and purpose. ‘Life is war’ is thankfully not trying to sell communism to the reader.
“Its combination of academic quality and literary skills sets this book apart from other works on communist Albania in particular and communism in general,”- writes Blendi Kajsiu in an earnest review capturing both the correctness and the warmth of the writing. Indeed the book provides the sort of reading experience equivalent to someone taking you by the arm with assertive strength and making you listen silently. These are stories that most Albanians are familiar with yet often fail to reflect on. There are real talking characters in Shannon Woodcock’s oral history collection where women, minorities and other individuals, often cast at the sides of the usual narratives, find a stronger voice.
There are simple life stories of loss and learning, discrimination and survival, jokes said under breath and compromises stuffed under the conscience. Stories ironically bound together by the experience of Albanian communism and yet scattered in their individuality of each personal life told. “I wrote this book because I don’t see my Albania in history books- Shannon says – in everyday life women exist… in this book women are people whose actions have stood alongside men’s- as in reality. This book also includes the experiences of Albanians who are Romani, Vlach- Albanian or Greek-Albanian.”
It sounds truly refreshing. Shannon’s characters, her interviewees, join her in a book promotion in Tirana in a hot day. After the ceremonies they start to thank her about the opportunity to talk. It is interesting how people who have suffered have always an urge to talk and the rest an inclination to be scared of listening. We sit in the promotion all together: people who have lost their family members to the regime, people who have been forced to relocate or change their lives, people who are good at telling stories and younger people who are trying to comprehend. Just sitting together seems to help all of us.
The telling life accounts in this book are of men and women who had different experiences of the regime, who underwent various types and degrees of changes, pain, adaptation and ultimately survival. It is the story of everyday life: of poverty and community, of earnest conviction and propaganda, of spies and pioneers with red scarves around their necks, Roma women and Vlach men. All these lives hurdled around the Albanian dictatorship, consumed by its punishing flames at times, left in peace by the routine at others.
I note down what Shannon says about healing, which is what we need more than anything. “It is healing to listen to each other’s’; experience of pain and injustice from that time , without saying that the person is lying or crazy or that they should forget it. “ It rings true. It is healing to read books like this for us who are trapped in between the regimes and seem to not know enough of either. And for those outside of Albania this book is much more revealing than any simplistic “Albania was North Korea of Europe” type of book out there. Maybe it was, but its story stull deserves to be told in an honest voice. Chapeau to Shannon for doing a bit of that.
You can buy this book in either hardcopy or electronic Kindle format at the website of the publisher: http://hammeronpress.net/shop/books/life-is-war/