That Which Issues Forth: My Love Affair with Juana I
Gabriel Amor is the recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Spanish poet Ana Arzoumanian’s poem cycle, Juana I, based on the queen of Castille and Aragon. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
What I need is a mouth.
Why does she keep insisting on this singular need?
This question consumed me from the moment I first read Ana Arzoumanian’s Juana I. I was thrilled, and maybe titillated, by the provocative act of opening a book with an entire page dedicated to one succinct, ambiguous and suggestive phrase.
Lo que yo necesito es una boca.
What I need is a mouth. This defiant declaration, luxuriously draped in ample white space, fueled my desire. I wanted insight into this woman’s intimate thoughts. I was curious to know what she would say next. As I read on, I discovered a genre-bending work that signals its obsession with language, subjectivity, and sensuality in the very first line.
Arzoumanian’s Juana is impossible to ignore, not least because she is an unreliable, and unknowable, narrator. Intelligent, educated, boundlessly passionate, and overtly sexual, her sanity is repeatedly called into question. Juana I’s behavior caused a scandal in sixteenth-century Spain and it would surely make headlines today:
Queen Sleeps with Consort’s Corpse!
Crazy for Love or Just Plain Crazy?
Unstable Wench Inherits World Empire!
Our political machinations pale when compared to those that brought down Juana I; incarcerated, humiliated, and manipulated, she was denied the royal power that was rightfully hers. After the premature death of her husband, Philip the Fair, a period of crisis unfolded in Juana’s life. This was infamously punctuated by a month-long funeral procession during which she was rumored to open Philip’s casket in order to view his corpse and, it was said, to caress it.
I run ropes through the gates of your body.
I clean you. Licking muscle joined to bone joined to skin.
This is the point of departure for Arzoumanian’s book, told in a rambling first-person voice that denotes the unraveling of its protagonist’s emotional state. And while Juana’s voice is at times unsettling in its incoherence, at times lost amid the whispers and intrigue of those around her, it continues on propelled by the need to share her story.
Juana’s adversaries were successful in their smear campaign—she has gone down in history as Juana la Loca. But was she mad? Or was she driven to the brink by unfathomable grief and the realization that she’d been betrayed by those dearest to her?
Arzoumanian doesn’t provide a definitive answer. I am not mad, her Juana insists intermittently, before returning to a delirious rant that details a litany of erotic acts certain to make her contemporaries question her sanity…and her ability to rule.
Is this self-sabotage? Or is it the acting out of an unhinged psyche?
To brand a queen loca is to deny her not only power but voice; being labeled “mad” invalidates whatever issues from her mouth. Arzoumanian knows this and posthumously grants Juana a singular mouth that will not be silenced, much less ignored.
Gabriel Amor has an MA in English (University of Chicago) and an MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish (New York University). In addition to translating works by Spanish-language authors, Gabriel has published his own poetry (Spanish and English) and performed it in collaboration with other artists. He has also co-produced an Emmy-nominated documentary. Gabriel is currently at work on a novel, written in Spanish and Galician, and concurrently self-translated into English.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
This translation is available for publication. Publishers and editors who wish to express interest in this project are invited to contact PEN Literary Awards Coordinator Arielle Anema ([email protected]) or Translation Fund Advisory Board Chair Michael F. Moore ([email protected]) for the translator’s contact information.