· Vatican City ·

Interview

Proto-feminist Sister Juana

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03 July 2021

Dacia Maraini’s theatrical portrait


Dacia Maraini cannot hide a certain pride, saying, “I have contributed to making Juana de la Cruz known in Italy”.  The writer and leading exponent of historical feminism, recalls that in 1979 she wrote the play Suor Juana, which was a documented and engaging portrait of the 17th century Mexican nun and intellectual. The play has been performed in several countries around the world, including Mexico, and is still a reference point that helps us understand Sister Juana’s genius and the revolutionary scope of her work.

What prompted your interest in the nun, who is best known in Latin America?

Before the 1970s, I had never heard of Sister Juana. It was Prudencia Molero, an Argentinean actor with whom I worked in the feminist theatre of La Maddalena in Rome, who told me her story. Her stories fascinated me and it seemed incredible to me that Juana was unknown in Italy. Therefore, I decided to find out more. I have always had a great interest in the mystics of past centuries such as St Clare of Assisi, to whom I dedicated a novel, and St Catherine of Siena, on whom I wrote a play.

To what do you attribute this interest?

In antiquity, nuns were highly educated. Often, as was the case with Sister Juana, they retired to the convent to escape arranged marriages and to have the possibility of cultivating their studies, free from the obligation of having one child a year. Even if kept hidden or disregarded, their works have left their mark on the history of thought.

How did you find out more about Sister Juana?

I read every publication about her. Forty years ago, these were almost exclusively in Spanish, as Juana was little known outside Latin America where she is studied at school.

Why has the West ignored such an important religious and intellectual figure?

Women who are too far ahead, those who embody free and modern thinking, are almost always kept in the shadows. It is not a destiny but a recurring historical will. Olympe de Gouges, a playwright and activist who lived during the French Revolution, was even guillotined because she advocated equality between the sexes, anticipating feminism by two centuries in doing so.

Was Sister Juana a proto-feminist?

Without a doubt. She built up, through study, an extraordinary intellectual culture. She wrote magnificent poetry, was a genius in mathematics, and learned the native language so as to bring theatre to the people. Her wisdom was the object of interest of the men of letters, philosophers and theologians of the time. In addition, she stood up to them all. She wrote in favour of free will and defended women’s rights. Nevertheless, she paid for her courage and independence of thought with the renunciation of intellectual activity, imposed by the leaders of the Church.

As a non-believer, do you think the Church has made progress in recognising women’s rights?

There has been some progress and today there are many enlightened members of the clergy, but there is still a long way to go. Nuns still do not have a say, for it is men who always decide their fate. Pope Francis is trying to change things, but he finds before him a closed world and many enemies.

Did you perform the play about Sister Juana in front of an audience of nuns?

Yes. Many of them did not know Sister Juana, but they all seemed enthusiastic. They understood Juana, they were on her side, and consider her a point of reference for freedom, autonomy and courage. I was struck by the cultural preparation of many of the nuns; today women enter a convent by choice, not as a fallback or an imposition.

Is there a lesson that Sister Juana can teach women today?

It is the awareness that culture, art and poetry are fundamental tools for emancipation.

What has your encounter with this extraordinary seventeenth-century mystic and intellectual given to you personally?

It consolidated a certainty. Even in the most difficult times, when they are deprived of their intellectual autonomy and considered the property of others, women do not lose heart but continue to fight. In history there are not only victims, fortunately there are also many rebels.

By Gloria Satta