May 2014

Beth Mellow


Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated by Clarissa Botsford

For centuries in Albania, only men could head a household. In a house with no men, a woman had two choices: marry, or take on the persona of a man but also take an oath to be a virgin for life. As a man, the woman would be able to enjoy all male responsibilities including working, socializing with other men, and even carrying a gun. Becoming a "sworn virgin," as it is called by the Kanun, a code of conduct many Albanians historically adhered to, was a viable option for women who were left fatherless or confronted with an undesirable arranged marriage.

With the fall of communism and greater access to media via the Internet, Albania has become less isolated and global influence has led to more equitable status for women in all parts of the country. And while the number of living women who have taken this oath continues to dwindle, in Elvira Dones very modern, eponymously named novel, the sworn virgin serves as an effective trope for the intrinsic and extrinsic forces that shape identity.

As Sworn Virgin opens, Mark Doda, a chain-smoking Albanian shepherd is aboard a transatlantic flight headed towards Washington, DC making polite conversation in broken English with his seatmate, an America journalist. All the while, he anxiously anticipates what lies ahead when he lands in his new country and whether he should have left his old life behind. Fortunately, his lovely cousin Lila, her husband Shtjefen, and their teenage daughter Jonida, are awaiting her arrival and are ready to support her through everything that lies ahead. This includes not only adjusting to her newly adopted homeland, but also becoming the woman she once was -- Hana Doda.

As we watch Hana slowly rebuild her life as a woman, trying on her first skirt and modeling it for her niece, first taking on work at a parking lot and then getting a job in a bookstore, and finally moving into her own apartment, we also get to learn Hana's backstory. Before she became Mark Doda, Hana was a young college student in the relatively urbane Tirana, a dreamer in love with literature, especially poetry, when she was harkened back to the deathbed of her uncle. Her custodian since the death of her parents, she revered him and adored him like a father, and wanted to do right by him. However, his imminent death left her with two choices -- marry or become a man. Ultimately, Hana left college and spent the next fourteen years as Mark Doda, leaving behind her books and goals for the relative isolation of the mountains in northern Albania.

While outwardly it seems that Hana became a sworn virgin so that her uncle could die with pride and respect from the community, a scene detailing a close encounter with a sexual assault the night before Hana decides to take the oath, seems to imply that her decision may be a bit more nuanced. Additionally, it's clear that she never relinquishes her feminine identity completely, as we learn through simple actions, like Hana's continued use of her aunt's beautiful copper washbasin, an item passed down by the women in her family, even when she becomes Mark.

Ultimately, Hana's journey into manhood and back into womanhood, with the support of her family, new friends, and a reappearance by the journalist she met on the plane, is less of a tale specific to one person or culture, but an exploration of what identity truly is. When asked why she became a man, and stayed one for such a long time, Hana remarks, "It was a gesture of love; perhaps it was also a delusion, Hana concedes, smiling and shaking her head. To start with she felt like a character in a play... Then the feeling wore off, she admits, but by then it was too late, of course."

While Sworn Virgin is beautifully written, using small details to build scenes that are rife with meaning, like Hana noticing her college friend's beautiful hair when she comes to visit her in the mountains, at points the translation by Clarissa Botsford employs language that is a bit awkward when read by an American, English-speaking audience (such as the phrase "I feel tender."). Also, footnotes account for much of the Albanian references in the novel, but not all, leaving the reader to seek out definitions from other sources. Overall, though, Sworn Virgin is an incredibly engrossing read, telling a story that is both engaging and transcendent.

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated by Clarissa Botsford
And Other Stories
ISBN: 978-1908276346
256 pages