- from the Library Journal [U.S.]
- from the National Post newspaper [Canada]
- from Buchreport [Germany]
- from the Edmonton Journal newspaper [Canada]
- from TV Ontario (on the lighter side) [Canada]
- questions from readers
- answers waiting for questions [coming soon]
With a book this grand, one has to ask the question, Where did it all start? With past or present, with Sor Juana herself or with her student acolyte? Or somewhere else?
This will seem odd but the story of Sor Juana and of her present-day student acolyte, Beulah, both had the same point of origin and began within a week or two of each other. Except that, for the next two years, I thought they were separate projects.
It all began with a dog attack.
We were on the west coast of Mexico in 1988. The woman I was traveling
with, and would one day marry, was attacked by a dog pack while out walking
alone in a little beach town where we had rented a house. A
local man—someone we knew only slightly—hunted down and killed
the pack’s leader. The animal had recently come very close to attacking
his own children. He and his family operated a small seafood restaurant,
a dozen tables at most. They were ordinary Mexicans, and extraordinary
people. He wrote fables, he painted, he played guitar; his wife wrote poetry.
They were teaching their children Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs.
Nights, after the restaurant had closed, we would sit out in the patio
and he would often speak of Mexico’s past, its stunning mythology
and art, its tragic qualities.
One night he said that if I was truly interested, there were two Mexican
poets I must absolutely come to know. One was an Aztec poet-emperor of
the 15th century, Nezahualcóyotl. Fasting Coyote. The other was
the 17th-century poet Juana Inés de la Cruz. Mexico has been blessed
with a disproportionate share of great writers. These, clearly, were the
two my friends were proudest of.
Both are in Hunger’s Brides. The four of us sitting out under the stars in the courtyard after closing time was the first research.
By then I had already begun work on a series of modern-day short stories on the theme of hunger. Beulah’s hungers—for love, sex, meaning, connection—were at the heart of these stories. Two years later I ran across a passage in Sor Juana’s autobiographical writings that showed me I’d been working not on two projects but one, all along.
From the moment I was first illuminated by the light of reason, my inclination toward letters has been so vehement that not even the admonitions of others . . . nor my own meditations have been sufficient to cause me to forswear this natural impulse that God placed in me . . . that inclination exploded in me like gunpowder. . . .
Hunger’s Brides is a story of two very different women, separated by three centuries, who in their own ways are wedded to this hunger for ultimate connection.
Perhaps the most admirable thing about this work is the language itself: nothing short of baroque. In a world of the ten-second sound byte, how does one comfortably write in such a style? How does one keep readers engaged? And were you consciously echoing the richness of Sor Juana’s writing?
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see the ten-second sound byte
as the oddity—the language of a technology, television, in which
brevity has the cardinal virtue of preserving time for advertising. I don’t
see it as the concern of literature to perpetuate or enshrine this (at
least until it’s been around for a couple thousand years).
English literature does spareness very well, but to say that brevity is the soul of the post-modern age—with its riot of contradictions—sounds to me like an affectation of neo-classicism. And it’s not just that the turbulence and contrasts of the baroque have so much to say to our time. The Golden Age of the Spanish Baroque coincides in both chronology and subject matter with the greatest period in our own literature, when the great virtuosos of the English tongue were extending its expressive range to the very utmost. The soul of English then was not just the simplicity of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” It was Milton and Marlowe, Chapman’s Homer, Donne, and the King James translation.
I was raised by people of Scots descent on the far western edge of the great plains. That combination of Puritan fear of ornament and our modern pseudo-classicism is like a straitjacket. I do get laconic. I can find it beautiful. But it’s a world trapped in too few notes.
I think one writes in the styles of Hunger’s Brides not so much comfortably as joyfully, with a sense of play and exhilaration. Maintaining the readers' engagement is not the problem; it’s giving them periods of rest, alternating voices and moods. Setting these up in counterpoint to voices from our time.
I have, as you suggest, tried to find echoes of Sor Juana. I would often begin the day reading through her poetry, learning lines, reciting lines. In Spanish, the first lines of her poems are often striking. I would do this especially when seeking the right tone for a new chapter—to lay down a melodic line. Once I had this, the rhythms of that chapter’s language were established, almost inescapably. But I don’t really think it was Sor Juana’s writing style I was after, so much as the language of her thought as I imagined it—mercurial, funny, tragic, brooding, acerbic.
And then there’s Mexico itself, of course. The surreal intensity of its imagery, its mythologies—the drama of its landscapes.
This isn’t just a novel, it’s a multimedia event—the Hunger’s Brides project. How did these related events get started, and what would Sor Juana have thought?
Early on, when Hunger’s Brides was about half-written, in both senses of the word, it was adapted to the stage and toured to Mexico, where it was performed in the convent where Sor Juana lived out her life. The Baroque is dramatic—it has a keen sense of the role and perspective of the spectator. Watching the play performed in a chapel filled with Sor Juana specialists really brought home for me the story’s dramatic potential.
What would she have thought? I open one of the versions of the multimedia event with that very question. At the very least, she would have been intrigued.
She was fascinated by optics and instruments. She was a playwright. Some of her stage devices are startlingly … postmodern. At times, her flair for showmanship could be too daring. In one play she has two theology students arguing about the limits of the world as Faith permits us to see it, only to hear their own voices returning to them from the unseen shore of what would prove to be America.
She loved to entertain. As much as her poetry was admired, her company, apparently, was something to be treasured. Dignitaries fresh from Europe would often call in directly at her convent before presenting themselves at court.
Finally, no matter how engaging this novel, some readers will inevitably whine, “Why so long?” What’s your response?
Funny, I’d really expected a lot more of that, but readers have so far been the most pleasant surprise in a surprising run. It’s not for everyone, of course, but when a big book is working, there are people who do not ever want it to end. Some read it in great gulps—my sister in eight days (the current record is seven). Others have been generous enough to entrust to it a few minutes of their lives each night, over a span of weeks. They trust it to deliver what no other medium can. Depth, complexity, slow time. A concrete analogue of our inner lives.
The book, I think, is harder on book professionals. It’s an occupational hazard that books lose their aura of singularity and endless possibility. There are so many books to read and review, to judge and to measure oneself against. Happily there are many exceptions to this rule too.
Other writers have taken on this story, from Robert Graves to Octavio Paz. Did you discover anything new?
You wouldn’t want to bank on finding something those two had missed. If the analogy isn’t too precious, it would be to the great mapmakers, with each charting some feature of a landscape never entirely discovered and, in the process becoming synonymous with what they’d found. Of the poets of the past century, Graves might have come the closest to matching Sor Juana’s lifelong entanglement in myth and legend. This was one path in.
Octavio Paz climbed the highest, saw the furthest, stayed the longest. He wrote about her on and off for fifty years. But embroiled in the politics of his own time, Paz compared Sor Juana’s end – and a final statement signed in blood – with the fate of Bukharin and others who signed false confessions during the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. I found myself fascinated and yet, and yet… I needed to know if defeat was the only possibility.
Diane Ackerman has left her name on a hidden stretch of beach. In Reverse Thunder she wrote a brief, brilliant play about Sor Juana and an acolyte who escape the convent confines for, as I remember it, a day at the seashore. This first sense of longing, of a great poet who would never see the sea, or reenter the natural world again, this would have come from Ackerman. In Hunger’s Brides, Sor Juana does not escape. But there is some of that acolyte in her secretary, Antonia, who, at the end of Sor Juana’s story, escapes each day in an attempt to bring some fragment of the world back to her.
You’ve been compared to Gabriel García Márquez, among others. Has he been an inspiration of yours? Are there others?
I’m not aware of any basis for comparing us as writers, but I will admit that in my youth I wanted his life – quixotic friendships, revolution, drunken all-nighters of poetry in brothels, monsoons. That sort of thing. Or if not his life, exactly, then that of a character in a big teeming novel by Stendhal or Melville or Thomas Wolfe or … García Márquez. To some degree, it was my failure to turn life into a novel that finally brought me to sit down to write.
Is there any basis at all for comparing Hunger’s Brides with Hundred Years of Solitude? Maybe that each is a big canvas, set in that improbable beauty that is America , and in which time is a protagonist. García Márquez always rejected the label of magic realism, insisting that if we were prepared to look with fresh eyes, reality in Latin America was quite marvelous enough. That’s probably true of most places, most times, and a pretty good reason for getting up in the morning to write.
Much more on my mind as I worked was Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, a compendium of historical documents, fiction, legend, popular songs, handbills from slave markets, poetry, hawker’s cries from 17th-century Bolivia…. Unlike anything I’d ever read, it was the literary equivalent of the great Mexican murals by Rivera, Tamayo, Orozco.
The difference I was looking for in Hunger’s Brides, was that the story turn on the fate of one central character.
An Alberta company performed a dramatic reading you adapted from the book in the convent where Sor Juana died. Please describe the experience and the response.
It was, among other things, a lesson in how hard theatre people work. In 1996, Canada was guest nation at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. Largely owing to the involvement of One Yellow Rabbit, I suspect, we were subsequently invited to Mexico City to perform at the chapel theatre of her convent, now a university named after Sor Juana. The Claustro, as it is called, serves as a sort of global headquarters for the international community of Sor Juanistas.
One Yellow Rabbit has the reputation of being among the finest touring companies of alternative theatre in the world. Just ask at the Edinburgh Festival. That I had known most of them for about twenty years, and that they had followed the project from its inception - well, that only made the whole thing perfect.
Perfect and daunting. As it happens, the audience that night was stacked with Sor Juana specialists, and Octavio Paz, who was a presiding eminence at the Claustro, was reported to be coming later for the twentieth anniversary of a magazine he had founded, Vuelta. Would he come – did Octavio Paz just drop by anywhere? (Did he ever arrive early?) His book had meant a lot to me. In the end Godot was not meant to come to the play, but the audience was warm and the specialists invited us to join them at dinner. They seemed especially pleased to find their Sor Juana so human. One thing that struck us was that they should be so surprised Canadians would be interested in Sor Juana and the Mexican past.
How could we not be?
Is the comparison to García Márquez and the works of other great writers more of a burden or do you feel honoured (or both)?
Honoured, primarily. It is only a burden in the sense that this sort of praise has the potential to set off a counter reaction. Writing is a hierarchical business. The early comparisons in newspaper reviews to Joyce, Mann, Pynchon are nice but perhaps unhelpful. I think I’d prefer to focus for a while on what this book might be, on its own terms, than on what it might not.
Twelve years of writing Hunger’s Brides! How does one cope with such a situation?
Coping is a good way to look at it. A twelve-year pursuit seems somewhat otherworldly, but it is at times measurable in little earthly details – some of them just outside the window over my desk: houses come and go; children and trees get taller; some are cut down. At my niece’s high school graduation ceremony it came to me that I’d begun the book when she entered first grade. There’s a lifetime in those years. You want them to be worth something.
Did you ever lose your hope of getting it done and published?
Well, for the first eight years I really never believed it would be published, and I decided that that would have to be okay. Getting it done, on the other hand, was something I had more control over. But I will admit that in the last year or two, when I thought I had the end within my grasp, I was sometimes nervous crossing the street – lest I be knocked down by a bus.
What do you find especially fascinating about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz?
Well, as you can probably guess, quite a lot. There is the beauty, history and legend of the mountains of her childhood; and springing from this, the pattern of a poet’s withdrawal from the world – from this childhood Eden to a palace, from palace to convent, from poetry to silence. There is also the wild power of her intelligence and the freakishness this conferred upon her – doubly, triply so – as a beautiful woman and a product of this strange new American continent. And there is her loneliness, and traces of feelings of failure in the midst of the most spectacular accomplishment.
The novel takes its inspiration from the Baroque – what makes it such a dramatic artistic period is its concern with the audience’s perspective. We see it, for example, in some of the great masterpieces of paintings of Caravaggio and Velásquez. So what I found especially fascinating was to take up the story of this pre-Enlightenment figure who was inclined to pursue her hunger for a knowledge without limits at a time of religious repression – someone who found ideas beautiful – and to view her from the perspective of a present-day figure, Beulah: a young woman of mystical temperament in our age of unbelief. A radical mystic without faith, without a god.
You traveled a lot. Do you consider yourself cosmopolitan? What self-image
do you have?
Many of my great enthusiasms seem to have come from late discoveries – the ocean, cultural encounters... I discovered only in my twenties that I had a good ear for languages. It’s true that for several years I seemed to travel constantly. An ashram, the Himalayas, two Atlantic crossings by sailboat, thirty-five countries visited. And then for twelve years there are days on end when I don’t leave my room. Perhaps one image I have of myself is as a serial monomaniac. The intense pursuit of one goal, at the expense of virtually everything else, then a turning away once I’ve done my best to attain it. Travel, sailing, languages, Hunger’s Brides. Maybe writing really is the right occupation for someone with this affliction.
Another persistent image in all this self-mythologizing is the invisible outsider. It may provide that common thread that a good myth cycle needs. In this case, it begins with a child-chameleon, moving from town to town, fitting in but feeling no sense of belonging. Then, later, the traveler who disappears, surfacing in a foreign culture camouflaged in local dress and custom … new languages, new accents. Then writing, an elaborate twelve-year path of seclusion and self-annihilation. New voices, other lives.
Any hobbies or other personal information worth mentioning?
On a day-to-day basis, cycling on my city’s riverside bicycle paths helps keep me sane. In a good week you might see ospreys, the odd eagle, hawks, coyotes, deer.
And, I occasionally help newcomers to Canada improve their English, which has been an honour and a very great pleasure.
Who is your ideal reader for Hunger's Brides?
To finally watch real people making their way through the book gives you other perspectives. One reader I know just scraped through high school, but is an omnivorous reader with a weakness for mysteries and crime fiction. She tore through it in eight days, making side excursions into some of the books and poetry touched upon in the novel. She was bringing something of her own to the reading of Hunger's Brides, something not in the text -- ideal readers come in many sizes but all, I think, are prepared to offer something of themselves.
Are you afraid that some readers won't be able or willing to follow where
I believe that the heart has its own intelligence. I would give a lot to have been in the cheap seats at the first performance of King Lear. Likely no one around me would have been able to write a dissertation on Lear's relation to the fool.
But who, that day, would not have felt that Lear had been arrogant, and yet not felt pity at his suffering?
And who, among the common people, would not have sensed, without necessarily thinking it, that there was something too prideful in Cordelia's integrity, and yet that the fate that was her punishment was nevertheless an outrage?
Hunger's Brides is an emotional book, not at all hard for the heart to follow, though some things may be difficult to take.
Why would anybody WANT to be a writer?
It can be a short commute to work. And once there, you get the last word in every argument.
Name some of the key personality traits a person must have to make it as
Personality is strictly optional. The metabolism of a reptile in autumn would be a helpful trait. An enthusiasm for leftovers -- also a plus.
What's the catchiest opening line you've read in a book of fiction?
" There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job." But is it fiction ? I haven't decided.
If you could sit down and have a heart to heart conversation with another
writer, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you talk about?
Dostoevski: Anything he wanted.
Italo Calvino: The 6th memo for the next millennium.
Give us the ideal "blurb" for your latest book. A line that will
make readers want to pick it up!
Free stuff inside.
Is CanLit humour-impaired?
How many countries have a medal for humourous writing? Or ... is that your point?
Describe your ideal writing space.
Terrace overlooking Aegean.
What is a writer's preferred wardrobe?
Armani suit. Rolex. Four-inch lifts.
What is the bane of a writer's existence?
Time. The sense of time passing, life passing.
What is the biggest joy in a writer's life?
The sensation of stopped time, at a desk, in a room. View is not strictly necessary.
What do you think of the trend to use real historical figures in fiction?
Some writers have a knack for spotting a trend, even making it into a tidy career.
Occasionally the reader gets a good bit or two out of the deal. That eulogy in Julius Caesar, for example, was quite moving.
Do you remember what book had the biggest impact on you as a TEENAGER?
Stendhal's The Red and the Black.
Did you learn about the facts of life through reading a book? And if so,
Popular Mechanics, Field and Stream. One of them. I know my father had a subscription.
Does being a writer make you a good liar?
I suspect that what makes a better liar is being lied to.
What's the scariest book you ever read and why?
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The utter desolation of the soul, rendered in some of the greatest prose in a century.
Name a book that's made you cry.
Cry, the Beloved Country, for the courtesy in their manner of speaking together.
How do you feel about reading books in the bathtub?
Make me an offer.
Should bookstores sell candles?
Is this still about the bathtub?
What goes best with a good book?
An open mind, and a sense of wonder.
Does Hunger's Brides employ elements of magic realism?
García Márquez was one who always refused the term as it was applied to his work. He was given too much credit, in his view, for his powers of imagination. He went so far as to say that in his work he'd never made anything up. That if one was prepared to look carefully enough, the everyday reality of life in Latin America held magic enough for anyone.
My own view lies closer to one expressed by Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. “Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function…”
But I might take this a step beyond what I took him to be arguing – to say that reality and imagination are neither clearly separable nor indeed distinct. This is true in two quite different respects. First, in the sense laid bare by Heisenberg's work in quantum physics: narrowly, that the act of observing modifies, in ways not entirely predictable or reproducible, the unfolding of the phenomenon being observed; and more broadly, that the most rigorously empirical results are nevertheless inextricably shaped by our subjectivity, not least through the theoretical frameworks that we thinking subjects elaborate in order to give shape to our observations.
Which leads us to the second sense: that frameworks, theories and other imaginative constructs are not empirically observable or tangible. And yet they are real. The laws of thermodynamics are not in themselves facts, or factual in that satisfying no-nonsense way. They are mental constructs that allow us to make predictions about what we will observe.
Every aspect of our lives is shaped by expressions and projections of the human imagination. The imaginary is not the opposite of the real, but an indispensable dimension of it. And literature is that special domain in which the imaginary is sovereign, or should be, and not the pale cousin of robust realism. On the disclaimer page of Hunger's Brides it states: “This is a work of the imagination. It contains no facts.” At least not facts as arbiters of truth, or boundary limits for the imagination.
One might go further still and ask if there is an essential dimension of reality not directly accessible to our senses. This dimension may or may not be uniquely accessible to us as a species, and accessing it one of the better justifications of our continued existence. The argument that follows from this proposition is that it is the work of a certain kind of literature to return to us this perception of a numinous charge in the world, through the workings of an inspired or inspirited imagination.
There is a line in a poem by Hopkins: The world is charged with the grandeur of God. Whatever that god may be, it is the work of a certain kind of poet to show us this charge shimmering in even the most ordinary things.
So. Does Hunger's Brides draw upon elements of magic realism? If by this we mean a heightened sense of reality including but surpassing the empirically observable, perhaps yes. Or in the sense that when we create an imaginary world we actually bring it into being. Again, perhaps so. Does the novel employ the instruments of wonder and mystic contemplation? Yes.
Questions put by Judi P. Y...
Judi, I tried to send this but the email I have for you appears to be incorrect.
Is part of your kinship with Sor Juana that you are both voracious readers?
I hadn't really thought of any biographical connection from me to Sor Juana, at least concerning our love of books. I don't think of myself as being in her league as a bibliomaniac. I think I did, though, impart to the young Juana of Hunger's Brides something of my passion for what the living tradition of literature represents, or should -- so a kinship there, yes. But your question did lead me to think of another autobiographical connection. I remember being in my early teens and well on my way to becoming a serious bookworm when my father, a sportsman and outdoorsman, burst into my room one day, where I was working on about my third book that week, and said, "It's a warm summer's day, you're thiirteen years old. Get out of the house and play." So this tension between the call of books and the call of the forest and fields is something that very likely came alive for me well before I sat down to write the chapters featuring Juana and Amanda.
Did a sexual assault precipitate Beulah's descent into madness?
Beulah's someone I have trouble speaking about. But in general I don't really think we can very often explain a given character trait or tendency from a childhood event. We know children are wounded by things, and must be changed by them. But the outcomes are so varied, so individual and particular, that maybe we'll have to settle for the less direct terms of predispositions and contributing factors. I think this for Beulah would have been one in a series of moments driving her to frame the question much as the mystics of old might have. How are we to see and experience the beauty in the world amidst such vast and obscene suffering? Can she find a path to happiness that does not lead through an anaesthetized indifference?
Whether her descent was into madness is a key question in the book, and for each reader to decide.
Reader's questions the author is still mulling over responses to...
- Please tell us the story of the book. It's said that you worked on the manuscript for eight years, and then when you showed it to the editor who'd bought it, she asked not for cuts but for more. What was that "more," and did the whole envisioning of the book change?
- Do you think of Hunger's Brides as a mystery novel, a crime novel, a historical novel?
- Hunger's Brides is, in part, an attempt to solve a historical mystery, that mystery being "Why did Sor Juana silence herself?" Do you feel that you solved the mystery? is there a right answer to the question embedded in your book?
- Can you talk about the theme of hunger in this book?
- Can you talk a little about the resolution of Beulah's story, without giving too much away?
- Are people going out and buying this great big book because of a hunger for depth -- and a weariness with the endless surfaces our mediated world presents us with, seemingly without the capacity to take us deeper?
- Through Sor Juana's story, but also through Beulah's in the present day, the book returns us again and again to the end of empire, the loss of a Golden Age, the collapse of civilizations ... end times. Are you saying that now is one of those times?
- Hunger's Brides develops a number of formulations for the soul. One presents the soul as an invention, thirty generations in the making.