Finding the sworn virgin

This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission

Translated by Clarissa Botsford

I started thinking up Hana, the protagonist of Sworn Virgin, when I was still at high school in Tirana, under the Albanian communist regime. Perhaps because she was a reminder of those archaic traditions that the Party – in its infinite wisdom and foresight – claimed it had totally eradicated. Despite such claims, however, rumours abounded at the time about these bizarre creatures. It was said they were still eking out their existence in the valleys of the north, wedged into the peaks known as the Accursed Mountains, a name that seemed specially coined to attract the attention of a nosy adolescent. These women dressed as men and carried rifles, it was whispered. They shared the fiercest grappa with men, in the men’s dives, and chain smoked cigarettes like men. These women had the same rights as men, and were respected by other men as equals, or even as superiors. All this, rumour had it, happened in those Accursed Mountains, where life was still regulated by the Kanun, a set of ancient Albanian laws passed down through the generations, which somewhere stated that, ‘a woman is a sack, made to endure.

All you had to do in order to take control of your own destiny, rather than be considered ‘a sack’, was to take a vow of chastity before the elders of the village. At that point you could do whatever you wanted: sell clan land, refuse an arranged marriage, shoot your enemies, give orders and have the last word.

One day, by chance, I saw a photograph. It was a portrait of a sworn virgin: she was a man.

The Party continued to skirt the existence of these unlikely figures. And yet, many years later I discovered that one sworn virgin – a man in every important respect – had served the world proletariat faithfully for years as secretary of a local committee of the Albanian Workers’ Party, to everyone’s satisfaction.

I left Albania without saying goodbye – but that is another story. I took with me extravagant dreams, anguish, anger and nostalgia. Deeply buried in a dark corner of my memory, I also took Hana. How many sworn virgins were left? Forty? Sixty? Not very many, but they existed alright. And in my writer’s imagination there was Hana: young, beautiful, brilliant, with poetry in her soul and an insatiable appetite for the life which was just beginning to unfurl in front of her eyes, but, at the same time, a daughter of the accursed destiny of the Accursed Mountains in a beleaguered country. My Hana was going to be a rebel, not a sack-like product of the Kanun. She was going to sign up for university down in the capital city. She was going to be emancipated and studious, a writer even. Until the laws of the mountain and of family love dictated the direction of her life and made her become – like others before her – a sworn virgin by the name of Mark.

That was when I tried to imagine what the people of the Accursed Mountains had never witnessed and would never deem possible: a sworn virgin who betrays her vows. A woman turned man who becomes a woman again. A little atom bomb dropped on the Kanun, on the harsh valleys where for centuries an undisputed patriarchal tradition had reigned. Because this is the power a novelist wields: to write the unspeakable.

When I had finished writing the novel, Hana didn’t want to leave me alone. Creating her had not been enough. I went to look for her up in the Accursed Mountains, where I filmed a documentary on sworn virgins for Swiss television. I met several of them: they were men, smoking and drinking, carrying their rifles, totally relaxed, at ease in themselves, expressing no regrets or complaints about their life. In one town I met the former Party secretary, who was still respected as if the regime had never collapsed. And then I found a car mechanic in a tiny village who confided her impossible dream, her unspeakable anguish. I had finally found her.

Elvira Dones will be in the UK for the following events:

Monday 19th May, 7 for 7:30pm, The Library at Hardy’s Brasserie, 53 Dorset Street, London, W1U 7NH

This is the first in a regular dinner party we will be hosting throughout the year, in which a small group of people get to join us for dinner with one of our authors, their translator.

We will all be around one large table and people shall be rotated after each course to give everyone a chance to talk to Elvira, her translator Clarissa Botsford and at least one person from And Other Stories.

Space is limited and booking is essential.

£30 per head for a 3-course dinner and aperitif (excl. wine). A £10 deposit is required.

To Book, contact: nicci@andotherstories.org

Tuesday 20th May, 7 – 8:30pm, The Italian Bookshop (in The European Bookshop), 5 Warwick Street, London, W1B 5LU.

An evening of readings and discussion between Elvira Dones and Clarissa Botsford in both English and Italian. Wine and snacks provided.

FREE event

Wednesday 21 May, 7:00pm, Working Men’s College Library, 44 Crowndale Road, London, NW1 1TR – (Nearest tubes Camden, Mornington Crescent)

An evening of readings with five exciting international authors at this popular literary salon.

Entry is FREE but reservations are essential.

Cash bar available.