Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: SWORN VIRGIN, by Elvira Dones

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones. Published 2014 by & Other Stories Press. Translated from Albanian. Literary Fiction.

Hana Doda is a bookish young Albanian woman, an ambitious student who is being pressured into an arranged marriage by her dying uncle. Distraught, and wanting to be independent, she takes advantage, if you can call it that, of an old rural Albanian tradition. Hana is reborn as Mark, and goes to live alone and work as a shepherd- and as a man. In Albanian tradition the way Dones tells it, this is an uncommon but not unheard-of path, the only catch being once you choose it you can never go back to being a woman. But Hana can't abide this tradition either, and decides to emigrate to America- as a woman.

Elvira Dones' narrative takes us back and forth between Hana's new American life and her old Albanian life, first as Hana and then as Mark. Throughout both stories, we read about a young woman trying to figure out who she is and where she fits, confounding expectations and crossing and re-crossing boundaries. Mark is not a transsexual in the sense of believing that he is a man born in a woman's body, and he is not stigmatized or mistreated as a man. And he does not have sexual relationships of any kind while he is Mark- he's forbidden to. When Hana takes on Mark as an identity, celibacy is part of the bargain. And Hana, as a woman, is not gay and is not making the switch to have a relationship with a woman, although such a thing is not unheard-of among women who make this switch. So it's not about sex, and it isn't really about gender identity either. It seems to me to be about finding a way to exist in a society so strict about its gender roles that it would rather see a woman deny her gender than see her in pants or behind the wheel of a truck.

When she moves to America, she lives with a relative and finds a job in a parking garage at first, but eventually she finds her footing and a job selling books. And she's learning how to be female again- how to shop for clothes, how to comport herself, and even making baby steps towards intimacy with a man she meets at the bookstore. The American side of the story feels like a traditional immigrant tale with this very unusual twist. I have to say I really enjoyed this story.  The premise is one I haven't encountered before and the writing is good enough to carry the reader along, make us care about Hana and begin to understand the issues she faces. Actually, I couldn't put it down. I'm really glad I came across this little gem.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

1 comment:

ChaosIsAFriendOfMine said...

This sounds fantastic! I saw an author on the Daily Show a while back who wrote a non-fiction book about girls who dress up as boys in I think Saudi Arabia. They do it to get to go to school and have the other advantages that boys do. I wish I could remember the name of the book or the author!