Review of Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

Did you know that there’s an Albanian tradition in which, if there are no male heirs, a woman can choose to become a man, as long as she swears herself to virginity for life?

Neither did I until I read Sworn Virgin, a fascinating novel by Albanian writer Elvira Dones, translated into English and published in 2014 by And Other Stories (a wonderful not-for-profit, largely reader-funded UK publisher).

Sworn Virgin

I’ve been interested in Albanian literature ever since I discovered Ismail Kadare (who wrote the foreword for this book) many years ago, and visiting the country last year deepened my desire to learn more.

Sworn Virgin covers multiple time periods in the life of its hero, Mark/Hana Doda. We witness both her initial transformation from a young woman into a man, and years later her transformation back into a woman when she moves to the U.S. It’s a story that explores both gender identity and the cultural dislocation that ensues when someone from the rural Albanian mountains moves to the U.S. East Coast.

As well as covering a fascinating subject, this book is also extremely well written. At times, it jumps back and forth in time and place, perfectly evoking the experience of someone moving to a new place, caught between the experiences of the new and the memories of the old. In the middle of a passage about fitting in with her relatives in the U.S., we get this:

The stones in the river at Rrnajë looked like foam. She had observed them, in her meticulous and disciplined way. Then she had understood. They looked like foam because they were white, too white at times, when water danced over them in a fury. Hana didn’t like fury, it stained her peace. Even the name of the mountains left her feeling ambivalent: the Cursed Mountains. The name was too conclusive, it left so little room for hope. And yet, close up, the mountains were tame, you just needed to know how to take them. You just needed to learn to sleep there without thinking of the name, a name given by some outsider, some traveler who knew nothing about the place. There’s no curse, just caution and silence. If you don’t attack them, the mountains, they’ll leave you alone.

So, a well-written novel about immigration, the fluidity of gender identity and the conflict between tradition and modernity. What’s not to like?

Well, there were a few parts of Sworn Virgin in which Hana’s motivations don’t really make sense. For example, when she’s a young woman in the middle of fighting with a university administrator to keep her place at university, we are told:

She is suddenly seized by the thought that she has to go to the sea.

And so she abandons the university administrator and goes to the sea, where she has a quick swim, and then she goes back to the university at which she has now lost her place. I suppose the point is that she has given up on the possibility of winning the fight and so decides to at least see the sea before returning to the mountains to become a man. But it just struck me as odd and self-destructive, and not very believable. I thought she could have fought more for her future.

Her motivations for becoming a man, and then for becoming a woman again, are also somewhat obscure. It doesn’t help that Hana speaks in halting phrases, and as she says about herself at one point:

She hasn’t had, and still doesn’t have, the ability or the ambition to understand herself.

This makes her feel quite distant and opaque. And the book also spends quite a bit of time on things like the process of understanding America and the details of getting a job, getting a better job, getting a car and so on—things which are common to many immigrant stories and don’t shed any light on the more interesting issues of gender identity in this one.

Despite these issues, I would still recommend reading Sworn Virgin for its insight into an odd tradition and a little-known society, its at times beautiful prose, and the questions it raises (albeit obliquely) about what it means to be a man and to be a woman and the adjustments you have to make to step between the two.

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