Hunger's Brides

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Discussion: questions & topics

  1. Hunger’s Brides is subdivided into six books, each named after a mythic figure. Besides in the retellings of the myths themselves, in what other ways does mythology surface in the book? Why do you think Hunger’s Brides gives such prominence to myth and legend?
  2. Juana’s childhood is set in the upper reaches of the Valley of Mexico. Her wetnurse is descended from a Mexica or Aztec wizard and the book’s early chapters are laced with references to the prehispanic past and the Conquest of Mexico. There are many instances, also, of Aztec proverbs, common sayings and riddles. Do these add anything to the image that history gives us of the Aztecs?
  3. The first generations of Spaniards struggled with two sharply distinct visions of the New World: 1) a New Eden; 2) a land of monstrous fertility and diabolic influences. How does this find its way into the story of Juana’s life in the fields and forests with Amanda?
  4. Variations on The Fall abound in Hunger’s Brides, Juana’s childhood fall from Eden being one of these, the fall of the Aztec empire being another. What other examples come to mind? How do you look upon these from the perspective of our own time? Do you think the author is drawing any parallels?
  5. Like many other children, Juana makes a game of secret knowledge and mysterious rituals, though she is perhaps taken with these to an unusual degree. Through them, the Inquisition first makes its presence felt in the story. What are some examples of this? How does this childhood hunger for secret knowledge, her passion for riddles and puzzles, leave her vulnerable? And how do agents of the Church exploit this vulnerability?
  6. Does her decision, in her early teens, to make a clean break with her past create other vulnerabilities?
  7. The breadth of Sor Juana’s interests and knowledge, as an adult, is formidable. What advantages are there for the reader in having followed her intellectual and emotional development – as guided by Xochitl and her grandfather – from Juana’s earliest years?
  8. Juana’s relationship with her mother was a complex one. No surprise there. And yet it is not quite as one would expect. At what points does she come to realize that she may have misjudged her mother?
  9. Current in Sor Juana’s day was the idea that with great gifts come great responsibilities. In the midst of the crisis of her final years (in the chapter “Malinche”) she compares herself to others who have made better use of their gifts. It’s an idea that seems not to have much influence in our lives today. Does she, in your view, judge herself too harshly?
  10. We get glimpses of women’s roles in the 17th century. At home, in society, at court. What’s your understanding of why Juana entered a convent?
  11. One doesn’t have to be a feminist to see that her options would have been very different if she had been a man. In Hunger’s Brides we are given several glimpses of the lives of women in Christian society. What are some of these? As presented by the novel, what role does her gender seem to have played in the Church’s dealings with her?
  12. There is no record of Sor Juana publishing or writing anything after a final statement signed in blood in or around 1693. It seems likely that she ceased writing altogether, and sharply curtailed or abandoned her studies. Both Antonia and Beulah are desperate to understand this silence, and to discern what it might say. What’s your understanding of the reasons for Juana’s silence? What does it say to you?
  13. Hunger emerges as one of the novel’s recurrent themes. On how many levels do you find it playing out – what types of hunger does the reader encounter? Do you see one of these as primary or fundamental? Which of them might be the “hunger” of the title, Hunger’s Brides?
  14. What, if anything, do we gain from the novel’s “binary” structure – that is, its setting in two distinct eras? Does seeing the past through the eyes of characters who are our own contemporaries add anything to what we find there? Does, conversely, seeing our present in the context of this past add anything to the modern story?
  15. Does our view of Donald change over the course of the novel? Most of what we know of him is what he himself reveals to us. Initially he seems the modern equivalent of the antagonistic male figures in the novel. If what he chooses to reveal for our benefit gradually changes, why? If he himself changes, what has changed him?
  16. The book features various intense engagements between writers and their readers: for instance, featuring Antonia as the author of a journal read by Bishop Santa Cruz. If Juana’s narration of her own story could be seen as a kind of text, who is it composed for – and why?
  17. It would seem that at least part of Beulah’s motivation in writing her manuscript was to break Donald down. To what purpose? What do you think of her aims? What do you think of her methods?
  18. Readers have responded strongly to Beulah, perhaps women especially, and not always positively. Why, in your view? What is it about Beulah that won’t allow her to let up?
  19. The author has noted two frequent misreadings of the book. The first, that Donald is the author of Sor Juana’s chapters when, instead, Beulah is. The second, that Beulah dies at the end of the story, when she does not. For future printings of the book, the author is considering changing a word or two here and there to reduce the chance of a misreading. What do you think?

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