Hunger's Brides
Page Updated On: 09/07/2005

How to Write Hunger's Brides

How 2 Write


Begin with a mind driven, for as long as you can remember, towards synthesis, to find the pattern. Then, as you are writing a suite of stories set in Mexico and dealing with hunger — hunger for love, for sex, for clay, for meaning — you read, in Sor Juana's own words, how her hunger for knowledge was a terrifying force that exploded like gunpowder when she was first denied books.

You begin to write a novel. In twelve years it will be a thousand pages long and be called Hunger's Brides. Early in the research, you discover in the Baroque a time obsessed with synthesis and perhaps, in Sor Juana, its most formidable practitioner. Theology as the Queen of the Sciences was a trope common in the Catholic world. Nonetheless in Sor Juana's hands it became not Catholic theology as it was but theology as she could make it — fusing poetry and empirical science, mathematics and musical cosmology, pagan practices and kitchen rituals, history and myth. And so the mind driven towards synthesis falls into Sor Juana as a planet into the sun.

And as you fall you realize it has always been this way for you. Moving from house to house, town to town, as a child each displacement demanded a reinvention. Literature offered a disappearance — first to read, then to write — a vanishing into other lives. Keats and Hazlitt wrote of the chameleon poet, a non-being whose own voice, whose own life, was subsumed, consumed, in the lives and voices of his creations.

 You've been to 37 countries over the previous ten years, yet have already sensed that this one journey will be longer than all these combined. You read everything you can lay your hands on, anything that contains the words Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz — in her own lifetime hailed, on both sides of the Atlantic, as the Mexican Athena, Sum of the Ten Sybils, Phoenix of America, Pythoness of Delphi. Looked upon, from near and far, as a creature of fable, a beautiful monster. A freak of nature on a diabolical continent. One such as she could not disappear, not even in a convent, and so taught herself an art of self-concealment, a play of masks — follow the pattern.

How will you follow her, what common ground could you possibly find with her? Remember your own childhood on the Canadian Prairies, still and always in the grip of the Protestant Reformation. Your death-bed conversion at six, your apostasy at ten. Remember that you too are sprung from exotic stock — the Manitoba Scots Pentecostal. And then this madness for synthesis at a Prairie university. You write allegories in an Introduction to Psychology, and compose Socratic dialogues for the world's leading authority on soul and the survival of identity. You return from la faculté in France to Montreal to write a structuralist analysis of the evolution of Confucian thought, to write a treatment of science as a faith-based system whose first article is elegance, to write a survey of post-Aristotelian thought, from the Stoics to the Cynics, as an inventory of strategies palliative of a collapsed world view. And through her you come to see this hunger for pattern, in an age of compartmentalization, as not entirely aberrant, as strange but also rare, and just perhaps a gift. You remember that, in those years, the best of those teachers applauded. And now you really would follow her anywhere.

You would give her another sort of childhood. A library filled with classics. A more complex set of ABCs. Anagrams supplied by Thucydides, and his riddle of the annihilation of Melos by the noble Athenians. And poems and sketches and puzzles. Give her a grandfather like Octavio Paz, with the elderly Paz's rounded shoulders, the pouch under his chin, the beautiful green eyes, a voice like his. First, before the loneliness, she would have a teacher who loves her. You will meet Paz only once, only briefly, but it will be at her convent that is now a university, after a theatrical performance of staged readings from a manuscript still searching for an ending, called Hunger's Brides. You have been writing for 6 years, but it is only after meeting him that the door to the emotions of her childhood opens.

Go to Panoayán, to the battered hacienda where she spent her early years, on the slopes of a volcano in the central highlands of Mexico. Decide which room was hers, sit on the sill of a window giving onto the courtyard and see what has not been clear in all the reading you have done: two snow-capped volcanoes over 17,000 feet, massively, menacingly, dominating the surroundings. She could never have forgotten that place. It would follow her all her life, as would the stories and the legends it held. She wrote verses in the tongue the Aztecs spoke, had almost certainly had one of their descendants as a wetnurse. In a field of such brilliant scholarship, why had so few researchers on Sor Juana given a central place to the prehispanic world? You ride from her hacienda to Cortés Pass, sit listening to a driver recounting the legends of the mountains — the devil's tree here, the haunt of serpent children there — as though he himself had first heard them yesterday.

Climb the upper slopes of a volcano in the middle of a snowstorm, as Cortés's and Moctezuma's men had done, climbing through "the air's most transparent regions" for sulphur and ice. And stand, as the snow stops, in the middle of the continent and see as though it were next door, another white cone 200 kilometres away, on the Gulf coast.

Spend days in Mexico City pursuing an elusive Nahuatl scholar and translator. Track him to his home, in order to show him her verses, to ask him just how good they were. He has been gracious, though ill and not entirely at ease with this stranger in his house. But now his face lights up and he surprises himself to be discussing his latest paper, not yet published, on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's astonishing command of Nahuatl. In the ensuing talk, the thought emerges that, for a time, she just might have been the world's greatest living poet in not one language but two. And then you are asking him about Aztec sacrifice, the aesthetic of dying at the hands of one's captor, about a mention in his book of the Aztec "texts of neutralization" — poetic incantations to lull the victims, to have them go calmly into death. And as the minutes pass the talk turns to this feeling of yours — persistent through the twenty volumes or so you have just read on Aztec cosmology — of an indeterminacy at the core of their vision of God. Not male, nor in the image of man, not quite human. God as verb, no, as adverb — or a complementarity of attributes. As in the epithet for their most mysterious deity, the Lord of Near and Far.

Return to Canada. As people discover more about the novel, there is a question you are asked more often — why you find the company of women so congenial — inside your head. You wonder. You were raised in a household of women, only to be suddenly uprooted from it, and to return again and again in fascination to that abandoned place, to remember there the warm fires of a finer world — but to recall also the mystifying self-denigration, the alienation from one's own body, the hatred of its hungers. Or could it be that simple.

Return again and again now to the poems, committing some to memory, translating dozens. Reread the spiritual canticles of John of the Cross half a dozen times just to trace his echoes through her texts. What is that special extra quality her voice lends? See a bright swift boat scudding on a wine-dark sea, far from safe harbour. Feel the firm hand at the tiller, the courage that barely falters. Recite a line again — her line about the sea, the azure's crystal drift — hear it in your head. It releases you to write.

Remember, during sea voyages for days out of sight of land, the hunger and vividness with which one dreams of the little details of the earth, and apply this to the dreams of a vast poetic imagination locked for twenty-five years in a convent. Follow the patterns in her dream.

Come now to her final years, grapple with the loss Sor Juana's silencing represents, grasp finally how much she might have given us in a dozen different fields. And now begin a conjectural reconstruction of her lost musical treatise, Caracol.

"Beauty is the transcendental perfection of God in time. Beauty is God's plenitude, an overflowing — vast yet in nothing superfluous — pouring down in a cascade of music through the orders of Creation, through the stars and heavens, down through the whole sublunary world — human, animal, vegetal, mineral — down to the smallest of atoms. Since the Fall, so is it also with our human senses: each being an instrument crafted to respond differently. In full possession of our senses we are like unto a prism breaking beauty into its spectra and gamuts and separate registers — red, blue, gold — mi, fa, sol — sight, hearing, touch — that scatter in tints and tones and hints and hues; in flocks, in flights, in schools; through water, into air, over ground..."

Make believe for a little while longer you can make the past other than it was. Draw on your own navigational experience to invent for her, through her, a musical clock that might just perhaps have won the 6000 ducat prize — unclaimed for more than a century — awarded to the discoverer of a method for calculating longitude at sea. Win that prize for her, enough to buy her a life independent of the Church, all the books and instruments she could ever want. All the time she needed. The time she did not get.

You have followed her for twelve years, scribbled out two thousand pages of notes, read fifty thousand pages of text, written over a thousand of your own. You come from a family of hunters and understand, after years of tracking a quarry not only beautiful but powerful and rare, how one can fall in love in the instant of lifting the rifle to one's shoulder. And still lift it.


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