Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, 1651?-95) exerted a powerful seductive force during her life and continues to do so today. She speaks to us across the centuries as a woman who was driven by the desire to follow her greatest inclination, learning and the study of letters. For many years, she found the place to do so in the convent of the Order of Saint Jerome in Mexico City, which she entered in 1669, and where she sought to persuade the hierarchy of the Church that following her God-given inclinations was a devout act of belief and fulfillment. She believed with every fibre of her being in the right of women to a life of the mind, and for many years broadcast this belief across this Spanish-speaking world from her convent cell. Early editions of her poetry outsold other great poets of the age, and through her epistolary correspondence with the great intellectuals of her age her intellect became a thing of wonder: who was this woman, who they called the ‘Tenth Muse’, the ‘Phoenix of America’ and who, in the garb of a nun, defied all gendered norms about the intellect? In a very modern way, Sor Juana knew that she was being invented by others, that her real self and thinking was being obscured by those who gave her these heady names and exalted her, yet who did not let her words act in the world, to enact the changes that she desired for all women. In an unfinished poem, found after her death Sor Juana instructed those who would create a mythic being that obscured the real person: ‘I am not who you think I am, / for you have given me / another being through your pens / and another breath on your lips / and different from myself / amongst your pens I walk / not as I am / but as you wished to imagine me’. It is in honouring her writing that we respond to Sor Juana’s call to see her as she was, in all her complexity and multiplicity, and as a voice that still rings for us today.
If men weighed the hazards of the sea
Sor Juana, translation by Alan S. Trueblood
If men weighed the hazards of the sea,
none would embark. If they foresaw
the dangers of the ring, rather than taunt
the savage bull, they´d cautiously withdraw.
If the horseman should prudently reflect
on the headlong fury of the steed´s wild dash,
he´d never undertake to rein him in
adroitly, or to wield the cracking lash.
But were there one of such temerity
that, facing undoubted peril, he still planned
to drive the fiery chariot and subdue
the steeds of Apollo himself with daring hand,
he´d stop at nothing, would not meekly choose
a way of life binding a whole life through.
Amerah Saleh, a spoken word artist and outspoken human rights supporter has been inspired by Sor Juana’s work and believes in her relevance today:
For me I guess it’s the empowerment of women that pulled me towards this, I am a strong believer in equality although I don’t call myself a feminist (due to the stereotype it has and the way the media has changed what it originally meant). I believe in the power of one woman being stronger than anything else. I love to celebrate women and their struggles, their accomplishments but also I want to be able to embody those who have barriers and feel like they can’t. Which is why my work always touches on real stories, of people around me that have incredible stories but don’t have a platform for it.
An open letter about Yemen
Inside me there were once butterflies that flew around every time something made my heart feel soft
Inside me those butterflies have outgrown their habitat
I am fighting demons in my stomach
I have swallowed my country whole, by accident.
I have generations of history keeping my spine up
Now my spine feels weak
I remember the smell of air, like my history was decaying on the mountains but the mountains seemed happy to home them and now I’m not happy to home my country inside of me
Because I have swallowed several more alongside my own
It’s her eyes that remind me I have a beast inside me
It’s not my home, it’s hers
But how can I forget when I was once homed inside of her
No one wants to talk about it; everyone wants to listen so I thought the easiest way was to unleash this in rhythm
There is a corrupt system inside my mind that tells me every decision I have ever made has led to right now.
I am one story in 4.5 billion but one story that could have maybe made a difference
There are no tears to cry, not in this one
I bleed hoping the civilians of my home would leak out of my system, but they don’t. They never do.
I have swallowed my country whole, my decision.
Because although half my home is hers, half of my home is my own skin and her home is there and I’m struggling to stay in
Everyone tells me there is no time, now I’m waking up
Realising that this is more like a nightmare than a daydream
Because this, this is Pakistan inside of me, Saudi Arabia inside of me, Iran inside of me, Yemen inside of me and America, America is holding on to my throat
And I don’t want to swallow
Because I cant take anymore responsibility for hiding,
I want to shove my hand down my throat like its bulimia all over again
Throw them up and fight
Put down your weapons and argue this out, talk, scream shout this out
No winners or losers
I want to tell them that no one owns land
That we are all made of tiny grains of sand and to never forget this world, this world isn’t ours
We are only renting for the generations of tomorrow
That people may suffer now but the future will have to suffer of the consequences of mistakes that are not there’s
Like we are dealing with consequences of mistakes that are not ours
I want to tell them that they are replicating mistakes that were there before they were born
That this is more than one mistake
This is butterflies sick of being beautiful so they chipped each others wings and got angry why they couldn’t fly
You can learn more about Sor Juana at Icon of Freedom, a festival that celebrates the life, insights and inspiration of Sor Juana, and showcases how her work is relevant to contemporary life. Icon of freedom is run as a collaboration between the SHM Foundation and the University of Claustro de Sor Juana (UCSJ) in Mexico City. It will be held at the Bargehouse OXO Tower from 11th-15th November and feature musical, fashion, literary, academic and gastronomic events. More information online at iconoffreedom.london