A new kind of sworn virgin

The English translation of my interview with the warm and inspiring author Elvira Dones. Published on Gazeta Jeta ne Kosove and Prishtina Insight. Enjoy!

Hana Doda is a sworn virgin of the type that Albanians have never heard of: one who became a man, changed her mind, and reverted to being a woman again. After fourteen years of living as Mark, she is invited to immigrate to America by her cousin, Lila. When she emigrates, she must not only adapt to a new country and a new culture, she needs to “learn” how to act and dress like a woman again.

Her story is told with great sensitivity and insight by Albanian author Elvira Dones, in the English translation of “Sworn Virgin,” or “Hana,” as it’s known to Albanian readers. Dones’ own story is almost as dramatic as that of her protagonist. Raised and educated in communist Albania, Dones defected to Switzerland in 1988, eventually bringing her son along with her. During her time in Switzerland she published books and produced documentaries about topics as diverse as the Kosovo war, sex trafficking of Albanian women in Italy, Kanun-based blood feuds, the lives of sworn virgins in northern Albania, and a semi-autobiographical, fictionalized account of her decision to leave Albania. Dones currently lives in San Francisco, where BIRN reached out to her to discuss the buzz around “Sworn Virgin.” The book has been subject to praise by international media such as the Guardian – “I couldn’t put it down,” wrote reviewer Kapka Kassabova.

“Sworn Virgin” tells the story of the dark side of the Albanian tradition of sworn virgins: one becomes a sworn virgin in order to carry on the family name in the event of no male heirs. It is the only method sanctioned by the Kanun to forever avoid marriage, and to live a life of respect not extends towards women in traditional, rural parts of Albanian-inhabited lands. When Hana becomes Mark, she leaves Tirana, her university, her books, her crushes, and her dreams for a lonely life of hard labour in the mountains. But that’s the price to be paid for refusing to marry the man chosen for her by her dying uncle.

The story highlights the nonsensical side of the sworn virgin tradition: a person in skirts is not considered an autonomous being, capable of deciding their own fate – but put that same person in pants, and they can claim the respect of their entire community. While on an interview tour in Albania, TV talkshow host Ilva Tare questioned Dones’ choice of portraying Albanian customs in such a condemning light. In that interview, Dones responded, “I don’t think that a writer is an extended hand of the national tourism agency. A writer is someone who shows the wounds of society that he or she has chosen to show.”

She remains just as unabashed about her creative choices in this regard when we talk one early Monday morning over Skype. “Why isn’t the same question presented to male writers – both foreign and Albanian – about their sensitivity towards female characters?” asks Dones. “I consider that question very chauvinistic. In this century, people still ask questions like why was this book written from a woman’s perspective, or (and in Albania this question has always been asked, both indirectly and directly), why are you dealing with these ‘strange’ topics?”

In many ways, “Sworn Virgin” comments on the way sex, gender, and identity intertwine. In the U.S., Hana begins to “relearn” the social cues that signal womanhood: skirts (which she throws across the room in frustration), lipstick (anxiously applied for her first date in America), styling one’s hair, and flirting in just the right way with a man. Her struggle reflects the experiences of a real former sworn virgin, one met by Dones after the novel was completed. “The only “Hana” who regretted her decision was a big discovery. She gave me the runaround for three weeks, but I finally got to interview her,” says Dones. A few years after a rakia-fuelled interview in northern Albania, Dones heard that this “Hana” had moved to the U.S., and had decided to dress and identify as a woman again.

“She wanted to grow out her hair, to not be a target of the village, and to be a caretaker for her sister’s grandchildren. This woman’s desire for her femininity had nothing to do with sex. She only wanted the dignity of confirming that she was female and a girl, not a lesbian, and she wanted to live with dignity in a city where no one would look at how she’s dressed,” explains Dones.

The politics of gender brought up by the novel are not lost on Dones, but the source of inspiration for the story are her interviews and direct experiences with sworn virgins. “Every time I get asked this question, why women, my answer is because women are half of this society. My answer is that the Kanun, which we either glorify or reject in the most cannibalistic, murderous, and bloodthirsty way, had a few rules which show us that women were nothing in that family structure. When the idea came to me, it wasn’t with a ‘program’ in mind. I was sixteen and a half when two neighbors of mine from northern Albania (the wife was from Shkodra, the husband from Kosovo) showed me a photo from a big wedding in Kosovo. In the middle of the photo, in the midst of the clan, there was this tall, very handsome man – in traditional costume of course. I asked our neighbor, uncle Naim, ‘is this the man of the house?’ He smiled and said, ‘No, this isn’t the man of the house. She is a sworn virgin,’’ recalls Dones.

Hana spends her years as Mark in the mountains of northern Albania, an unforgiving and beautiful landscape that Dones describes with a timeless quality. This respect for the north spills over into her views on the northern “type”, which can easily flirt the line with the caricature of the typical mountain man (or in this case, woman): stoic, old-fashioned, and honorable. The character of Hana is clearly built upon a combination of the tough, quiet, northern women Dones met during her university years, as well as a potentially semi-autobiographical love of writing, reading, and poetry.

“When female students from the north, from towns like Dragobia, Kukesi, Puka, and Lezha, came and studied at the Faculty of History and Philology, I noticed that those girls and women behaved differently. They weren’t as loud as us, they weren’t as modern as us, and they weighed their words more carefully.  In a way I built “Hana” up in my mind, bit by bit, as an act of rebellion – because I thought at that age, how is it possible to make such a decision [becoming a sworn virgin], when you don’t know anything about your life or the shape your personality will take. That’s why my perspective on the book was on the loneliness faced by these women,” says Dones.

“Sworn Virgin” suggests that Hana’s emancipation is to be found in choice – the choice to both become a man and to return to being a woman again. However, the question of whether sworn virginhood is really a choice, in a world governed by the stiff rules of the Kanun, remains. Dones posits that sworn virginhood is a choice – and in a certain sense, a revolutionary choice.

“From a Western point of view, sworn virginhood is almost a kind of enslavement, but it should always be viewed from the historical and cultural context of the tradition. It wasn’t right, but they were given in marriage by their fathers when they were still in the womb, sometimes to men in their fifities. They had to wash the feet of every male family member in the house, and eat the leftovers of whatever meals they left behind…In this way, they [sworn virgins] are kind of revolutionary in their own way. With their own reasoning and in their own way they decided to go down that path, by telling their fathers that they would live as men. It was the only way,” explains Dones.

Despite the bizareness of Hana’s situation to foreign readers, the resilience, imagination, and good humor of her voice, which narrates the novel, has been met with high praise. Through her struggles to return to womanhood and femininity, to adapt to both her cousin’s family and to the U.S., and to possibly find love, a strange, little-known tradition outside of the Albanian-speaking world is humanized and made familiar.

When asked her thoughts as to why Hana has resonated so strongly with readers and critics, Dones responds, “that ‘exotic’ part of Albania, it speaks to them from within. The solitude that a woman of this kind experiences, maybe this offers a break in perspective from daily life in North America or Europe.  I could be wrong, but I think that the book has opened up a window to things that were unknown until then, and I think that’s what makes them interested in the book.”

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