Elvira Dones; translated by Clarissa Botsford
And Other Stories, 256pp, £10
On a flight from Albania to Washington in October 2001, two passengers strike up a conversation. One is Patrick O’Connor, an American journalist. The other is Mark Doda, a shepherd from Rrnajë, a village deep in the mountains of Albania, who is leaving his country for the first time in his 34 years. Unusually for a village shepherd, Mark speaks some English and tells his travelling companion that he writes poetry. As they part at the airport, Patrick, intrigued, hands over his card. “Call me whenever you want,” he says. And then, turning for a last farewell: “Use that phone number, really! I’m pretty sure you’ll need it.”
Yet Mark is not arriving in America with nowhere to go. Gathered to meet him are his cousin Lila, her husband, Shtjefën, their 13-year-old daughter, Jonida, and some other former villagers from Rrnajë, now settled in the US. At Lila’s and Shtjefën’s modest apartment in the Washington suburbs, Lila and Mark stay up late, talking about the past.
Dramatic though the transition from Albania to America has been, Mark faces an even greater change. For 14 years, he has been living as a man – but until the age of 20, he was a girl named Hana. The switch of gender was not prompted by Hana’s sexuality but by her family circumstances. Rather than enter an arranged marriage, she chose to follow an ancient Albanian custom and become a sworn virgin.
A sworn virgin, she explains to her astonished niece, who has already noticed that “Uncle Mark” is “the funniest guy I’ve ever met”, is a woman who chooses to live as a man to defend her family’s honour. From the day she puts on male clothing, she is treated by other men as one of them. She drinks, smokes and works like a man – activities forbidden to village women. But the price of a sworn virgin’s masculine freedom is the sacrifice of love, children and companionship. She can never marry and must remain celibate all her life.
At 20, Hana was a student of literature at university in Tirana, where she had been encouraged to go by her uncle Gjergj and her aunt Katrina, who brought her up after the death of her parents in a car crash. When news came that her uncle was sick, she skipped an essential examination to return home. As Gjergj lay mortally ill with cancer, Katrina’s weak heart gave out and Hana felt that she had no choice but to abandon her studies to care for her uncle. Yet she could not remain a single woman. Instead of marrying a man she did not love, she embraced the only freedom available to her, as Mark. Now, transplanted to post-9/11 America, she must learn to become Hana again. And as Patrick O’Connor predicted, she needs to call his number.
In so far as Albanian fiction is at all familiar to a western audience, it is probably from the remarkable writing of Ismail Kadare, who provides an introduction to Elvira Dones’s novel. Dones is a writer and film-maker who defected from communist Albania in 1988; she was convicted of treason in her absence and separated from her young son until the collapse of communism in the country in 1992. In 2007, her film Sworn Virgins won the prize for Best Documentary at the Baltimore Women’s Film Festival.
Her novel, beautifully translated by Clarissa Botsford, explores its subject matter with the authority of a writer who understands what it means to live against your own nature in order to survive. The physical contrasts of Hana’s different worlds – the harsh village life, the exhilaration of university, the strangeness of the Washington suburbs – are described with the same piercing authenticity with which Dones delineates Hana’s inner terrain: her renunciation of her female identity and the halting, painful, joyful recovery of her sense of self. The precision with which her narrative explores its themes of identity, exile and belonging is a vindication of the PEN Writers in Translation Programme, which supported the publication of this tender, funny and arrestingly original novel.