Reading Sworn Virgin by Rene Karabash was a unique experience. I was only barely familiar with the concept of a sworn virgin and I honestly thought that this is not something you can access and see for yourself today. But as it turns out, there are still individuals, who are the living proof of the Albanian centuries-old tradition. As photographer Jill Peters explains, a sworn virgin is a biological woman, who swears an oath and assumes the identity of a man, in order to serve as the head of the family in a patriarchal society. The Kanun, a set of archaic tribal laws followed in Northern Albania, assigns a lower position for the women and restricts them from the “freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants”. Decades of blood feuds and bloodshed, as well as dwindling male population led to the emergence of the sworn virgins, who were practically the only way to preserve the family structure as per the Kanun. Rene Karabash takes this concept even further in her book and not only sets the story in 2018, but also tries to find if there is a definite line dividing femininity and masculinity.
One thing I did not expect was to identify with so many of the problems presented in Sworn Virgin, while at the same time being so far from the position of the main character, Bekia (Бекиа) (later known as Matya (Матя)). I will address the two main things that stuck with me even after reading the book. I don’t want to spoil any of the major events in the book, but keep in mind that there will be some spoilers.
The prose flows in an unending sentence with no beginning and no end, just small little breaths, pauses. Narration is mixed with conversations and there’s abundant symbolism in everything. Starting with the poem in the beginning of Sworn Virgin, where there is a play on the words “son” and “blue”, both “син” in Bulgarian, and the explanation that Bekia’s favourite colour is blue, because she heard that her father wanted a son, while Bekia was still in her mother’s womb. Another strong moment for me, which also shows Karabash’s ability for poetry, is Bekia’s preparation for the sworn virgin ceremony, where she sees the two dresses her grandmother laid out for her – Bekia’s wedding gown and her grandmother’s funeral gown – stating that she’s not certain which of the dresses is more appropriate for her. What was even stranger for me was that when explaining her relation to other characters in the book, Bekia rarely addresses her relations using words like “mum”, “dad”, “grandma”., etc. They are addressed either by their names or by a very long explanation, thus, her grandmother becomes “the mother of my father”. Bekia distances herself from her family, because she sees that her fate is sealed and that following the Kanun is more important than any familial love.
Nature versus Nurture
I’m glad that although Bekia (Matya) is the center of the narrative, her brother Salle also plays an important part in presenting the nature versus nurture problem. Since before Bekia’s birth, her father, Murash (Мураш), is adamant that he wants a son and his behaviour and beliefs are reinforced both by the Kanun and his mother. As a baby, Bekia is referred to not as a human, but as a worm, a low-ranking animal in the food-chain. Growing up, Bekia’s status upgrades from “worm” to “son” and her boyishness is encouraged when Murash gives Bekia her first present – a gun, something forbidden to girls. The idea of survival by any means is ingrained from birth. On the other hand, Salle, Bekia’s brother, who is biologically male, is never addressed by Murash as “his son”. Furthermore, his creativity, feminine manners and love for nature are frowned upon, because he is technically a boy and according to the Kanun, that’s not something boys should be or do. This poses the question of whether femininity and masculinity can have a strict definition and if so, whether either should be suppressed in favour of the other. As Karabash puts it:
“домът е там, където отрежат крилата ти”/ „home is where your wings are cut“ – Sworn Virgin
I want to end this post with the words of Bekia’s love interest:
“не си виновна за нищо, казва/не си виновна, че си се родила жена/ има едно нещо, за което човек не може да бъде виновен, и то е, че се е родил”
„you’re not guilty of anything, she said/you’re not guilty that you were born a woman/ there is one thing a person cannot be guilty of and that is to be born”
After Boxwood Ash, I decided to give a modern Bulgarian author a try. Rene Karabash is a popular artist in my home country, who expresses herself not only through writing, but theatre and poetry, and is respected for her active role in the current cultural scene in Bulgaria. She has been an interesting persona to follow, her books have been the center of much talk and criticism and with the then upcoming release of ‘Sworn virgin’, I figured there was never a better time to try something new, on a topic quite distant from my own way of life.
The first thing I noticed about Sworn Virgin was the writing style. It is what I imagine could be described as ‘the bane of translators’ – lyrical, flowing, frequently switching between poetry and prose, caught up in its metaphors, rather than the plotline itself. It goes in and out of conversational speech, and to top it all off, letters are included in full in the text. It made for a reading you understand through feeling, rather than thinking, which was refreshing, if unusual.
The way of life of the closed up Albanian community reminded me to an extent of how my grandparents used to live in their village, the events happening between members of the community being the central focus of their daily lives. Their community was never as isolated, so change happened at a much steadier rate, unlike in the community depicted in the story. To say the Kanun is outdated and an unnecessary leftover from a bygone era would be true, but can only come from someone lacking understanding of how difficult it is to break from a habit and would also completely miss the point of this book. The Kanun is, and because of its enforcing, it kills.
I will leave the debate of whether men or women are more important, and whether gender is something we should give a damn about in the first place, to the readers of Karabash’s book. To want to be something you are not born as is a tale as old as time, and when society enforces its misguided judgement of hatred dressed as tradition, there can only be suffering.
Whilst the focus of Sworn Virgin is of course the community in Albania following the Kanun, something else made a big impact on me – the depiction of Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a ‘bus ride away’ from Bekia and her way of life, and it is where her brother, Salle, runs off to save his life. He comes to Bulgaria with no money, as a refugee, and begins dancing in the streets, because of the cold, the fear and the overwhelming emotion of having fled his family and society. Instead of being mocked, people give him money. And he is noticed by a choreographer, who takes him on and offers him a shot at living a normal life. It is an unusual depiction of Bulgaria in my eyes – what I see on social media most frequently is homophobia, xenophobia and racism, hatred based on religion, origin or social status. On one hand Bulgaria became the shelter and the loving, if adoptive, mother to Salle, on the other – Dana (a Bulgarian) still leaves her home country and potential intimate happiness for a better work opportunity.
The conclusion to the book felt somewhat out of place, and whilst I was glad for the characters to be reunited, I was not surprised to learn it was not the story’s original ending, as the author has mentioned in an interview following the book’s release. Overall, I enjoyed reading such a heartfelt and different work. I would like to pick up some of Karabash’s other writings, and will continue to follow her appearances on the Bulgarian cultural scene.
Edition Published: 2018, First Published: 2018
Language book read in: Bulgarian