Monday, August 18, 2014

WITMonth Day 18 - Sworn Virgin | Review

Important notice: Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin (tr. Clarissa Botsford) is one of those books that once you stop reading you just can't put it down. Believe me, I tried. Several times. But the book is clearly written and flows brilliantly and is so very interesting that setting it aside for more than five minutes just wasn't an option.

Of all the books I've read for WITMonth so far, there's no doubt in my mind that Sworn Virgin is the most thought-provoking, and also the book that addresses sexism most overtly. Sworn Virgin is about Hana, who lived as Mark for fourteen years (and yes, there's a reason I'm presenting it like this). The premise is based on a legit (but uncommon) Albanian practice of gender swaps, essentially in order to cross gender role boundaries. Hana originally decides to "become a man" in response to oppressive gender dynamics in her culture that prevent her - as a woman - from being able to fulfill various roles.

And thus - even where it occasionally succumbs a bit too much to the idea of clearly defined gender boundaries - Sworn Virgin emerges as a wholly fascinating account of gender roles. Hana-as-Mark is unsure about her position at times, unsure about how her sexuality fits into Mark's life, and unsure of how her previous life as a woman can meld with her current one.

But Hana-as-formerly-Mark is even more confused. This is where the story begins - Hana has arrived in the US and is casting off the "shackles" of her gender swap. She's not gay, she explains to her cousin's young daughter, nor transgender. But she also can't easily shake off various "masculine" traits, despite her cousin Lila's constant attempts. It's in this drive to "fix" Hana and bring her back to some sort of standardized femininity that Sworn Virgin becomes a bit problematic with its treatment of gender roles, but it also constantly shows these steps as being in accordance with Hana's own desires. Hana goes about things slowly, and we as the reader go with her.

The story is non-linear, with alternating chapters of Hana's past (pre-Mark and as Mark), and the post-Mark era. Through this, we gain a good understanding of what leads Hana to become Mark, and ultimately, what also leads Mark to go back to being Hana. Plus a healthy heap of family dynamics along the way, and relationships too. Unlike a lot of other stories with back-and-forth narratives, I actually had zero preference here - I enjoyed both aspects of the novel immensely. Each section tells an important story about gender, and about culture as well. It's all interesting, and it's all well-written, and it's all completely worth reading.

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