Kevin Cody

Beach books – Sworn Virgin

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Author Kristopher Dukes in Kyoto, Japan. Photo by Matt Jacobson

Manhattan Beach novelist Kristopher Dukes finds inspiration for contemporary women in the tradition of Albanian women who are given men’s rights

by Kevin Cody

The Sworn Virgin by Kristopher Dukes. Published by William Morrow/HarperCollins

Nine years ago, Kris Dukes read a New York Times article about sworn virgins in the  mountainous region outside the city of Shkodra, in northwestern Albania.

The Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, the code that rules the region, is hard on men.

“A man who has been dishonored is considered dead.”

And harder on women.

“A woman is a sack, made to endure.”

But the code makes an exception for women who take a vow of chastity. Sworn virgins may dress as men, serve as heads of households, do men’s work, carry a gun, smoke, drink alcohol and socialize with men — all things women are are otherwise forbidden to do.

The tradition, once common in Eastern Europe, continues to this day in the mountainous regions of northern Albania.

Dukes saw in sworn virgins the full spectrum of male/female tensions in contemporary culture, from the glass ceiling to transgenders.

“In our culture, women also must suppress their sexuality to be treated equal to men. If we were gender blind, would there have been any question in the last presidential election about which candidate was the most qualified?” Dukes asked during a recent interview in her Manhattan Beach home. She is married to Manhattan Beach native Matt Jacobson.

Last year, Dukes self published “A Sworn Virgin: Broken Promises.” Last month, in response to the large number of positive reviews the book received on social media, an expanded version of the novel was released by William Morrow, of New York publisher HarperCollins.

The release is being backed by a social marketing blitzkrieg, which includes Facebook, Instagram, targeted email, and online book clubs and book bloggers.

“Sworn Virgin” begins with Eleanora, the 18-year-old protagonist, finding her father shot to death in the street during a visit to Shkodra. The trip to the city from their mountain town was to have arranged for the gifted Eleonora to travel to art school in Venice, which had a large Albanian population in 1918, the novel’s time setting. Instead, the grieving Eleanor returns to her mountain village, having vowed to return to find her father’s murderer.

Like the father in last year’s documentary “Eagle Huntress,” about a 13-year-old daughter raised in the male tradition of Mongolian falconeers, Eleanor’s father defied local custom by raising his daughter as he would a son. But absent the protection of her father, Eleanor is promised in marriage to an unpleasant, but wealthy man by Eleanor’s well intended, but destitute stepmother. Eleanor’s only escape from the arranged marriage to become a sworn virgin.

Becoming a sworn version has the added benefit of allowing Eleanor to travel unchallenged with her father’s treasured rifle when she returns to Shkodra and kills the man who killed her father.

Then she escapes back to her village, where a plot quickening complication enters her life. She falls in love with the brother of the man she killed, who has tracked his brother’s unknown killer to her village, to avenge his brother’s death.

Dukes said she was intrigued with the idea that a force that brings people together can also tear them apart.

The plot is not as contrived as the summary sounds, even were it set in today’s times.

Before her father’s death, Eleanor asks him why their people were forever embroiled in fratricidal feuds.

“Because it has always been that way,” he tells her.

Dukes said she knew from age 8, that she wanted to be a writer. She wrote for her Woodland Hills high school paper in Alhambra, where she grew up, and majored in English literature at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. But her subsequent writing was limited to occasional freelance magazine assignments and for her interior design blog. Sworn Virgin is her first novel.

She said she let germinate the idea of what would happen if a sworn virgin fell in love, until about five years ago, when she began researching the subject. Her research began with reading High Albania, written in 1909 by English anthropologist Edith Durham and then reading Peaks of Shala, about the northern Albania highlands, written in 1923 by American magazine writer Rose Wilder.

Dukes deliberately did not read Albanian writer Elvira Dones’contemporary novel about sworn virgins, nor view the Italian movie based on Dones’ novel.

Dukes said her most valuable resource was Albania expert Robert Elsie, whose books include Historical Dictionary of Albania and Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood.

“Elsie helped me with names and dress and basic details like whether Eleanor would have worked with oils or pastels.”

Elsie reassured her that an 18-year-old having an affair with a man old enough to have loved her mother, a central theme of the book, would not have been unusual in early 20th Century Albania, when a 13-year-old girl might wed a 60-year-old widower.

The historical research extended beyond the physical details to include family relationships among the Albanian mountain people.

“Her father had taught her to knee a man in the groin, and had her carry a curved knife in her belt when they traveled, in case she was stolen for someone’s potential wife. He had taught her how to thrust the blade to the best effect but he had never shown her how to shoot. No woman knew,” Dukes writes in describing Eleanor’s transition from “sack” to sworn virgin.

Sworn Virgin fits neatly into historical fiction and contemporary chick lit genres. But it also holds promise of transcending those genres with its contemporary themes and writing that exhibits confident patience with what is on the the first level, a historical murder mystery.

A popular controversy in contemporary literary journals concerns the appropriateness of First World writers mining third world cultures.

Dukes said her book has yet to become embroiled in that controversy.

“People have such limited knowledge about Albania, that the Albanians who’ve talked to me about the book, including an Albanian cellist in New York, where there is a large Albania population, are excited by the fact that someone wrote about their country in a positive light,” Dukes said.

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