Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

I picked up Sworn Virgin at least three years ago, at Daunt Books in London, because it looked interesting and I didn’t want to leave such a nice bookshop without a book. Fast forward a while, and I finally got round to reading it. Turns out that once I actually started it, I couldn’t put it down.

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I’m milking my sweet peas for pretty pictures until they are no more

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones is the story of Hana Dodes, an Albanian woman, who, for traditional, cultural and personal reasons chooses, as a young woman, to live as a man. But years later, she moves to America and chooses to start living as a woman again. The novel follows two time lines – the present day, beginning with Hana on a flight to the States, and the past, following her life as a university student leading up to her deciding to live as a man.

Originally written in Italian, my copy of Sworn Virgin was translated by Clarissa Botsford. It’s a measured translation, care taken over the words used, and it feels as if the translator and author have thought as much about how to tell Hana’s story as Hana thinks about how to live her live throughout the book.

The present day story line follows Hana trying to shed her male life, while clinging to the familiarity of it, while also contending with the culture of America which is new to her and so different from what she has so far experienced in her life. Immigration stories are always interesting, and I find they encourage me to look at the culture I live in a little differently, to questions things that have always seemed to be how life is and explore whether they should be that way.

The novel is an interesting look at gender and gender inequality, focusing on Albanian traditions and culture. When I initially picked it up, I thought it was about trans issues. However, as Hana chooses to live as a man for cultural reasons rather than as an expression of her gender identity, I didn’t read her as trans or gender fluid, but rather as a cis woman, who was unhapppy living as a man but had no other choice. That said, I feel that sentiments and issues expressed throughout the book about gender identity could be similar thoughts and experiences of those in the trans and/or gender fluid communities. And, on reading Sworn Virgin, you could disagree with me and read Hana as trans or gender fluid. As no definitive label is put on Hana’s gender identity, you can read this novel in whatever light you choose.

Normally I rush through books, but how considered every aspect of this novel was slowed me down, and while I wanted to know how Hana’s story played out, I was also wanted to savour every page. I’d definitely recommend Sworn Virgin if you’re looking for a measured look at how society shapes and defines our gender, as well as an expertly navigated immigration story.

I bought Sworn Virgin out of my own pocket back when I was a poor student. All opinions are mine, so if you agree, disagree or just want to talk more about what I’ve said, drop me a comment. 

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