Hunger's Brides

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Responses & follow up questions

  1. A few examples to get things rolling: Early in the book there is the legend of the two volcanoes as lovers from a rival tribe, and of the Smoking Stone with its plume of smoke as a tree that holds up the sky. The disappearances of the wizard Martin Ocelotl and his brother Andres Mixcoatl are tied to the mythic figures Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. Donald discusses Beulah’s interest in mythology directly in Book I’s “Hall of Mirrors.”
  2. Some proverbs and riddles: popcorn riddle (page 33); the world spilling out of the pockets of the poor (page 35); Juana’s father as someone who arranges his intestines artistically (page 35). In your view, what does this last proverb eventually prove to mean, for Juana at least?
  3. Carlos refers specifically to the myth of Eden in his suite of letters entitled “This New Eden,”  which is the chapter immediately following upon Juana’s final departure from Panoayán. In Juana’s childhood home, a setting of an almost surreal beauty, we have Amanda’s burgeoning fertility, and a version of original sin that arises during the girls’ fertility ritual.
  4. The fall of the Spanish empire being another variation on The Fall. Yet another instance being the murder of Hypatia, which Juana sees as symptomatic of the decline of Alexandria, and which loosely foreshadows Sor Juana’s own fate.
  5. The chapter “Abecedario” in Book I ends with a mention of the Inquisition. Through that lens we see that though Juana at seven is aware of its existence, she has only a hazy picture of what the Inquisition really is. But there is also a suggestion that the incident of her childish outburst over her ABCs may be viewed in a less innocent light at a later stage in her life. At various points in the novel’s first two books, the adult Juana who narrates the story shows herself to be aware of the scrutiny of “the holy officers” and of their interest in her childhood.
  6. Cutting herself off from what was in many ways a wonderful past meant that there was a lot about that past she did not know for certain, or had not come to an adult understanding of.
  7. The author may have thought it would make it easier to relate to her – easier to understand how she could not only find ideas beautiful but also be emotionally caught up in them, in part through her connection with her grandfather.
  8. Book IV presents Sor Juana with a series of revelations from her own past, and about her mother specifically. The first of these begins on page 813, when Juana discovers that a letter calling for help, which she’d always thought her mother had refused to answer, had in fact never been delivered. Other understandings come in the chapters that follow, culminating in a final one, in a passage that begins on page 900.
  9. A possible follow up question: Do you think it’s true that we, in our time, don’t feel much of a responsibility to give something back in exchange for the benefits and liberties we enjoy?
  10. The Silvio episode in “Palace Games” is just one of many possibilities, in this case suggested by a very unscholarly reading of some of Sor Juana’s poetry. It seems entirely possible that Juana would have found the alternatives to convent life unattractive – said alternatives, in Mexico City at least, probably amounting to a choice among subservience in marriage, some form of prostitution, or toil and poverty. On the other hand, Hunger’s Brides considers also the possibility that she was manoeuvred there.
  11. We see nuns and would-be nuns (María de San Jose), saints (Teresa), false saints (beatas), scholars (St. Catherine), prostitutes (St. Mary of Egypt, and the women of ill-repute living in recogimientos, a sort of reform school).
  12. Shortly after her death, figures within the Church maintained that her abandonment of worldly matters coincided with a true conversion in which she “flew towards sanctity” or holiness. Octavio Paz saw her silence and statements of remorse as akin to the Moscow show trials of the 1920s and saw Sor Juana as a political prisoner of the Church. But Hunger’s Brides, while taking these possibilities into account and drawing from them, also explores other possibilities.
  13. A few examples being hunger for food, for sex, for friendship.
  14. Hunger’s Brides reminds us that at least part of what we find in the past is shaped by what we are looking for – Antonia and Beulah, at different points, are aware of shaping a vision of Sor Juana that fits their own needs. But also, seeing our present coloured by certain memories of the past opens up a number of perspectives in Hunger’s Brides: on the resurgence of religious intolerance, the resurgent conflict between science and ideology, the subsurface parallels between the hungers of Sor Juana’s time and ours.
  15. Donald seems to be giving us glimpses of himself as he was, initially quite unsympathetic ones. For example, it’s a bit much to hear a serial adulterer, moreover someone repeatedly involved with his own students, now crying victim. On the other hand, it becomes ever harder to picture Beulah as a hapless victim.
  16. Another key example being Beulah’s journal entries, which often seem to address a hostile reader – who usually appears to be Donald, but sometimes also a god she cannot believe in.
  17. It may have been Graham Greene who said that every good novelist has a sliver of ice in his heart. He may have been saying that a novelist needs to be able to hurt his or her characters, or to know how to wound readers. To what extent do we need to believe that art is benevolent, or even useful?
  18. It’s hard not to see Beulah as someone, at least in the early going, trapped in her own head, so to speak. She’s not nice. She’s sarcastic. She’s not considerate. She’s needy, and open about her neediness. She’s angry and messy. Does she have any redeeming features?
  19. So far three reviewers (all male, for what it’s worth) have mistaken Donald for the author of Sor Juana’s chapters. Do you think the prologue overstresses Donald’s role in the book? What is your understanding of Beulah’s condition by the very end of the book?

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