Sunday, 17 August 2014

'Sworn Virgin' by Elvira Dones (Review)

Part of the motivation for Women in Translation Month is redressing the gender inequality in the world of translated fiction.  However, as we all know, literature isn't the only area where the numbers don't quite add up.  Today's book, instead of pushing for equality of the sexes, takes a rather different approach to the issue, though - it seems like a good example of the old saying "if you can't beat them, join them"...

Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin (translated by Clarissa Botsford, e-copy courtesy of And Other Stories) begins on an aeroplane headed for the USA as Mark Duda, a prospective immigrant from Albania, prepares to land, looking forward to starting a new life in the states.  Cousins are there to welcome Mark to the new country, and the welcomes are warm, greeting the new addition to the expatriate community.

Once back at the home of Lila, Mark's cousin, things get a little more serious.  It's time to make a start on an ambitious project, one which has brought the Albanian from the mountains to the outskirts of the American capital.  You see, Mark's real name is actually Hana - and it's time for the self-sufficient mountain man to blossom into the young woman who has been trapped inside for so long...

Sworn Virgin isn't a transgender tale in the usual sense.  Instead, it's a thought-provoking story based on a real-life phenomenon, that of the sworn virgins of the mountainous northern regions of Albania.  A woman who, for whatever reason, decides not to accept the subservient life of a woman, can legally become a man, taking on the responsibilities (and privileges) of the gender.  While this involves guns, cigarettes and lots of raki, there's also one major sacrifice to be made.  Taking this step is also tantamount to making a vow of chastity.

The story jumps back and forth between Albania and the States, exploring the reasons for Hana's decision to become Mark and the long, arduous process of shedding her male persona:
"I've been a man for fourteen years."  Lila tries to drown her gaze in the oily dregs of the coffee.  "It's not going to be easy," she says finally.  "Not for any of us."
(And Other Stories, 2014)
Hana isn't the only one who's going to struggle with the change.  For example, Shtjefën, her brother-in-law, has seen Hana as a man all his life...

To understand why Hana became Mark, we need to see the background, where the young student is caught between two worlds.  While the communist era pledges equality, things are very different in the deeply conservative mountain regions.  With a sick uncle to care for (her parents having died many years earlier), there's a need for Hana to observe tradition, and (as a fellow student remarks) freedom of action is fairly thin on the ground:
"Free from what, Hana?" he mutters, while she pulls away from him.  "Free from where?  We're just like horses, going round and round in circles."
This is as true for the people in Tirana, under a communist regime, as it is for those in the mountains.  

Once in America, Hana adapts well in some ways to life as a woman in a new country.  She's used to solitude, and she's a hard worker with good language skills.  However, in others she struggles somewhat - she's not really one for dresses, make-up and talking about her feelings.  The final challenge is the most daunting, though, as her goal is to have a real relationship (the 'sworn virgin' is exactly that).  As she begins to meet men, will she be able to alter her mindset and let someone in?

The focus of the book is, naturally, Hana, but Dones also spends time looking at the problems of some of the other characters.  While Hana's niece, Jonida, has thrived in the States, her parents aren't quite as happy.  Shtjefën is working like a dog to make a living, and Lila is, in many ways, more trapped by her gender role than Hana.  A housewife, a cleaner, a fading beauty - her dreams are buried beneath her family responsibilities:
"Because I'd have to go back to school for years and I have a home to run and a daughter to take care of.  I can't afford to pay for another course.  It's too late now."
Despite her attempt to mould Hana in her own image, life as a woman in America isn't as wonderful as Lila would have her cousin believe...

Sworn Virgin works very well, and Dones is especially good at showing the struggles Hana faces in dropping the Mark persona, with Hana having to deal with much more than just superficial, cosmetic changes:
"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."
A vital part of her transformation is adopting a female philosophy, a different way of seeing the world - which is not to say that her thinking is completely masculine.  In fact, she often gets caught between two modes of thought.  Despite this, one criticism I'd make of Sworn Virgin is that the novel focuses too much on Hana, and Mark doesn't get a look in.  We see a lot of what caused the change, and a lot of the difficulties of changing back.  It would have been great to see more of how Mark fitted into his community and the practicalities of life as a 'man'.

It's still a great story though, one in which, as Ismail Kadare notes in his (brief) introduction, while it may seem that Hana is gaining something by becoming Mark, in fact, she's losing a lot more.  Hers is a life of many sacrifices, not all of which are willingly made - you see, becoming a man isn't all it's cracked up to be...