We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm
by Lola Lafon
translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball
Seagull Books, 2014
by Elvira Dones
translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford
And Other Stories, 2014
In identity novels — stories about the search for one — the adventure novel is a common path. Identity is a reward the hero sets off to claim, so that he can then have success and a place in the world. Even when the story isn’t a fable or a fantasy novel, that is the hero’s life: he departs and returns, bringing home identity and self-knowledge. The use of the male pronoun is intentional. That is the standard in these narratives. In the face of this, Lola Lafon’s We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm and Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin are very much stories of female protagonists seeking their own identities. In both, identity is not out there to be claimed but something that they must define. Outside influences seek again and again to violate their boundaries of personal definition, to force another, undesired, definition onto them.
Lafon cuts straight to the heart of this difference in establishing an identity:
It’s the restful legend of the impossible escape and its consequences, a legend at once so sweet and sad that we’ve been chewing on it since childhood. Watch out. You’re going to hurt yourself. Oh, a falling bird, don’t look. The story of the threat that awaits girls who venture out to places where they’d been told never to go, the story of girls who pry open doors and nights, climb over walls, walk through forests, streets, and parking lots.
Men are encouraged to go open those doors, climb those walls, and through that, achieve the full life that comes with self-defined identity, on the other hand, and these two novels fight against this, woman are taught passivity. These heroines refuse that. Lafon and Dones write women who find ways to push back those external forces, to evade or to slip through cracks.
Dones’ Sworn Virgin is the story of a person with two names, two identities, and the emergence of a third. Hana Doda is a young woman in Albania, trying to be a successful student while also a faithful daughter to her adopted parents, her aunt and uncle. Before she can finish her studies, her aunt passes and her uncle falls ill. Leaving school, caring for him, Hana makes trips from the country to the city for medicine. These trips are dangerous for a woman, and in the traditional perspective of the village (“the threat that awaits girls”) is unbecoming behavior. Her uncle, against earlier promises, arranges a marriage for her, to secure her the only future he can imagine. Hana wants to refuse the marriage, but loves her uncle and will not embarrass him before his death. Breaking from the role his role her would do that. His misogyny outweighs his love as he tells her, “A woman who is not married is worth nothing.”
To protect herself from unwanted marriage, escape the threats of the masculine world, and make her uncle proud of her, Hana turns to an old and rare Albanian tradition: that of the sworn virgin. This means living as a man, dressing as a man, drinking and smoking as one, and hunting. Subtly, we see her treat a visiting female friend, Blerta, differently: blunt, crude, making sure she knows which of them is in control. The confinement is that she must never go back and always remain a virgin, or be punished by death. The day she makes this choice, she scratches the date into a wall, marking her rebirth as Mark Doda. It’s her first rebirth; there are others to come.
Rebirths appear again in We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm. This death and rebirth, the woman as phoenix, seeking to be born into an identity that allows her to soar and escape that cycle is the uncovered path of both books.
When Sworn Virgin opens, Hana is at the Washington airport, arriving in America to again begin a new life. Crossing the border to a new land and culture, gender boundaries are permeable again: “Even the village knows he left holding the passport of a woman.” In one sentence, Doda is both man and woman, both Hana and Mark. Borders matter in these books, create dangerous places and save places, and it is in the crossings that identities are molded. In her village in Albania, she was without question, without complications a man. Before that, she was a woman, with those specific roles. In the city, she remains defined by the roles of a woman, but they come with new possibilities, studying and poetry. In the United States, Doda finds more avenues towards freedom, but obstacles remain, and choice does not automatically make her free. It is a world reflected in We Are the Birds when the narrator concedes that they are “[r]avaged by a modern sadness.”
Doda arrives as Mark, with plans to be Hana again, or for the first time. She turns to a cousin, Lila, and her family: Albanians who have become Americans. The family is welcoming, though unable, to understand the struggle of Doda’s identity. They want to be integrated Americans, do not want to stick out, and have bought into the culture and economy of their new land—though the young daughter provides a more progressive perspective. This family situation sets her path far apart from the three heroines of Birds. There, family is chosen, banded together to rage against the culture and economy that threatens them, banded together. It is the world that family wants to change, whereas Doda’s biological family wants her to change. At one point, her cousin tells her, “No one will give you a job if you look weird.” Weird is bad, a job is good, participation mandatory. Facing the product culture of the United States, on her first night in her new and temporary home, she’s afraid to even use the white towels for fear of ruining them.
Through a death and a rebirth, the family of three in Birds comes together. This time it is bodily, with the very first words, a fragment standing alone, dedicated to the beat of the body, “Your heart.” These words are narrated by someone who, in the most prominent facet of her identity, a dancer, must be in tune with her body. This opening is a letter by the narrator to her dear friend Émile. Émile’s heart stopped suddenly, nearly killing her. She is slowly brought out of a coma, out of ashes to life.
The fear of loss is heartrending, the narrator’s vulnerability coming from openness to her emotions. The world is set against the three and would rather they not have emotions, or have the wild excess it expects as a weakness of women. When the three instead show again and again that their emotions run to their core and are a strength, when they forge weapons from their passions to turn against the world with, the world is frightened. In a time of political unrest, they become anarchists, both joining others and acting on their own, scattering their messages in graffiti across Paris.
During the uncertainty of Émile’s recovery, the narrator befriends a figure both knew from their repeated trips to the theatre, a fellow theatergoer they named the Little Girl at the End of the Lane. The Little Girl gives the narrator a name, Voltairine (in honor of a 19th-century feminist and anarchist), the only name she has in the book. This naming is her own rebirth, and begins her break from the private and passive world she shares with Émile into active engagement against the world alongside the Little Girl, and eventually Émile. This birth shades her original identity from us. That identity, an unnamed immigrant—one who seeks to cross borders, living off the grid in France, afraid of the state—makes her that much more vulnerable.
These two births are, heartbreakingly, not the first cycle of the phoenix for either Voltairine or Émile. The two met in a support group for woman who have been raped—a word that, like victim or survivor, Voltairine is reluctant to use, for all the unwanted meanings it brings: “I don’t particularly want to claim the status of victim.” Together — “Our bodies bonded” — they neither let that become their identity nor do they hide from the fire, so they the rise from ashes: “We do each other the courtesy of not imagining what happened to the other one. We’ll never bring up those men who decreed, that year, the end of the first part of our lives.” What is a present and acknowledged threat in Sworn Virgin is here a fact of daily existence.
The threat of rape is the most fearsome tool of control against leaving the house, against seeking identity. It is a threat made not by those who rape, but by the entirety of culture, by those who “mean well.” Their experience with rape and its aftermath is inescapable for Voltairine and Émile, and Lafon does not hold back on the experience of life after: not the aftermath, the anger, the self-blame, the destruction of trust of self and others, the way that friends and the court system fail those who have been abused by rape. Yet Birds is not a novel about rape itself. There is no message or morality behind the open confrontation of rape culture. It is instead a story of lives in which rape exists as experience, the aftermath ever ongoing, sometimes barely visible, other times threatening to dominate a life. That this is exceptional is frightening.
Though more difficult to confront, rape and rape culture are not separate from other aspects of their lives, of the ways the world acts on them, or the ways they seek to act. They were raped, in different contexts, and they are never allowed to forget. A man, met the day before, friendly, respectable, kicking protestors out from their sleeping spot: “his eyes catch, snap up a piece of warm meat when a girl gets dressed in front of him.” Lafon acknowledges one of the great yet subtle horrors in the way rape is portrayed in film and books. Rape is threatened/enacted so the man can protect / avenge his lover. It is a lazy way to define a “complex,” scarred woman. This is rape as spectacle, as shock, “Women who are merely raped do not arouse empathy.” With Voltairine and Émile, we do have empathy for their suffering through rape, but more so we have empathy for their ongoing engagement with the world, for their lives and selves apart from that assault.
It is an inescapably bodily experience. It is a complication that Hana is able to avoid, perhaps because she escaped rape, escaped someone taking so much control of her body that she needed to abandon it. Hana is a virgin and does not believe she has fully experienced her body. Voltairine has been made to feel sex and violence blended. Intimate blending of bodies in love or simple pleasure has instead become “an execution, not a sexual act.” Yet others, her rapist, courts, friends, will insist that it remains the latter.
It is through her life, her chosen path as a dancer, that Voltairine comes to terms with her body. She loves dancing, takes pride in the effort, control, and beauty of ballet. She dances for herself and for Émile. Through it, she knows her body. In the control, the strength of her body, it is an act of resistance and dominance. But the dangers are undeniable: the damage of tightly wrapped toes; the demand to be thin; her teacher coming to conflict with the politics of the government and being forbidden to teach. Threatening, condescending, to Voltairine is the insistent sexualization of dance.
This sexualization is also a demonization. Her bodily act, asexual, for herself, is transformed, against her will, into a filthy sex act for others. They do not want to let her definition live. A detective, female, sneers at her, asking if she dances topless. It isn’t the first time this belief that she cannot be anything but a stripper, her dance a performance for males instead of art for itself is encountered. Alongside this, her dance returns to that fear instilled in women: “I go down stairs like a grandmother with stiff legs, so strongly has the fear of falling been instilled in me.” Dance is, like sex, a bodily act that brings pleasure, so it is made into something to be feared, then controlled by others.
Sexuality is a necessary facet of Doda’s identity creation in Sworn Virgin also. As Mark becomes more and more alive as Hana, sexuality becomes increasingly a part of life. Hana knows she has desires, that her body craves pleasure, but all she has been shown is sexuality as a force directed towards her, not enacted with and for herself. In Albania, on her last trip to the city, the man giving her a ride home attempts to rape her. She stabs him in the chest — an act of defensiveness which in his eyes makes her nothing but a “Peasant woman! Mountain bitch!” Then it’s on to America, land of open sexuality, land of sexual pursuit and freedom, where Lila pushes Hana towards man after man, playing the role of matchmaker.
Lila is trying to help her cousin, but this too is a trap. The set-ups are a Westernized version of arranged marriages. Lila wants Hana to be sexy, Hana wants to be “normal and acceptable.” In her sexual hesitancy, in her first attempts to masturbate, she seeks security within herself. Lila only offers “sexy” as an outward move, to pull others, namely men, in. Lila, a woman who clearly takes pride in how liberated she is from her conservative past, shows her boundedness. We’re heartbroken for her, and hope Hana does not listen, when she tells Hana “a woman learns to get pleasure from masturbation after she has had full sex. You need a man to find out what you really feel, to see whether you feel pleasure.”
With body and sexuality as the base, the forces of order want clearly delineated lines to box in women like Hana and Votairine. Until arriving in America, Hana lived her life in two ways: clearly differentiated masculine and feminine. In the modern world, those boundaries erode and confuse, to the frustration of those around her. In Birds, boundaries ruined from the beginning. Voltairine, Émile, and the Little Girl at the End of the Lane reject the role of woman that the world tries to give them. The forces of traditional order — the police, a boyfriend, and ex-boyfriend — through arrests, threats, rape try to push them back into a matched conception of women. In Sworn Virgin, those who have faith in order are unsettled by Hana, and in Birds, they feel so threatened as to become violent. Hana is mostly isolated, desiring Lila as an ally, even as she shows that she believes in woman as defined by others. The insular group of Birds allows them to retreat to their own private world, and then strike out. When their private identities are enacted in public, the world fears them.
The order, dominant male culture, rape culture, is terrified of anything that threatens the illusion of a unified existence. Those who are used to having their way are the most easily threatened, with the most to lose. Any loss reminds them that they too are vulnerable. So if women set out an adventure to win identity, those women could take something men are used to being given. When the Little Girl at the End of the Lane spray-paints on Voltairine’s former boyfriend’s door the date he raped her, he calls, frightened, for himself of course, pretending it is for her, and apologetic, somehow making himself a victim of “that night, the worst in his life.”
Power, physicality, threat, these belong on the side of order, of men and the women who side with them. For them, it is part of their identity, cultured, allowed, and encouraged. One night, picked up walking in the rain, Voltairine and the Little Girl become unsettled at the leers, the physical pressure of the three men who stopped to supposedly help them. The hints, the why are you here all alone, why do you adventure into the wild, become too much. A request to stop is laughed at, mocked. The two sides meet at the line of decency. Mocking, laughing at the women who fear the threat of the male, their casual wielding of control, is acceptable, allowable, normal behavior. The escalation, the next step, the Little Girl’s stab in the neck with a pen to ensure the women are freed, is to men a horror, a crossing of the line. Their escalation is excusable by society, but a woman breaking from passivity to end it is shocking to them, and punishable. These moments are the women insisting on their adventure.
Voltairine, Émile, the Little Girl at the End of the Lane, and Hana are all asked to play roles, to be Woman. Hana is supposed to learn from her cousin, to perform, even as Lila’s daughter shows an advancing, youthful and modern feminism. The Little Girl is considered mentally and emotionally unstable by those who know her. Her boyfriend uses this to turn care into control. She writes endlessly, pieces sometimes understandable, other times less so. She is ordered to take medication, which leads to the consideration of the word patient: “One who is subjected to something who is the object of an action” or “The person of thing who is subjected to something, who is passive.” When she seems to become more and more unstable, it’s like a challenge from Lafon. Will we give up on her, decide she is mad and like others in her life, deny her experiences and thoughts? Or will we side with her, even if she becomes a risk to herself?
These women are tasked to be a patient, not to be cared for, healed suffering, but to be passive, defined by a world that wants to do with them as it will. They all refuse this. Voltairine and the Little Girl pursue the radical, and it brings them suffering and loss, but not defeat, and Émile finds her own path. Hana Doda finds happiness with her fullest life in her body, safe and whole. She does find herself a man, but one who gives space for her individual experience, one who does not want to define her. Most importantly, he is calm living with confusion, a lack of clarity. For all of these women, poetry matters, ambiguity is necessary to thriving life. Borders clearly drawn and defined are deadly, a trap. They want porous borders, flexible selves. The world of order cannot tolerate this because then women, people, become unpredictable, untamable, but it is in liberated identities, selves that cross borders to meet other border-crossing selves, that people come to life. Adventures are only possible when walls are climbed, forests explored, and the heroines shaped and created along the way.