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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump