Clarissa Botsford on Elvira Dones

Elvira Dones (born in Durrës, Albania, 1960) is a novelist, screenwriter and documentary film-maker currently based in the US. After graduating from Tirana State University she was employed by Albanian State Television, but defected in 1988 while she was reporting in Switzerland. Tried for treason in absentia, she was sentenced to prison and denied access to her son until the collapse of communism in Albania in 1992.

I first came across Dones's work when I was writing for the web-pages of an Italian literary magazine, Leggendaria. Her combative temperament attracted me: I instantly felt her voice could be my voice, and that, as a translator into English, my voice could become hers in the English-speaking world. We share a "middle" voice in Italian. For me, who had studied Italian literature at Cambridge University, coming to Italy was an impulsive move, after which I settled here and brought up three bilingual but culturally Italian children. For Dones, as for many Albanians whose country had once been colonized by the Italians, it was a natural landing place. For years, Italian news and variety programs were beamed across the Adriatic, creating a powerful 'pull-factor' for mass emigration to Italy in the 1990s, when Albanians took to makeshift boats in their tens of thousands to reach the promised land. By that time, Dones was already living and working in Switzerland, where Italian is one of the three official languages, and in 2004 she moved to the United States. So we are both 'in transition' between one country and another, unwilling to take on a fully-fledged Italian identity, sufficiently detached to be able to observe our adopted countries and our countries of origin dispassionately, but at the same time deeply affected by the goings-on in this intoxicating but often toxic country.

Last year, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, quipped with his Albanian counterpart that human trafficking between the two countries was not really a crime if the girls were "pretty". Elvira Dones shot off a furious 'Open Letter to Berlusconi', which was posted and circulated for months afterwards, becoming an important rallying-call in the 2010 women's protests against macho culture in the government:

"I wrote a book (Sole bruciato, Feltrinelli 2001) on the 'pretty girls'. Years later I created a documentary for Swiss television: I went to look for another beautiful girl by the name of Brunilda, after her father begged me in tears to find her. He was a father like many other Albanian fathers, whose daughters disappeared, were kidnapped, raped, or even hung upside down in abandoned butcher shops if they dared rebel. [...] It's a long story, Mr. Prime Minister, [...] But if I could get your attention, I would send you a copy of my book, send you a documentary, or happily sit down and chat with you. But I have to warn you, Mr. Prime Minister: I respond to your remarks, I don't swallow them."

In her own open letter to the press, Berlusconi's former wife had described the Prime Minister's sex addiction in terms of "maidens being fed to the dragon".  In the light of the latest developments, with new revelations emerging daily from phone taps, Berlusconi's sexual antics have gone beyond the realms of satire. The reality is worse than anyone imagined and sheds a sinister light on democracy in Italy.

After four novels published in Albanian, Dones's first big success in Italy was the book she mentioned in her letter: Sole bruciato (Burnt Sun, Milan, 2001), which gives voice to the thousands of young Albanian prostitutes that populate the Italian streets. An Italian reviewer commented, "Elvira Dones writes about evil exactly as it is: real, overbearing and brutal. She slaps it in our face and forces us to think about the Italians' guilty indifference towards those sidewalks crawling with degraded humanity. The young Albanian writer has a piercing ability to make her writing material, body and flesh."

Vergine giurata (Sworn Virgin, Milan: Feltrinelli 2007), is the first book Dones wrote directly in Italian. Dones adds her voice to a burgeoning group of non-mother tongue writers such as  Amara Lakhous, whose Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio was published by Europa Editions. They represent a 'blended' generation of new Italians that adopts an immigrant/exile 'dirty Italian'.

The book touches on many frontier themes: disorientation, gender and trans-gender identity and uncertainty, intercultural misunderstanding, immigration, emigration, and transition countries. The story she tells is literally a story of transition. The main character Hana (after having abandoned her literature studies in Tirana to look after the aunt and uncle who had brought her up) is forced by her uncle's imminent death to take an oath and assume the persona of Mark, a hardened mountain peasant, rather than accept an arranged marriage. As Dones shows in a documentary on this ancient Albanian tradition, if there are no male heirs, a woman can 'opt' to become a man - and enjoy  his privileges in a backward, rural society where women were born to obey and serve men - as long as she swears herself to virginity for life. Mark's decision to shake off the oath and re-appropriate, after 14 years, what is left of Hana's body and mind by moving to the United States makes for powerful narrative. The transition to a new life there as a woman wanting to shed the deadweight of her virginity is fraught with challenges, and the first-generation assimilated cousins with whom she tentatively undertakes her new life make her task no easier.

There are many exciting challenges for the translator. Dones emphasizes the difficulties faced by a rural Albanian approaching American culture first-hand by 'foreignizing' her language, style and descriptions. Identity issues are reflected in the fact that Italian nouns and adjectives have masculine or feminine endings, in the smatterings of Albanian mountain dialect, and in the often comic contrast between the received ideas of the youngest American-born niece and the equally received ideas of the Albanian tradition that Hana finds herself impelled to justify, after accepting them for so long. As Hana moves from present to past, as Mark, and back again, the voice, like Elvira Dones's, is loud and clear. An instant empathy with the character is created, despite the foreignness – in every sense – of the situation. Together, these features accumulate to create a strong impact on the reader, transported back and forth between Hana/Mark's different lives.

Her new book, written in Italian, Piccola guerra perfetta (Small Perfect War), was published in Italy in mid-October 2010 by Primo Levi's Turin publisher, Einaudi. The story is set in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, during the 1999 NATO airstrikes, which were supposed to put an end to Serbian anti-Albanian ethnic cleansing. It is told from the point of view of three women friends under siege in the city, and the two young children of one of these women, who try to escape. In this book, Dones's smoldering  fury and indignation are back: none of the parties - Nato, the US, the Serbs, the Kosovo 'freedom fighters' - are exempt. The horror of war is portrayed in the way everyday activities, such as standing in a breadline or waiting for a phone call from the outside world, take on a surreal dimension as they become infused by fear. In his Preface, Roberto Saviano (of Gomorrah fame), writes:

"As soon as you have read this book, you realize that no war can be described properly without listening to the women who have experienced it firsthand. [...] I carried this book around with me for a long time. In my backpack, in my coat pocket, on the back seat of my body-guard's car, always full of papers. Because it shows us how today, in our hellish today, in the democratic West, where human rights are inalienable, death, exile – perhaps never to return – from one's forcibly dispersed community, is not fiction but a real possibility. [...] Elvira Dones shows us that war is not somewhere else, but a breath away from the most familiar things that you feel are secure. [...] A novel is not a prophesy. It's up to us, to those of us that read this book, to discover its truth."
Like her earlier work, this novel illustrates Dones's approach to the world as something to which artists should respond rather than swallow whole, to echo her Open Letter to Berlusconi. Stereotypes about war in the Balkans and life in Italy are filtered through her vision, which offers readers a darker, less facile interpretation of events. Like any important novelist, Dones tells us large truths about the world in which we live by revealing the small, intensely personal lives of her characters.

Click here to read an excerpt of Sworn Virgin, translated by Clarissa Botsford.