Matt Rosen's work finds books, ideas are helping post-socialist Albania shape its modern culture
In 2015, cultural anthropologist Matthew Rosen traveled to Albania, a small country in southeastern Europe with a fascinating but little-known literary culture. He was looking for a place—or fieldsite, to use the term of art in anthropology—to study the relationship between literature and social life.
The site he chose was in Tirana, the Albanian capital. Located in the country’s geographic center, Tirana has seen several major transformations since being declared the capital of a newly independent modern state in 1920. This includes periods of occupation by Italy and Germany (1939–44), communist dictatorship (1944–91), and post-socialist reinvention (1991–present).
Seeking to understand the role that literature and books played in these transformations, Rosen chose to examine not what people were proclaiming on the public square, but what they were quietly reading and discussing in the city's network of bookstores and literary cafés.
“I wanted to study the potentialities of written communication, or how reading makes things happen in people’s lives,” said Rosen, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Ohio University.
Rosen's ethnographic work, described in his latest book "Tirana Modern", started with a general question. "I wanted to find out, using the tools of ethnography, how reading mediates social experience, creating contexts and relationships that otherwise would not exist," Rosen said.
"It was in this context, at a pop-up book fair in the garden of a local bookshop, that I met Ataol Kaso and Arlind Novi of Pika pa sipërfaqe (which means Point without Surface)," Rosen said. An independent publisher specializing in translations, Pika pa sipërfaqe would become the centerpiece of Rosen's "Tirana Modern," an account of relations between books and people in the Albanian capital.
From books come new ideas
Pika pa sipërfaqe has published more than 100 books since 2009. About 75 percent of these are original translations of works appearing for the first time in Albanian. Some notable titles include Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse-Five" (trans. A. Kaso, 2009), Milan Kundera's "Testaments Betrayed" (trans. B. Gjini, 2011), Roberto Bolaño's "2666" (trans. B. Shehu, 2016), Witold Gombrowicz's "Diary" (trans. E. Lloha, 2019), and Jorge Luis Borges's "Complete Fictions" (trans. B. Shehu, 2021).
"By bringing works like these into Albanian, the network of actors and institutions connected to Pika pa sipërfaqe has created the possibility for Albanian readers to encounter new ideas, and from these, to form new social relations, imaginaries, and realities," Rosen said.
"One of the goals of the project was to find out what the ethnography of reading could contribute to a cultural analysis of social life in Tirana. So, in talking with local interlocutors about the books and writers that interested them most, I was also trying to learn about how they saw and experienced daily life in their city," Rosen said. "What I found was that in contrast to the warm social world I encountered as a foreign anthropologist, they experienced everyday life in Tirana as a near-constant confrontation with stress, violence, and abuse of power."
Rosen's thesis for "Tirana Modern," published by Vanderbilt University Press, is that literature and new ideas can transform social reality and social action. And in Albania, books—the printed kind—are very important.
"The publishing industry in Albania deals mainly in physical books. Although readers are savvy about finding electronic copies of foreign literature on the internet, for works in Albanian, the printed book is still the dominant medium," he said.
From language comes access
Rosen's research draws on material collected through fieldwork with a community of readers, writers and translators. Since Rosen uses both ethnographic and historical material to examine the public culture of reading in modern Albania, language has been an important acquisition for him.
"I developed this project through a regular pattern of grant-funded field research and language training in the summers between 2015–2019 and again in 2021," Rosen said about his time in country.
Rosen has received both internal and external support from sources including Ohio University’s Baker Fund, the College of Arts and Sciences Humanities Research Fund, the Ohio University Research Committee, Arizona State University’s Melikian Center Fellows Award, and the Berkowitz Albanian Award.
The result of his work so far, "Tirana Modern" has been described as "a pioneering contribution to literary ethnography, literary history, and the role of literature in contemporary Albania" by Nataša Gregorič Bon of the Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies, Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Art.
Nita Luci, author of "The Politics of Remembrance and Belonging: Life Histories of Albanian Women in Kosova," described the book as "a story of desires, aspirations, and visions, as well as the precarity and violence of post-socialist late-capitalism, located in the seemingly profane choice—what to translate and publish next, and why. As such, it is a compelling ethnography of how ideas move about through literary and social cross-referencing, actions taken, and meanings attributed to physical and imagined social, political, and economic locations, spaces, and practices."
For Rosen, "Tirana Modern: Biblio-Ethnography on the Margins of Europe" shows that literature and literary translation have indeed "shaped social action during the 'longue durée' of Albanian modernity."