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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Sworn Virgin - Elvira Dones (translated by Clarissa Botsford)

In the Northern Albanian Mountains there is an ancient tradition, which has continued through until our recent era. A woman can change her status from female to male and “gain” all the male rights and freedoms, adopt male behaviour and dress, take part in elder ceremonies, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, all on the proviso that she preserves her virginity. These women are known as “Sworn Virgins”.

Ismail Kadare is possibly the most revered Albanian writer, shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for “The Fall of the Stone City”, and he writes in his introduction to this book: 

This apparently paradoxical and anomalous custom also has a surreal dimension: it presents a loss as a privilege, and offers subjection in the guise of freedom.

Our novel is written in the third person and opens in October 2001 with Mr Doda (Hana as a man) arriving in the USA. The opening sentence gives the male/female balance theme away immediately:

‘So, Mr Doda, you’re a poet,’ says her traveling companion, who has occupied the seat next to Hana on the plane for the last seven hours.

Hana is escaping her “tradition” by moving to the USA.

Hana shakes her thoughts away. This restroom in Dulles International Airport is so real and tangible, and yet she feels so alien here. You need balls to deal with all this, she thinks, balls she doesn’t have. And that’s not all you need. Why balls? Why? Why me?
Get out of this bathroom, she tells herself. Get out of here, for Christ’s sake!
‘Do you need anything, sir?’ asks a voice to her left.

This is a tale of identity, female identity, finding your own place in the world, defining who you are. And we join Hana on this journey as she as at the beginning of forging a new identity, taking back her original self, struggling with a new country, shortly after the September attacks on New York, and rebuilding her friendship with her cousin Lila her husband Shtjefen and their daughter Jonida.

Our opening is filled with self-doubt, struggles with new customs, even simple things like rainwater tasting coffee served in plastic cups, and discussions about how the transition back to a woman will occur, even how will they explain to their teenage daughter that Uncle Mark is actually Aunty Hana.

On their way home, Hana is filled with a sudden euphoria. This is the third time she’s taken this road – the 355, or Rockville Pike – and she feels as though she’s known it for a long time. The rest won’t be that difficult. All she has to do is talk to Jonida, explain things. All she has to do is turn into a woman, for real. All she has to do is learn the language. All she has to do is get a job and a room of her own. All she has to do is be normal. All she has to do is forget.

We then travel back to 1986 and relive the period of Hana’s life where she was studying literature, writing poetry and the events that led her to make the decision to become a sworn virgin. Apparently the tradition to become a sworn virgin can be due to no male children in the family and somebody needs to take that role, or because the woman refuses an arranged marriage, or if she is under the threat of rape. Our novel doesn’t explain which single event which leads to Hana’s decision, other than to make her dying uncle happy. As I generally do not put spoilers in my reviews I won’t reveal any of the events which Hana lives through prior to her making her decision, you’ll have to read this yourself to get that information.

After the historical context which led to Hana travelling to the USA we then go forward again to 2001 and progress through Hana’s transition back to a 37 year old woman.

She is excited and lost at the same time. On the outside she looks almost like a woman. What’s missing is her vision, the point of view from which she is supposed to read the world. When she observes people, Hana does not see a woman or a man. She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyses their face and eyes, she tries to imaging the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that these thoughts are inextricably linked to the male or female ego. Women think like women. Men? Well, the answer is obvious. She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.

“Sworn Virgin” has a raft of subject matter which could make it a great novel, it has alienation, identity, culture loss, freedom but personally I felt it had too much. All of these themes were explored but only lightly. The male characters in the novel are thinly veiled (at one stage she is having a heart to heart conversation with Jack and I had to stop and wonder “who the hell is Jack and when did he come into the story?”) and at times unbelievable. Having the timing soon after 9/11 was possibly not required, the alienation and detachment from her new country could have been just as believable during any modern period and the quick reference to those events neither adds nor detracts from the novel. The ending was too overwrought for my liking and the distant feel of the third person language gave me a detachment that felt awkward.

Having said all that, the story of the sworn virgins is an important story to explore, and I have read it immediately after a powerhouse of a novel which was deeply inside the narrator’s head, so my reading of this work could have suffered just because I happened to pick it up at the wrong time.

I selected this work to read as it was published in the UK in 2014 and is therefore eligible for the upcoming Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. With a female writer, juicy subject matter, from a place where people know little of the culture and being published by an independent, it is sure to have admirers. However recent history has shown us, Balkan literature is not a flavour of that prize, female writers even less so, therefore it could well be a long shot to even make the longlist.

This book is published by the independent And Other Stories, as a subscriber to their books, I am acknowledged in the back cover however my review has not in any way been influenced by that association. For more about their books and to subscribe visit

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