Sworn Virgin – a Review

Sharrit ndërmjet Kosovës

Sworn Virgin – a Review

Albanian Sworn Virgin

Albanian sworn virgin, circa 1910

If you are looking for an in-depth examination of the history of the sworn virgin (or burnesha) phenomenon in the mountains of Northern Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo, Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, is probably not where you want to start.

But if you want to understand, to live a possibility in your head, to absorb the cadences of thought and word that both create and manifest a society so  driven by the concept of honor that it would develop a legal method for women to become men, the story that Ms. Dones has written will give you that experience.

Mark, who is also Hana, is leaving a post-communist Albania to live in a post-9/11 America.  He is becoming a she again on the flight to Washington-Dulles airport, but the process is in its earliest stages.  

Before becoming Mark, Hana was not gay.  She was not a transvestite.  She had not even begun to discover the workings of her own body and the depth of her feelings.  But circumstances intervened, and family debts urged her toward a future different from any she had imagined for herself. 

And later, when circumstances changed again, Mark had to find a way back to Hana.  A man who had been a woman who had never really learned what it is to be a woman needed to discover a way to return to that woman. 

Sworn Virgin is not a scholarly treatise on a little-known phenomenon the western world doesn’t understand.  While the writing definitely has the storytelling cadence of Albanian tales, it isn’t written in a nearly unfathomable foreign style that drive away any but those conditioned to the character of the mountain tales.  It is, at once, foreign and familiar.  And rather than dwelling on the tangled and innumerable threads of history leading to the choice of the main character to fully leave behind the she-Hanna and become the he-Mark, it focuses on the inner core that is neither Mark nor Hana, but also both Hana and Mark.


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