Trees decorated with hearts in the Albanian capital Tirana on Valentine's Day 2014. Photo: Getty
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No sex please, I’m Albanian: Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

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. 

Sworn Virgin
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.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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