Being a happy subscriber of the wonderful And Other Stories publishing house, I have, of course, sat on my first book for a considerable length of time before getting around to reading it. I should point out that this is not unusual for me. My bookshelves are peppered with books I just couldn’t wait to read and which, several years later, haven’t managed to push themselves into my hands or in front of my eyes. Yes, I am a fickle reader if a consistent one...?
Anywho, I’m glad to say I finally got around to reading this book by Albanian writer Elvria Dones, a book which explores an unusual Albanian tradition in which a woman can choose to live as a man, as a ‘sworn virgin’, taking their place as the head of the family. In this story Hana, or Mark, is in the process of emigrating to America, where her cousin Lila lives. Hana/Mark is also embarking on another kind of emigration, or perhaps it is truer to say a return, from living as a man to living as the woman that she is. Through the course of the story we follow Hana/Mark as she makes this transformation, gaining insights through flashbacks into how she came to become a sworn virgin in the first place.
I enjoy stories about duality, so this story was bound to be of interest to me, and Dones has a light and easy way of writing so that the story sweeps you along. That being said, I felt that the exploration of Hana’s journey back to becoming a women was a little lightweight. This story offered a great opportunity to reflect deeply on issues of gender, and whilst Dones does touch upon this, it is after all the cornerstone of the story, there’s a superficiality to it which seems to boil down the ‘manliness’ of Mark into a few core activities: Mark drinks raki and smokes and has a pared down way of thinking, whereas Hana does housework and obsesses about her looks and losing her virginity. In this way Dones presents gender as a cloak which can be pulled on and off, something which is reduced to parodied actions rather than an essence. And in some ways I think this is true, this is an interesting way to consider gender as something which has only a superficial impact upon a person’s identity, and perhaps this was the point Dones was making, but if so I’d have liked that to be a little more explored and perhaps a little more transparent. Perhaps I am just a lazy reader.
The strength in Dones’s writing is in the characterisation. Whereas gender plays a surprisingly insignificant role considering the subject matter, the characters of Hana and Lila, as well as Lila’s daughter Jonida really shine. I loved how Dones presents all the characters as forceful and single-minded: Lila and Hana spend as much time fighting as they do caring for each other, and the interplay between the two is touching and realistic. Equally, Dones draws a vivid picture of Albania from the mountainous poverty-stricken villages of the North to the more cosmopolitan yet quirky city of Tirana. Dones brings the country into high definition with her descriptions of life in the villages and mountains, the interplay between northerners and southerner (why are northerners always the peasants?!), the ongoing impact of communism, strange and quirky characters who leap from the page. In contrast the American scenes seem flat and grey, the country plays less part in Hana’s identity yet offers her the freedom to be who she really is. Hana cannot return to her home country, at least not as a woman.
There was huge scope in this book to explore a whole range of different themes about identity, gender, immigration and the American dream and perhaps that is why I found the book slightly disappointing. On the rear cover Dones is described as a writer who is “unabashed by taboos of any kind” and yet this book didn’t feel like it was taboo breaking. Rather it stood on an interesting concept, a strange old Albanian tradition, and rather than explore it, use it as a vehicle to uncover truths about identity and gender, rather the focus was on Hana’s quest to lose her virginity, as though that was the one thing which would make her a woman. Somehow it seemed a little thin to me, a little superficial and consequently I found it a little annoying.
That being said the story was entertaining and not entirely without weight, and it sent my mind spiralling in lots of different directions. I enjoy stories which make you think, which this one definitely did. I just would have liked it to make me think a little more and maybe present the idea of fulfilment as a woman as being achieved without the assistance of a penis.
Sworn Virgin receives an identity questioning 7 out of 10 Biis.