‘Sworn virgins’ are, in Albanian tradition, women who choose to become men but are not necessarily transgender/transsexual. It is usually when there are no male heirs in the family, so a woman will take the role of the head of the household by adopting a male gender and taking a vow of celibacy. They are given the rights of men and treated as such. This book is about one sworn virgin, Hana, who becomes Mark to avoid an arranged marriage and run the household after her uncle dies. After living many years as Mark, he goes to join his cousin who has emigrated to America, and tries to figure out how to be Hana again.
I think if I hadn’t read the back blurb I would have been confused by the opening, when Mark is on the plane arriving in America and the pronouns/names keep switching mid-paragraph. But, knowing that Mark is also Hana, it was fairly easy to follow and was a nice way of illustrating that Mark was transitioning back into Hana and from one culture to another (you can read the opening here). Throughout, the text smoothly goes back and forth between Hana/Mark’s time in Albania and Mark/Hana’s time in the US.
There is so much in this book. It’s about family and sacrifice and immigration and culture and growing up and gender roles/identity in society. So much. And a good story too. The idea of effectively changing your gender in order to have the kind of life you want or need, or to have the place in society that suits you, is really interesting. In Sworn Virgin, it’s especially highlighted by Hana becoming Mark and then changing back into Hana, and what this means and how it’s done in terms of both outward signs like dress/posture, and how it changes the dynamic within the family. It also ties in with the theme of culture –those differences not just between countries, but within countries (between Hana’s rural life and her city university one in Albania), and between groups of people (men/women, teenagers/adults, immigrants/natives). Hana/Mark has to find a way to move from one kind of culture to another more times than most.
On the face of it, Hana has a fairly easy immigration experience – she quickly got a job, then a better one, her own flat and was quickly proficient in English. But it’s the chapters in which she is confronted with her femininity and identity that her inner struggles come to the fore. She mainly struggles to relate to her own body, and to some extent other people generally, having lived for 17 years in relative isolation as Mark. But at the same time, she has always been the ‘weird’ and intellectual one, even before Mark, so it felt like in some ways she was doing a more complicated teenage ‘coming-of-age’ later in life.
There’s an interesting piece in Slate on sworn virgins, with photographs taken by Jill Peters, and Sworn Virgin is due to come out as a film sometime this year. Before writing the book, Dones also made a documentary interviewing sworn virgins in 2007.
Sworn Virgin is a brilliantly written, fascinating book about culture, gender and family. It’s not out until May, so in the meantime check out Dones’ documentary and put it near the top of your TBR.
Sworn Virgin is released on 13th May 2014.