I was fascinated to learn, through this novel, of the tradition of bacha posh in which, through the simple act of a change of clothes and a haircut, a girl can be transformed into a boy. This occurs not in response to a girl’s sense of gender dysphoria – in a society in which girls’ feelings are of no consequence, and they’ve been taught that they’re worthless since birth, how could it? – but as a practical solution for a family with only daughters in a culture in which certain activities can only be undertaken by males. Condoned by the wider community, it’s a practice that perpetuates gender inequality by exploiting loopholes, as well as a place of refuge for the less demure girls, instead of changing the system as a whole. Recalling the hijra of India (although it’s possible that boy-to-girl transitions serve a different function than girl-to-boy), I’m wondering how widespread this practice is in cultures with a rigid gender divide. So I went back to my bookshelves to pick up another novel on the theme that had been sitting there for some time.
Hana joins her cousin in the small flat she shares with her husband and disarmingly direct teenage daughter. She learns the language, gets a job, a hairdo and a skirt. Eventually she gets her own place, but there’s something missing. She’s terrified to embark on a relationship with a man, embarrassed at her sexual inexperience, having been so estranged from her own body in her masculine role, she hasn’t even learnt to pleasure herself.
The novel takes us back in time to meet Hana, a young woman from a small village in the mountains, revelling in her life as a student in the city. She loves the aunt and uncle who have raised her following the death of both her parents and they, seemingly, love each other, so that the hard edges of traditional life in the immediate aftermath of the dictatorship are softened, somewhat. While this is a society in which the men carry Kalashnikovs and the women stay in the kitchen, in the microcosm of Hana’s immediate family this doesn’t come across as overly bleak.
Then her uncle is diagnosed with cancer and, just before Hana is due to take an important exam, her aunt dies of a heart attack and she’s called home. Her loyalty to her uncle, combined with the intransigence of university bureaucracy, leads to her giving up her studies to nurse him. For his part, her uncle tries to get her married off before his demise, but Hana isn’t ready. After only just avoiding being raped by a truck driver (when cadging a lift for an essential journey in an area without public transport), Hana solemnly dons male clothing. Her uncle, his friends, and the entire region of “cursed mountains” (p146), not only accept, but approve of her new persona, which brings honour to the clan.
I found the Albanian scenes the most engaging but, unfortunately, we’re given only fleeting glances of Hana in the years she spends as Mark. The focus on her rediscovery of her femininity in America, while moving at times, dragged a little with the weight of mundane detail and dialogue and, I’m afraid, my still incomplete understanding of what it meant to be a “sworn virgin” (though I’m slightly clearer now having consulted Wikipedia) and the exact basis of Hana’s decision. Nevertheless, an intriguing concept that raises questions about the enigma of gender, and the first Albanian novel I think I’ve read.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is published by HarperCollins who provided my review copy. Sworn Virgin is translated from the original Italian by Clarissa Botsford and published by And Other Stories; I bought my copy from my own funds.