‘Elvira Dones is among the best of Albania’s writers and her publication in English is excellent news.’ – Ismail Kadare
Hana Doda is an ambitious literature student in cosmopolitan Tirana. Mark Doda is a raki-drinking, chain-smoking shepherd, living alone deep in the Albanian mountains. In fact, they are the same person. When Hana’s dying uncle calls her home from the city, he asks her to marry a local boy in order to run the household. Unable to accept the arranged marriage but resolved to remain independent, she must vow in accordance with Albanian tradition to live the rest of her life in chastity as a man – and becomes Mark. There is no way back for a sworn virgin.
Years later Mark receives an invitation to join a cousin in Rockville, Maryland. This is Mark’s chance to escape his vow and to leave Albania for modern America. But what does he know about being a woman?
- Foreword to Sworn Virgin written by Ismail Kadare.
- To read an extract from the book, scroll to the bottom of the page.
- Read Elvira Dones’ piece on sworn virgins and her novel in PEN Atlas, Helen Brown’s feature-interview with her for Sunday Telegraph (UK) and National Post (Canada), Female First’s interview with Elvira on Sworn Virgin, and her interview with the BBC World Service.
- To see Erafilm Productions photographs of production look here.
- To see photos of ‘sworn virgins’ in Albania, have a look at this feature on Slate with Jill Peters’ photographs.
- If you had subscribed to And Other Stories before this book went to the printers, you would have received the first edition of the book – in which all subscribers are thanked by name – before its official publication, as well us up to 5 other And Other Stories titles per year. Find out about subscribing to upcoming titles here.
- Sworn Virgin makes World Literature Today’s list of Notable Translations in 2014
- Sworn Virgin makes Three Percent’s list of spectacular Books in Translation 2014
Praise for Sworn Virgin
- ‘Elvira Dones is one of the most distinguished Albanian authors writing today. Astonishing, brilliant, and unabashed by taboos of any kind, she is as much at ease in Albanian as in the rest of European literature…. The protagonist of this novel passes through all the tribulations of this frightening transformation like the actor in some extraordinary role in a classical drama that hurtles towards its dénouement.’ Ismail Kadare
- ‘Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford with effortless musicality … I couldn’t put it down. Dones’s ability to tell a politically and psychically complex story with such lightness of touch is down to her flowing, spring-clear prose and slyly subversive vision.’ Kapka Kassabova, Guardian
- ‘This book by Elvira Dones grabs the attention with its subject matter even before you turn the first page … As well as this unusual coming-of-age story, with its shadow of death and grief, Dones gives us a compelling portrait of life under communist rule, where “anyone who owns a pair of jeans in Tirana is rich and powerful”. … a fascinating story’. Jonathan Gibbs, Independent (UK)
- ‘A subtle, teasing examination of gender identity, cultural disorientation, and language as the basis of authentic personhood…’ Nat Segnit, Times Literary Supplement (UK)
- ‘A subtle and provocative novel which leaves the reader full of admiration for the strength and stoicism of those who choose a path like Hana’s. And bristling with questions about the hypocrisy of a society which treats women in skirts as intellectually, emotionally and physically inferior to men, yet accepts the total equality of a woman in trousers.’ Helen Brown, Sunday Telegraph (From a feature-interview with Elvira Dones, also syndicated in the National Post)
- ‘The author puts a light touch on the issues of culture, immigration, gender tradition and race … The novel can be sensitive or brusque depending upon which sex is narrating.’ Harriet Addison, The Times
- ‘A vindication of the PEN Writers in Translation Programme, which supported the publication of this tender, funny and arrestingly original novel.’ Jane Shilling, New Statesman
- ‘…a fascinating study in duality and blurred identity which takes as its subject-matter imposed gender realignment … a brave book which tackles big themes such as tradition and modernity, exile and belonging while never losing sight of the individual faced with life choices that are constantly opening up certain freedoms while closing the door on others.’ New Internationalist
- ‘The latest hidden gem uncovered by this publisher … There is more to the book than the unearthing of a remarkable tradition: Dones’ characters are vibrant and her portrait of life in the mountains and in Tirana, the capital, is vivid … Clarissa Botsford’s translation (from the Italian – Dones writes in Albanian and Italian) is elegant and sensitive.’ Jethro Soutar, Independent
- ‘Dones’s deft and lively novel finds its sweet spot in a handful of dualities . . . Dones writes in a clean and breezy style, raising sly questions about culture, art, and, especially, gender. Her novel is provocative without being confrontational.’ Publishers Weekly
- ‘A gripping, metamorphic tale. The themes of culture, gender, identity and family are explored with real understanding and piercing authenticity in this tender and arrestingly original novel’ Which Book
‘Artfully written by one of Albania’s most distinguished authors, Sworn Virgin is a story that resonates far beyond one country’s borders.’ Elizabeth Milliard, Foreword Reviews
‘This tight, utterly original story…Sworn Virgin was made to be translated.’ Caite Dolan-Leach, The Quarterly Conversation
- ‘Keen observations on the performance of gender, as well as a good deal of humor…The interactions between cousins, at times tender and loving, at times cantankerous and fraught with misunderstandings, give this novel great momentum and allow the characters to fully come alive on the page.’ Bitch Magazine
- ‘It’s a fascinating premise for a novel and Dones handles it beautifully… told in simple, direct language making the confusion of her identity all the more effective. In other less-skilled hands this is a story that could have fallen flat on its face but Dones – and her translator Clarissa Botsford – deftly avoid prurient sensationalism. The final sentence makes you want to jump up and cheer.’ Susan Osborne, Shiny New Books
- ‘Sworn Virgin is beautifully written, using small details to build scenes that are rife with meaning … an incredibly engrossing read, telling a story that is both engaging and transcendent.’ Beth Mellow, Bookslut
- ‘Without having to travel all over the world, one way to get to know other countries is through reading modern literature of that area. That is what we get with [Sworn Virgin]; a glimpse into the world of Albania . . . a place many people would be hard-pressed to find on a map, a place whose culture or customs are little known by the outside world.’ Kevin Winter, San Francisco Book Review
- ‘Elvira Dones‘s engaging novel, Sworn Virgin (translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford and regrettably the only Dones novel available in English), not only unpacks these fascinating gender questions, but transplants the issue between two nations.’ Edward Champion, Reluctant Habits
‘Dones has a light and easy way of writing so that the story sweeps you along … The strength in Dones’s writing is in the characterisation.’ Belinda Farrell, Biis Books
- ‘Dones style is pared back and clean, letting the emotional honesty at the heart of our protagonists’ story shine through.’ Marie Claire Conlin, For Books’ Sake
- ‘Elvira Dones offers an emotionally involving account of an Albanian sworn virgin.’ The Big Issue
- ‘The circumstances around Hana/Mark’s choices are convincingly described without sensationalism. Mark’s double culture shock, as an immigrant and as someone unused to traditional femininity, is also nicely handled. This is an engaging and absorbing novel that gives both an emotional experience and a good deal to think about.’ Emerald Street
- ‘These are books that, even if I don’t have time to read them, I must own. As a complete set. That’s powerful in terms of marketing and branding, and is one—of many—things that And Other Stories has done right in launching their press.’ Three Percent
- ‘A thought-provoking story … 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.’ Tony Malone, Tony’s Reading List
- ‘Important notice: Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin (tr. Clarissa Botsford) is one of those books that once you stop reading you just can’t put it down … Of all the books I’ve read for WITMonth so far, there’s no doubt in my mind that Sworn Virgin is the most thought-provoking … Sworn Virgin emerges as a wholly fascinating account of gender roles … completely worth reading.’ Biblio
- ‘Dones does a good job of showing the complexities of gender, identification, society and culture.’ Biblio
- ‘Ms. Dones has a gift for slowly opening up her characters … Sworn Virgin is a fascinating novel, and highly recommended.’ Carolyn Oliver, Rosemary and Reading Glasses
- ‘Fascinating reading. The word pictures of people and of those repressive climates; dictatorship, rural isolation and patriarchy; that condition them are set out in very compelling prose. If you have never been to rural Albania, reading this novel will transport you there and bring you back again safely. It would be well worth the journey.’ Michael Johnston, Akanos
- ‘Sworn Virgin digs deeply into its protagonist’s psychology, and delineates the contours of her world.’ David Hebblethwaite
- ‘Sworn Virgin is quite simply a character study, which follows a young woman as she learns to fall in love with her life.’ We Love This Book
- ‘As ever And Other Stories have turned up a quirky novel about a part of the world I always wanted to know more about.’ Stu Allen, Winston’s Dad
- ‘Sworn Virgin is a punchy and poetic novel, which takes the reader into what is likely to be a totally unfamiliar world and makes it vivid and engaging.’ Thom Cuell, The Workshy Fop
- ‘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 … Sworn Virgin is a brilliantly written, fascinating book about culture, gender and family.’ Laurent Binet, Mischief and Miscellany
- ‘Elvira Dones deals with issues at the heart of western civilisation today, such as migrant and gender identity, and the tormented relationships we may have our bodies.’ Liliana Moro www.universitadelledonne.it
- ‘An intelligent and painful play on identity, and on the freedom of body and spirit’ Lara Crinò, Repubblica Donne
- ‘An unusual and beautiful Bildungsroman’ Marilia Piccone, Stradanove
- ‘Increasingly these days, true stories are turned into fiction, and novelists are able to tell these stories more successfully than journalists. Elvira Dones has finally given a voice to those Albanian women who hope one day to regain the femininity they once denied in order to be counted equal in society.’ Silvia Mazzocchi, Repubblica
- ‘[Sworn Virgin] explores many binary oppositions—urban/rural, tradition/modernity, wealth/poverty, West/non-West, communism/capitalism, home/diaspora, male/female, body/soul—to reveal how sociopolitical forces mold individual lives. Ultimately, this spare but evocative novel portrays a woman who negotiates and finally reconciles those binaries to shape an identity that transcends history, tradition, and societal constraints.’ World Literature Today
‘[A] very readable, enjoyable, gorgeous novel that deals with issues, serious and light, familiar and unfamiliar … That a novel covering such weighty issues as communism, patriarchal oppression, sexual violence, immigration and gender identity manages to be so warm and enjoyable is a huge achievement.’ Kate Gardner, Nose in a Book
- ‘[A] fascinating psychological portrait but also a careful exploration of desire and personal transformation.’ Michelle Bailat-Jones, Necessary Fiction -Books of the Year 2014
Extract from chapter 1:
from Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated by Clarissa Botsford:
‘So, Mr Doda, you’re a poet,’ says her traveling companion, who for seven hours had occupied the seat next to Hana on the plane.
The line of passengers waiting to get through passport control at Washington International Airport snakes tiredly.
‘Not really.’ She tries to smile.
‘But you write poems, if I’ve understood you correctly.’
You can’t write good poems with a dry cunt, she says in her head. She looks away. A woman is touching up her lipstick, her husband watching with slight disgust, tapping his fingers on his passport. Hana catalogues the scene under the heading, ‘Man out of love, woman still hoping, marriage ceasefire about to expire.’
You can’t write good poems with a dry cunt, she says to herself again, annoyed. Why the hell did she tell him she wrote? He pins her down with his look. It’s no good, she thinks, your enlightened man’s brain will never be able to guess. Hana smoothes down her man’s suit. The sports jacket’s a bit big, but not that much.
Her traveling companion had stared at her the same way during the flight.
‘Here’s my card,’ he now says, ‘in case you need anything, information about the capital, any suggestions. If I’m not traveling around the world, or at my house in Geneva, I’ll be in DC. Really, call me when you want, Mr Doda, I’d be happy to help out.’
Mark concentrates on his carry-on. On his shoes. On his cell phone, which he wants to turn on. I’m sorry, she pleads in silence. Hana reads the name on the card: Patrick O’Connor. The man is of Irish origin. She smiles. Christ, we country folk can smell each other out.
Her left breast begins to itch. She tries to scratch herself without using her hand. She started feeling the presence of her breasts a year ago, as soon as she got her Green Card and decided to emigrate to America. She can’t seem to stop the itching.
‘Mr Doda,’ Patrick O’Connor calls, indicating with a nod of his head the passport controller’s narrow cubicle.
The line has moved on. Hana kicks her bag forward. Her brown shoes, on either side of the bag, look like little hibernating bears.
‘What is the purpose of your visit to the United States, Ms Doda?’ the officer asks as he opens her passport.
It’s too late to go back now. Even the village knows he left holding the passport of a woman.
The village had observed, with penetrating, attentive eyes. The way he was dressed on the day he said goodbye was the object of quiet scrutiny; there were no comments. It was a dark time, people had little energy to spare. Past glory had faded into the howls and excrement of stray dogs. Shreds of history, the moans of gangsters whose only law was the code of honor, sunsets that were afraid to drop, for fear of being surprised by death.
* * *
She gets through the first passport control and breathes a sigh of relief. They point her to an office where she has to go through more formalities. A half-empty room with thin plaster walls. With her limited vocabulary she finds it hard to assemble the answers to the officer’s questions, but the man is patient, and Hana is grateful to him.
‘Welcome to the United States of America, Ms. Doda,’ he says at last. That’s all we need to know. You can go now.’
She runs into the nearest men’s room, catapulting herself towards a washbasin. The face in the mirror is angular. Hana shifts her gaze towards a man waiting to go into one of the stalls. Others, unabashed and hasty, relieve themselves at the urinals. The door opens and closes to the irregular beat of the travelers’ footsteps.
Hana takes a deep breath, hoping to tame her panic. The family is waiting at Arrivals. There’s her cousin Lila, her thirteen-year-old niece Jonida – whom Hana hasn’t seen since she was a baby – and their husband and father Shtjefën, as well as some other people from the village, who had emigrated years before. ‘Proud to be American’, as they had said in their badly written letters. They’ve come from various places in Maryland, and from Virginia, and from Pennsylvania, and even from another State called Ohio.
Hana had spent a great deal of time poring over a map of the United States, but her imagination had melted at the sheer size of the country. America is immense. She’d lived in a village of 280 people.
Out! Now! She says to herself almost out loud. Get out and be a man.
That’s what the clan expects. They want to see what they left behind, a young man gone grey with the weight of duty, a much-loved relative, but an oddball. Mark’s arrival is meant to bring them back to the mountains, to the smell of dung, to the splutter of guns, to betrayal, songs, wounds, flowers, to brutality, to the seduction of the mountain trails inviting them to throw themselves over the edge, to love.
Hana shakes her thoughts away. This restroom in Dulles International Airport is so real and tangible, and yet she feels so alien here. You need balls to deal with all this, she thinks, balls she doesn’t have. And that’s not all you need. Why balls? Why? Why me?
Get out of this bathroom, she tells herself, Get out of here, for Christ’s sake!