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.