translated from the original Italian by Clarissa Botsford (here is her presentation of the novel), foreword by Ismail Kadare,
And Other Stories Publishers, London & New York, 2014
“So, Mr. Doda, you’re a poet,” said her traveling companion, who for seven hours had occupied the seat next to Hana’s 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 vulva, 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 files the scene under “Man out of love, woman still hoping, marriage ceasefire about to expire.”
You can’t write good poems with a dry vulva, she says to herself again, annoyed. Why the hell did she tell him she wrote? The man pins her down with his look. Don‘t even bother, she thinks, your enlightened man’s brain will never be able to guess. Hana smoothes down her man’s suit. The sport’s jacket is a bit big but not much.
Her traveling companion had stared at her with the same curiosity 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 pleased to give you a hand.”
Mark concentrates on the man’s carry-on bag. On his shoes. On his cell phone, which he now switches on. I’m sorry, Hana begs in silence while reading 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.
“Mr. Doda,” Patrick O’Connor calls, indicating 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, alert gaze. 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 excrements of stray dogs. Shreds of history, moans of gangsters whose only law was the code of honor, sunsets that were afraid to come down for fear of being surprised by death.
Patrick O’Connor – impatient now, the rhythm of everyday life suddenly printed on his face – holds out his hand.
“It was a real pleasure talking with you. Too bad you don’t have a phone number here in the States yet. Maybe before I go back to Albania we can have another talk. Keep in touch if you want to, I mean it. Well, good luck.”
Hana shakes his hand shyly. She’s a little sorry they’re parting ways. For seven hours this man was her safety net. Part of the time O’Connor spent tapping on the keyboard of a beautiful white computer with a picture of a bitten apple on its top. What a cute object, she had thought. Then he started talking. He was a great talker, and not at all formal.
“Use that phone number, really!” O’Connor shouts for the last time as he turns to leave. “I’m sure you’ll need it.”
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.
“Welcome to the United States of America, Ms Doda,” he says at last. “That’s all we need to know. You are good to go.”
She runs into the nearest mens’ room, diving 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.
She takes a deep breath, hoping to tame the 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 two hundred and eighty people.
Do it! She says to herself almost out loud. Get out of here 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, albeit 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 bestiality, 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 so alien. You need testicles to deal with all this, she thinks, testicles she doesn’t have. And that’s not all you need. Why testicles? Why? Why me?
Get out of this place, she tells herself, get out of here, for God’s sake!
“Do you need anything, sir?” asks a voice to her left.
She turns around. It’s a boy of about fourteen or fifteen, maybe older.
“Are you feeling okay?” he insists, in an accent that sounds familiar to Hana.
She swallows, smiles, straightens up from the washbasin. Says she’s fine, thanks. Almost apologizing.
The boy looks at her, not as self-assured as before. A man – it must be his father, the resemblance is uncanny – comes out of one of the stalls, approaches his son and rests his hand on his shoulder.
“Everything alright, Hikmet?”
The boy’s face doesn’t look at all Turkish, or Arab, he’s almost blond. The father, on the other hand, has a polished face, but with dark, marked features.
“This man isn’t feeling well,” says Hikmet.
Hana shakes her head in denial and says, “Hikmet? That’s a beautiful name. Turkish, right?”
The man doesn’t seem concerned about the stranger’s feeling unwell.
“How do you know?”
“I am Albanian.”
The man pauses a moment, granting a sliver of transient trust to the word Albanian, then doubt returns.
“Arnavut,” he says in Turkish.
“Albanian,” Hana repeats.
“We live in London. I often come to the States on business and this time I brought Hikmet with me.”
She doesn’t know what to say. Her poor English paralyzes her. The boy is almost at the door.
“So, you’re okay now, states the man erasing the question mark.
Father and son exit.
More time passes before she decides to face her family. She emerges from the restroom like a man on death row, like a fool in a flash of lucidity.
Arms are waving in the air, she hears a girl’s voice shout, “Uncle Maaaaark!” She glimpses out of the corner of her eye the threatening tail of a German Shepherd on a leash held by a man in uniform. Her cousin Lila throws herself into her arms. There is much nervous excitement.
“Hi cousin,” Lila says, “finally. But where were you? Where were you? We thought you’d been sent back.”
“Why would they do that?”
“How should I know? All the passengers from Zurich came out ages ago.”
“Tungjatë, bre burrë,” Shtjefën Dibra, Lila’s husband, greets her while embracing her energetically.
“Uncle Mark, I’m Jonida, do you recognize me?”
“Jonida, you’re so big now!”
They all order coffee which is served in plastic cups. The coffee is sad, tasting vaguely like rainwater.
She’s had coffee like this in Scutari a couple of times, where the barmen save money on coffee grounds: one day you get supplies from the other side of the border, from Montenegro or Kosovo, and the next day maybe not. In the capital, Tirana, you can find everything, but Tirana is distant, and hard to grasp.
Jonida pierces Hana with her look and sucks on her orange juice, making too much noise.
“Uncle Mark, now I get it,” she says at last.
“That you’re totally weird.”
“Is that so?” Hana smiles. Lila shakes her head as if to say sorry. Shtjefën stiffens.
“Yeah, weird,” the girl’s attack continues. “I mean, like, your clothes look borrowed. Nobody in America wears stuff like that. And you don’t have any beard.”
“Jonida, shut up” Lila implores. “What is this? Didn’t I tell you to behave?”
“If you keep on busting your uncle’s balls, he’ll turn right around and go back,” threatens Shtjefën, without much conviction.
Jonida laughs shrugging her shoulders, free and stubborn. One of the relatives, Pal, belches noisily, his wife Sanìja’s cell phone rings.
“He can’t go anywhere,” the girl argues. “And stop being such a know-it-all, Dad. How’s he going to go back with no money? The ticket costs, like…”
She’s still laughing. Two amazing dimples in her cheeks. She’s beautiful, so different from the way Hana had imagined her.
“Tell me, Uncle Mark? You don’t have the money to go back, right?”
“That is right.”
“And Scutari is the ugliest place in the world, right?”
“That is also true.”
“And half of the village has emigrated like us, right?”
“Yes, that is true too.”
“The North is the poorest part of Albania, right?”
“And you don’t have any beard, have you?”
Sanìja gets up and moves away to finish her phone call. Lila blushes, Shtjefën is furious. Pal looks awkwardly down at his chewed nails. Cousin Nikolìn and his wife Rudina freeze to the spot.
Hana tries to change the subject. “You know quite a bit about your country, eh?”
“Internet. Do you know what the Internet is?”
“A little, yes.”
“But you really don’t have any beard!”
“No, I don’t.”
The women stare blatantly, in silence. Lila smiles and murmurs words of encouragement to her cousin but avoids saying her name, though on the phone and in her letters she has always called her “Dear sister Hana.”
Hana feels calm now. She doesn’t mind her family; it was the limbo of expectation that made her feel sick.
“At home I’ve made chicken pilaf and a small chocolate cake,” Lila whispers in her ear. “It’s typical American,” she adds proudly.
She expects Hana to be impressed, but all she can mutter is something like, “Oh yes, that’s great.”
“You’ll be sleeping in the kitchen, Uncle Mark,” Jonida informs her. “So every time Dad gets up to smoke or have a snack he’ll wake you up.”
“Yes, Shtjefën keeps strange hours. Sometimes he goes to work at three or four in the morning, so he can’t sleep like regular people and he gets up to smoke or snack. You know, at home things are a bit cramped, I already told you on the phone, right? But don’t you worry about it.”
How do I look to her? Hana wonders, stubbing out her cigarette. She observes mother and daughter; they don’t look a bit alike. Lila has put on weight but her face is still pretty. She’s a natural blonde, her eyes a limpid blue, she’s tall and solid, her teeth are wrecked like most Albanians’. Jonida’s gaze is dark and warm, her hair long and parted down the middle, her eyebrows curved and bushy. Big mouth, straight nose and a really beautiful forehead.
“So, Mark, why don‘t we hit the road.” Shtjefën suggests. “It takes over an hour to get home with traffic the way it is, and you must be jet-lagged. And it’s almost dinner time.”
“It’s up to you, I don’t know.”
“Anyway, we’ll see you next Sunday for a dinner you won’t forget,” says Pal. “Today was just to welcome you, now we really should…”
Under the communists, Pal was the elementary school teacher in the village. Something in his voice has stayed nasal and pedantic. This was the first time Hana had seen Sanìja and Rudina, the wives of the cousins. Of course they must know the whole story, and must be dying to fire off questions, like rounds from a semi-automatic, but they realize the time and place are not quite right.
Hana can’t take her eyes off Jonida. The girl winks at her.
“Uncle Mark,” she concludes as she gets up, “you’re the funniest guy I’ve ever met.”
“Jonida!” shouts Shtjefën. “From now till we get to the house you keep that mouth of yours shut!
“That’s an order, in case you haven’t gotten the message.”
“It was clear, Shtjefën,” says Lila, trying to smooth things over.
“It’s your uncle you should apologize to, not me.”
“Forgive me, Uncle Gjergj,” Hana had implored, “I beg you.”
Without lifting his head, he had just grunted, like a bear. Then he had shouted, “Get out!” She had gone out of the room shaking. Forgive me, she had implored again to herself, without even knowing why she was begging forgiveness.
The others go. The men take their leave in the typical style of the North, pressing their foreheads together for a second, left hand on Hana’s shoulder, solemnly pronouncing the words: “May you remain in good health, man.” Then the Dibras leave too, with Hana on board.
The trip to the house is cautious, like a rifle shot waiting to be fired. Hana sits in the back of the car, next to Jonida, even though Lila insisted she sit in front. Shtjefën drives well, fast and attentive, a dancer on four wheels on a five-lane highway with cars passing on both sides. But Shtjefën is tenser than he was at the airport.
“The beltway is always stressful,” he comments, handing Hana a cigarette. She takes it but does not light up.
Lila every now and then turns and smiles. Jonida stares out of the window, music playing through a pair of earphones isolating her from the rest of the world, while the movement of the knee on which she rests her cd-player marks the rhythm of her temporary sojourn in another dimension.
The sunset is incredible: a blood orange. Hana only understands that they are traveling northeast, leaving the capital behind them. The interstate signs flash past like prison runaways in green and white uniform.
Jonida drums on her knee. Hana sees her hand holding out a message for her, written in block letters:
“YOUR ENGLISH SUCKS. I’LL TEACH YOU AMERICAN. COUNT ON IT.”
Shtjefën and Jonida have already gone to bed.
“Here we are, alone at last,” says Lila.
Hana looks at her affectionately. Her breast is still itching. Lila is incredibly tense. May God help us, thinks Hana. It can’t be easy; she wouldn’t like to be in Lila’s place right now.
“Listen,” she says invitingly, “why don’t we relax a bit, both of us?”
Lila perches on a low stool, looking even more vulnerable. “I want you to feel comfortable.”
“Yes, really, Lila.”
Lila hugs her abruptly, kneeling down in front of her. Hana feels lost in her embrace, ill at ease. Lila understands and breaks away from her, returning to the stool. The metallic grating sound of a passing train drowns out the awkwardness of the moment, making it less piercing.
“No drama. Okay, I’ve got it,” says Lila. “And no more hugs.”
Hana thinks about it. She lights a cigarette, feeling suddenly exposed and ugly.
“No, hugs are okay,” she murmurs. “Every now and then. I think they might do me good.”
“D’you want to go to bed?” Lila says, changing the subject. “It’s past midnight and you must be beat, it’s six in the morning for you.”
“No, I’m not sleepy.”
“You go then.”
Lila takes a cigarette from Hana’s pack and lights it. From the room next door they can hear Shtjefën’s rhythmic snoring.
“He’s a good man, right?” Hana asks.
“Yes, he’s a good father, and tries to be a good husband, always.”
Lila puts the fruit bowl in the middle of the table and starts to pull grapes off the bunch which, rather than eating, she arranges in a row on the table.
“How did you live alone all these years?”
Hana lets the minutes go by. “I wasn’t alone,” she answers. “If anything, the opposite is true.”
“What do you mean?”
Hana does not shift her gaze from the row of grapes.
“Have you forgotten the mountains, Lila?”
“Yes. Mountains made of eyes that observe and forbid, full of silence…”
Shtjefën stops snoring. Hana eats the head of the grape-train. The tablecloth is so white. The kitchen is reassuringly spick-and-span. Lila sitting in front of her is a stranger.
“It would have been easier if I’d been alone,” she says.
Her man’s sports jacket has been shed in the corner. All evening nobody has dared to pick it up and put it away.
“Do you want me to peel an apple for you?” Lila offers.
Hana bursts out laughing. It’s a kind laugh, one that nurtures itself and keeps itself going. She gets up, straightens her shoulders and adjusts her baggy pants.
“Stop treating me like a man that needs to be looked up to! I’m just your cousin Hana, we’re the same age and you’re letting me stay in your apartment,” she says, without stopping laughing. “I can do things on my own.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I thought I was ready to take this step, but now I’m scared stiff… And so are you.”
“You really are weird.” Lila runs her hand through her hair. “You always were. Were you like this even as a man?”
“As a man I carried a rifle, drove a truck and was careful with my words. But what do you know? You had already come to America.”
“Can I hug you again?”
Hana doesn’t answer. They embrace with a slow and harmonious gesture and stay entwined naturally. Hana’s head barely reaches Lila’s shoulder.
“You need to take off these men’s clothes.”
“There’s no hurry.”
“The sooner you get rid of them the better.”
“I thought that was the deal. That you were coming here to go back to what you were.”
“Yes, but there’s no hurry.”
Lila detaches herself and stares straight into her eyes. Hana smiles.
“I’m in no hurry. And anyway, that’s not the most important thing.”
Her cousin is confused. Hana leans towards her and pulls the hair back from Lila’s face.
“Jonida’s more important. I thought you had told her.”
Shtjefën appears at the door, pale and imposing in his light blue pajamas.
“Are you still up? … I’m thirsty.”
He moves towards the fridge, pulls out a bottle and drinks.
“Sorry, I’m going back to bed.”
Suddenly Lila is overwhelmed by tiredness.
“I can’t take any more, let’s go to bed too.”
“What about Jonida?”
“I was never any good at explaining things,” Lila says. “With her I’m just a bundle of feelings. Shtjefën didn’t know what to do either. Then we both agreed. Who knows? If the Americans play some nasty trick on Hana and don’t let her into the country, there’s no point in upsetting the girl.”
“Why wouldn’t they let me in?”
“What planet are you from, Hana? A month ago it was the end of the world here.” She crosses herself. “Security measures, fear of other attacks…, all those things.”
Hana picks up her jacket and caresses it slowly.
“We heard about September 11th even over there,” she says resentfully. “Even up in the mountains we have TV, what do you think?”
Lila laughs and puts the fruit back in the fridge.
“What, you’re acting all offended now? I know you have TV, but it’s another world over there.”
Hana looks out of the window, it’ll soon be dawn. Opposite there are two buildings, down below, rows of parked cars.
“Yes, we saw everything on the TV in the Rrnajë bar, but that day we’d drunk too much raki because Frrok had just married off his daughter, and the television was half broken, the sound wasn’t working anymore.”
The idea of lying down on the bed is inviting, Hana thinks. What is the village doing now? What is every one of its two hundred and eighty inhabitants thinking in this precise moment?
“Come on, bedtime! I’m dying,” orders Lila.
“I feel tender,” Hana says.
The stones in the river at Rrnajë looked like foam. She had observed them, in her meticulous and disciplined way. Then she had understood. They looked like foam because they were white, too white at times, when water danced over them in a fury. Hana didn’t like fury, it stained her peace. Even the name of the mountains left her feeling ambivalent: the Cursed Mountains. The name was too conclusive, it left so little room for hope. And yet, close up, the mountains were tame, you just needed to know how to take them. You just needed to learn to sleep there without thinking of the name, a name given by some outsider, some traveler who knew nothing about the place. There’s no curse, just caution and silence. If you don’t attack them, the mountains, they’ll leave you alone.
She wakes up at one pm and stays in bed a little longer. Then she gets up and looks furtively down the narrow hallway. The apartment smells like lemon, sugar and coffee. Her imitation Samsonite suitcase, bought in the bazaar behind the great mosque in Scutari, has disappeared, and so have Shtjefën’s shoes.
Lila comes out of the bathroom, smiling and busy. Hana brings a hand up and checks the top of her head, suddenly feeling naked.
“Good morning!” Lila greets her. “Why are you touching your hair?”
“I dreamed they were shaving my hair off on sheep-shearing day.” Lila laughs hesitantly to start with, then her laugh grows, in a crescendo she doesn’t hold back. Hana follows suit, comfortable in her funny baggy pajamas. Lila goes on laughing, and then she pushes her into the living room. On the table there’s a feast. Hana decides she must first stop in the bathroom, where a new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste await her, together with various little bottles and unfamiliar accoutrements. Beautiful towels. She stares at them at length; she’s afraid to use them for fear of spoiling them.
A year before, back at the village, Maria had received six towels like these from her daughter who had emigrated to Italy. She had sewn them together and made curtains for the guest room. Nice curtains they were: they went well with the rifles hanging in a row along the wall. Ten generations of males of the Frangaj family spread across the wall. No male voice had been heard in that house for a decade, since the blood feud had taken away the last of the Frangaj men, Maria’s son. If she had accepted the offers made by foreigners passing through the mountains after the communists fell she could have made a fortune selling those rifles. But she never did.
Hana washes quickly and comes out of the bathroom with her face still damp. Lila is pouring out the coffee. Hana decides to light a cigarette. They sit in silence.
Now the apartment, in the light of day, looks beautiful.
“They say that as time went on you got stranger and stranger,” Lila comments, more to herself than to her cousin. “They say you spent your time reading and writing.”
The greenish smoke plays with Lila’s blond curls.
“Does it scare you, Lila? I mean, the fact that I’m strange?”
Lila doesn’t say a word.
“I took out the animals, chopped the wood, worked in the fields, took part in village meetings and drank a lot of raki. Nothing else matters.”
“But this morning, who are you?” Lila asks cautiously. “Have you decided to be Hana, or Mark?”
Whatever happened the day after her arrival in America, Hana had promised herself she would never regret it. She’s never regretted anything, and she’s not about to start now, at the age of thirty- four.
“For you, I’m Hana. For the others, I’ll stay Mark just for a little while longer.”
“You’re Mark. I have to treat you like a man.”
“I said that for you I’m the old Hana. Yesterday that’s what you called me. What’s made you change your mind?”
Lila explains that this morning she really looks like a man: her gaunt face, her ruffled hair, her baggy pajamas. She finds it hard to think of her as a woman. Hana takes her time. It’s strange, but hearing these words hurts her. On the table there are two buns with a hole in the middle, three jars of different jams, butter, orange juice, coffee, sugar, hard boiled eggs. Stop making an inventory!
“I’ve been a man for fourteen years.”
Lila tries to drown her gaze in the oily brownness of her coffee.
“It won’t be easy,” she concludes, “for any of us.”
“Really?” Hana hints at an ironic smile. “I didn’t know that.”
“Don’t tease me. You’re the educated one around here. I speak as it comes.”
Lila checks the clock on the wall impatiently. It’s nearly two.
“I’m as ignorant as an amoeba,” Hana reassures her. “Educated is a big word.”
“Well, you went to college didn’t you?”
“Sure, for one year, before going back to the mountains to become a man.”
SWORN VIRGIN – a presentation (by Clarissa Botsford)
Elvira Dones’ novel, ‘Vergine Giurata’ (‘Sworn Virgin’), which she wrote in Italian, touches on many contemporary and some age-old themes: the value of traditions set against their dangers and traps, migration and its accompanying transformations, gender and trans-gender identity and uncertainty, intercultural misunderstanding in a ‘new world’, and, in the background, the emotional upheaval and political turbulence of post-communist Eastern European transition countries.
Hana (once Mark), the protagonist, moves to the US, in order to cast off her oath, made under duress in accordance with an ancient mountain tradition that if a family had no male sons a woman could ‘opt’ to become a man – and enjoy his privileges in a backward, rural society where women were born to obey and serve men – as long as she swore herself to virginity for life. Having lived as a man for 14 years, and as a virgin, Hana’s transition to her new life in the US as a woman is not as smooth as she had dreamed, and her already assimilated extended family do not make her task any easier.
‘Sworn Virgin’ is written in very contemporary Italian, and represents a new ‘blended’ generation of non-Italian writers choosing to write in the language. Ambiguity of identity is reflected in the language (in the Italian with masculine and feminine endings), in the smatterings of dialect, and in the contrast between the received ideas of the youngest American-born niece and the equally received ideas of the Albanian tradition that Hana finds herself impelled to justify, having accepted them for so long. Hana’s voice is endearingly clear, both in the third person narrative and in the frequent shifts to her past, which creates instant intimacy and empathy with the character, despite the ‘foreigness’ – in every sense – of her situation. It is fascinating and quite gripping to read, and I think it would expose English-speaking readers to a darker, less obvious side of the Europe they think they know from more stereotyped sources.
Dones has made an award-winning documentary on this now dying tradition of ‘sworn virgins’ in Albania which she takes regularly to US colleges, triggering lively and thought-provoking discussion covering a surprising array of topics. In the same way, the book is likely to provide fertile material for book-group discussion points.