Elena de Céspedes
translated by Curtis E. Hinkle
Original Spanish article: Click her
AGUSTÍN SÁNCHEZ VIDAL, WRITER
"Elena de Céspedes was a hermaphrodite, and mulatto slave, a character like this is only discovered once in a lifetime"
Agustín Sánchez Vidal came across the true story of a character that any novelist would be inspired by. Elena de Céspedes, who was a hermaphrodite who lived in the sixteenth century, a mulatto persecuted and accused of lesbianism in court
MARÍA R. ARANGUREN - Monday, 8 March 2010 - Updated at 07:34.
How did you come across this wonderful story you tell in "Nobody's Slave"?
It was just by chance. In 1998 I was preparing my first novel and I needed to find a trial of the Inquisition in
It was just by chance?
Yes, and this is something that happens once in lifetime, because this is a character of such interest that the logical thing would have involved not only a novel but several, or even a movie. It is an even more striking case than the one that immediately comes to mind, the nun Erauso Catherine, who was also a female soldier. However, Elena de Céspedes, was not only a soldier, but also a surgeon and had sex with both men and women.
What else was particular about her life?
The fact that she was a hermaphrodite is a striking fact but there are some additions that make the character more interesting, more confrontational and dramatic. Conflict is the engine of any good story and this is a character who was born a slave. Interestingly, we associate slavery with the
This is about a woman who constantly fought for her freedom, was that common at the time?
It was not at all common. At that time women were very restricted in their activity. At the end of her life she was accused of lesbianism, and she tried to prove that she had masculine attributes. She did not have a definite identity. There is a part of the book entitled La Frontera (The Boundary or Border) because she lives in Jerez de la Frontera, Arcos de la Frontera, Moron de la Frontera, in cities that contained the name "Border" because they were the places where the borders between the Moors and Christians were stable. But that was not the only reason that I entitled part of the book "La Frontera". It was also because that was also a very important feature of her own identity. How could one determine the boundaries or borders of Elena herself? That seemed a lot harder.
What is documented in the archives exactly?
They are verbatim transcripts of two trials involving several clerks. They are very thorough interrogations that involve up to 200 people. The testimonies give you an incredible amount of detail, some very gory details. The sex of the woman is what will determine the judgment. In order to bring the charges, the sexual nature of them has to make sense and the charges of sodomy or lesbianism were punishable by death at the stake, so she was risking both her life and that of her wife.
How did you construct the style and tone?
For 20 years I was professor of literature and this forced me to read in a systematic way, something only professionals do. When you read systematically, you generally follow a chronological order, so you know what the language of the time is like, you know what the influences are, if they are coming in from
Did you use other sources?
There is a moment when the protagonist has to move between pimps and whores in the underworld, and there is a great novel that helped me a lot. It is La lozana andaluza by Francisco Delicado. In this work you listen to a prostitute speak crudely about sex and other aspects. There are also three extraordinary authors who wrote about the war with the Moors. Ginés Pérez de Hita, who is said to be inventor of the historical novel, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and Marcol Carvajal. All three offer very precise details.
Is this a novel about identity?
That's the key. It would have been a mistake to find a case like this and try to exaggerate it and accentuate the most flamboyant in the reader's mind because I would have lost sight of the fact that I was dealing with a person. If I had made that mistake, which I don't think I did, I would have turned Elena de Cespedes into a circus freak. She is a mulatto, lives in an environment of Moors, she is a hermaphrodite, and she likes women, but behind all these circumstances there is a human being who seeks what all people seek. Also, at that time humanism has not yet been extinguished. It is still felt that the fate of a person does not have to be in the hands of the gods, but in one's own hands.
Have you assumed responsibility in recreating this story?
I enjoyed it a lot. Finding something like this is like winning the lottery. What happens is that you can get lazy in having to come up with it all yourself. When you work with a real case, you are already given the whole story. You can become a bit lazy in wanting something like that to hold on to and that is just how it will have to be.