Life is War – Published Today!

Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania by Shannon Woodcock is published today.

life-is-war-published-today copy

HammerOn are immensely prlife-is-war-published-today copyoud to be publishing this book!

Life is War is a powerful collection of oral histories, written with integrity and honour that delves deep into the everyday lived experience of Albania’s communist regime, recounted through the memories of people who survived ‘that time.’

As Blendi Kajsiu writes in his recommendation, the book impressively blends scholarly and literary worlds: ‘rigorously academic in its investigation, at the same time it reads like a novel that you cannot put down.’

You can buy a paperback copy of the book for £15 + free shipping through the HammerOn site.

An EPUB version of the book, priced £10, will be available to download from the site within the next two weeks.

A Hardback version, for academic libraries, is available priced £64.99 / ISBN 978-1-910849-04-0.

You can pick up a copy of Life is War, and other HammerOn titles, from the HammerOn table at the Bristol Anarchist Book Fair on 30 April and the London Radical Book Fair 7 May.

We are also holding author Q & A events in London, Tirana and Bristol late May/ early June.

Full details are on the HammerOn events page.

Some funny things about failure

In her latest blog post, Shannon reflects on oral history methodologies, and what she learnt from failing to be funny.

Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania is published next Monday, 25 April. You can pre-order your copy here.

I wanted to be funny. Danjela and I were in her Mum’s sewing room one afternoon and I thought of a joke that I reckoned would go down well with the women. I knew that the 1980s had been tough in Albania as well as in Romania, and I knew plenty of jokes from the communist period in Romania because people had still told them in the pubs in Bucharest in the 1990s. I had learnt about communism in Romania primarily through jokes.

“Danjela, could you get someone else to mind your place in a queue for food here in Albania?” I asked.

“Um, no, usually someone from the family stood in each relevant queue. Perhaps you could get a friend to stand in your place for a while…”

“Ok. Well, I have a joke from Romania, can you translate it for your Mum? You just need to know that in Romania you could leave a glass bottle in a queue to mark your place if you went to do something else for a while, ok?”

Danjela agreed, explained the bottle – as – place – marker, and I began.

“One day a man was standing in a long queue for eggs. It wasn’t moving. After some time he got angry. ‘That’s it!’ he exploded, ‘I’m going to kill Enver Hoxha!’ He put a bottle in the queue and marched off.

About an hour later he came back and took his place again.

‘And? Did you do it?’ asked the woman behind him.

‘Not yet, but I put a bottle in that queue as well!’”

I laugh to tell that joke even now! And Mrs Shkalla, when she laughed it was excellent. Her smile would turn into unstinted and full lunged laughter, filling up the whole space with pure enjoyment. I was ready for it.

It didn’t happen.

Mrs Shkalla had listened intently, then after the punch line she looked unimpressed, said something under her breath, and turned back to her work.

“That wasn’t funny,” Danjela offered.

“Maybe you didn’t get it!” I persisted. “He went to kill the dictator! Imagine!”

“No. That could never have happened. No one could kill Enver Hoxha.”

I felt a burning sense of shame when I thought about it in the days after the event. Why wasn’t it funny? Didn’t they hate Enver Hoxha? What had she said that I didn’t understand? I imagined it was a variation of “Stupid idiot foreigners,” projecting my own embarrassment at speaking when I knew so little. So I did what we humans do with most humiliating experiences, I tried to forget about it.

The joke that wasn’t funny lived in a corner of my mind that gradually filled up with relevant hints as to what had gone wrong. Danjela, Sonila and I travelled to see the notorious prison of Spaç with a man who had lost decades of his life there as a political prisoner under communism. “I told a joke about Mao, and I ended up there for 16 years, ” he explained, his words forever associated in my mind with the tyres of our minivan skidding to the sheer mountain edge of the gravel road. In a separate conversation with my hairdresser in Tirana, I asked her if women had complained about the government in hairdressers and shopping queues in the 1980s. She replied that women had also worked spied for the sigurimi, and that they had queued along with everybody else. No one dared complain in public.

From legal and institutional facts such as these, I eventually wrote an article exploring why that joke wasn’t funny, and people have contacted me over the years since to tell me what jokes they told and did not tell. Life is War returns to the questions of joke telling and laughter, with the people I write about using jokes now to capture and convey the absurdities and tragedies of life under dictatorship.

The bigger lesson from my (many) joke-telling failures, is that failures are signposts for spaces where you can learn something. Sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge, a cultural or methodological misstep, or an affective investment in or reaction to a situation; often it is all three things.

When I began to conduct oral history interviews in 2010, I watched my own reactions to conversations as they were happening, and I made notes about my own feelings as I replayed the recordings. If there were so many nuances in my everyday exchanges with people, then the original experiences that people were telling me about would have been the same, more intense in the emotionally charged situations of fear and persecution. I decided to record and communicate the relentless waves of emotions and tension that pervaded conversations about the past. This is what makes oral history so exciting, the layers of human experience, of emotion and memory, are brought into a dynamic and shared experience in the present, which we then hear and carry through our own embodied responses.

Life is War blog posts: Mrs Shkalla’s Education

In the lead up to the publication of Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania the author, Shannon Woodcock, has written a number of blog posts to introduce readers to the histories, contexts and methods that shaped the book.

Written in the same vivid and observant style that runs throughout Life is War, the first post reflects on the formative moments in Shannon’s Albanian education, courtesy of Mrs Shkalla.

You can pre-order Life is War here. Please note: all international (i.e., outside the UK) orders need to select ‘paypal’ as the payment option.


3D-cover-Life-is-WarIt was Mrs Shkalla in Elbasan who did the hard yards for my Albanian education.  Each week of the university semesters of 2003-2004, I travelled from Tirana to Elbasan to teach. On the nights between my teaching days I stayed at the home of my colleague, Danjela, in the two bedroom apartment she shared with her mother and brother. Walking home from A. Xhuvani University together, we’d stroll through the fifteenth century fortress district, run into friends, and stop for a coffee. Further down the main street, a broken brick step led to a small pathway, past the local bakery, to a dusty courtyard of kids playing ball and Danjela’s apartment block. I loved the clean concrete stairwells of the buildings, cool in summer and freezing in winter, winding past the doors of family homes. I loved arriving at Mrs Shkalla’s home, dropping my bag, swapping my shoes for slippers, hanging up my coat, and settling in for the long conversations and home cooked meals I remember to this day.

Mrs Shkalla worked as a seamstress from home. Danjela and I would carefully move material cut out for a suit or a dress, and then sit on the long couch and chat as Mrs Shkalla sewed on her machine in the centre of the room.  I’d recount what was happening in Tirana, mostly stories of my confusion about the complicated invisible networks that organised all levels of Albanian life and work, and Danjela would translate for her mother. Mrs Shkalla’s reactions were clear without words, and she thus thwarted her own plans to build my vocabulary by teaching me fluent non-verbal Albanian.  A clear sideways shake of the head for agreement – an English “no” means “yes” in Albania – and a sharp nod of the head for no. Beyond this there was a vast range of subtle head angles, clicking noises, and eyebrow twitches to indicate concern, alarm or uncertainty requiring further information. Women came to visit for pleasure and to drop off and collect garments. Their polyphonic conversations moved from serious whispers to raucous laughter, covering relationships, everyday problems and memories, all fuelled by cups of Turkish coffee and bowls of the seasonal fruits. 

When the women spoke amongst themselves, everything moved faster. Movements of hands and eyes communicated commiseration, understanding and fears, the words articulated reassurance and advice. In my own conversations with them, as with my students, I felt painfully aware that even direct translation could not cross the gap between us.

I didn’t speak the embodied experience of complex cultural and historical knowledge that they did, and they didn’t speak mine. And yet we spoke.

In that first year, we often sought ways to speak about the gap, discussing issues to find out what we understood about each other. Reading history books wasn’t helpful– they were primarily about political events, which meant a small group of men who dominated society from above. “The people” appeared in these books as an unspecific mass, hazy, whose reactions were rendered homogenous and inevitable in the retrospect of the authors. Women were rarely mentioned. In real life, I learnt the perimeters of the world for everyday people in Albania from Mrs Shkalla; the labour market, gender and relationships in cultural context, and understanding how to access services in a world where power was connections and no one normal made much money.

Mrs Shkalla and her peers were born into the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. They had done annual military service and had “volunteered” their own labour to build apartment blocks and harvest the crops. They had queued from 4am for milk, children and ration cards in hand, through the long hungry years of Albania’s international isolation in the world after 1978. They survived the shock of the regime confessing they’d run the proletariat paradise to ruin, and then worked to feed their families. The former communists became the new capitalists.  Now these women, just middle aged themselves, were vital in the community as translators between generations; across ideologies and rapidly changing cultural norms. 

When the television was on in the background, only the soap operas garnered close attention. Mrs Shkalla observed men talking politics on TV the way one might watch an unknown street dog wander into a children’s playground; her interest extended only so far as calculating what kind of damage he could do. Sometimes I would catch her looking up from her sewing, her eyes refocusing on some man in a suit talking about himself on the screen, and I wanted to know what she heard there beyond the words and the posturing. I wanted to understand how hard working people lived through “politics” on the ground. Mrs Shkalla, of course, had already shown me the answers, beyond language, in her family home.

Pre-Order Life is War

Pre-orders for Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania are available now from the HammerOn site.

Orders will be shipped on publication date, 25 April 2016.

The book will also be available in EPUB and HB formats.

Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania is a collection of oral histories that guides readers through through the decades (1944-1992) when all aspects of life was controlled by the Communist Party.

It features six intimate interviews with Albanian men and women and reveals how everyday people survived shocking living conditions, political persecution and oppression.

Life is War examines the realities of life inside a totalitarian system and champions human resilience in the face of unrelenting political terror.

“Unparalleled in its redemptive character as far as the victims of Albanian communism are concerned. Through the act of narration this book redeems the stories and lives of its characters, which would have otherwise perished in oblivion.” (Blendi Kajsiu)

“This is a powerful book about the intensity, intimacy and imagination of story telling. Woodcock’s detailed descriptions of her impressions during two years traveling through the country leave the reader with a vivid picture of the Albanian landscape – and also of the enduring legacy of dictatorship and hardship in the lives and struggles of people today.” (Carrie Hamilton)


We have organised four events to celebrate the publication of Life is War.

Author Reading with Shannon Woodcock and Q & A: Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania
Tuesday 24 May 2016, 7pm
£3 entry redeemable against any purchase
Housmans Book Shop, 5 Caledonian Road, King’s Cross, London N1 9DX

Book Launch: Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania by Shannon Woodcock
Wednesday 25 May 2016, 6.30-8pm
The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide
29 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DP

Author short speech, followed by open discussion/questions

Sunday 29 May 2016, 4-5pm
E Per7shme
Rruga Jul Variboba, 1002 Tirana, Albania

Author Reading with Shannon Woodcock and Q & A: Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania
Monday 6 June 2016, 7-9pm
Hydra Books
34 Old Market St, Bristol, Avon BS2 0EZ

All the latest event news will also appear on the Life is War facebook page.


HammerOn will also have tables at the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair on Sat 30 April and the London Radical Book Fair on 7 May.

Come and say hello! We’d love to meet people who have ideas for books we could publish in the future.