“Elena de Céspedes was a hermaphrodite, and mulatto slave, and 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.
AGUSTÍN SÁNCHEZ VIDAL, WRITER
MARÍA R. ARANGUREN – Monday, 8 March 2010 – Updated at 07:34.
Bilbao. Agustín Sánchez Vidal is a professor emeritus at the University of Zaragoza, where he earned his doctorate with a thesis on Miguel Hernandez, and has taught both Spanish literature and film and other audiovisual media. As a film and television writer, he has collaborated with directors such as Carlos Saura.
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 Toledo that happened around 1580. I went to the National Historical Archive in Madrid and then I came across this case which I had not been looking for but which captured my attention. Under the Inquisition process itself, the defendant describes his/her life. When I read it, I thought that one day I would turn it into a novel.
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 Americas, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and perhaps even to our own colonies, but not to the Peninsula. Elena de Cespedes was a mulatto, the daughter of African slaves. Even her was face branded with an iron so no one would ever forget whom she belonged to. She also lived in Alhama de Granada, a strategic enclave because it was on the way from Granada to the capital Malaga, and Alhama was a haven where there was a permanent war in which the Moors had to always stay on the lookout. Besides looking Moorish and being a slave, when she gave birth to her first child, her body underwent some very profound changes. She said that when she gave birth to the child she also bore a penis, and it’s true. After this event, she begins to have relationships with women.
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 Italy or if a strong current from France has taken over. The protagonist was born in 1545, the year Lazarillo de Tormes was published, a cornerstone of narrative prose which was not just Castilian but also international. It’s the kind of reading that people were doing at the time when she grew up. Also, I had the great advantage of verbatim transcripts so I could listen to the characters. My task has been to figure to what degree the modern reader would have trouble with certain words or constructions. In any case, Lazarillo de Tormes does not need footnotes (for readers to understand the language). The language becomes more complicated later with Guzman and the Buscón de Quevedo.
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 an 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.
Curtis Hinkle, OII USA