To say that we have a woman problem is unfair, but it something that we should all keep in mind, particularly with the recent conclusion of Women in Translation month: women seem to be disproportionately under-represented when we talk about translated fiction. I’m not totally sure why, but while And Other Stories can be commended for many things when it comes to translated fiction, to this point (four years in), they have only published one lady writer in translation. Odd.
Fortunately, the one novel they have published in this category is a good one.
It’s 2001, and Hana Doda has arrived in America to live with her cousin Lila. But Hana isn’t just dealing with entering a new culture—for the past 14 years, she has lived as Mark, a man in the Albanian mountains. Here in America, though, she will reclaim her former life as Hana, a young woman with hopes and dreams that have been suppressed for more than a decade.
Rather sensibly, Dones does not linger too long on either the way in which Hana becomes Mark, nor even the life Mark leads. She is not concerned with the titillation of a cross-dressing character—she is concerned with the emotions and thoughts of a real person who has made an immense sacrifice to ensure her own safety and survival.
What emerges from this novel is not just the truistic fact that gender is a social construct, but that navigating between the two is supremely difficult. Mark was never anything more than a construction Hana used to get out of a tricky situation, but he was a mask that she wore for 15 years, and one that she became used to. I’m not sure she was ever comfortable behind the mask (very few people ever are; and the only time we are given a glimpse into this life, the situation does not end well), but she learned what the mask entailed.
When Hana comes to America to make a new life for herself, ready to free herself from the cocoon of male identity she has spun, she finds herself stepping into a whole new world. Not America—Hana is too smart to let a small thing like culture shock get in the way, and she takes to the American daily routine like a duck to water—but to the world of female. Her guide, though, does not seem to realise just how big a transition this really is. For Lila, being a woman means conforming to a certain list of rules, regulating what must be done, what must be worn, and what actions must be taken. For Lila, there are two teams: Team Man and Team Woman, and never the twain shall meet.
It would be tempting, I imagine, for an author like Elvira Dones to ride on the coattails of her inherent otherness (an Albanian writing in Italian), but to her credit, she does not. She takes a tiny piece of Albanian culture—the idea of the burrnesha, or sworn virgin—and weaves around it the inherently human tale of the universal search for identity. If one were the kind of person to exaggerate wildly from a sample size of one, one might say: if this is what women in translation can offer, let’s get moving to find the rest of them.