The full title of the book is Memoir of a Basque Lietuenant Nun Transestite in The New World by Catalina de Erauso.
I read this for Dewey’s 24 hours readathon. I will publish the reviews as quickly as I can throughout the 24 hours. Sorry for any mistakes.
When Catalina de Erauso was 2 years old she was placed in the convent of the Dominican nuns according to tradition among Basque nobles. Young girls would be trained in the convent until they either were to be married or entered into holy order. Catalina would have none of that. When she was 15 years old she stole away, dressed herself as a boy and through different means travelled to the new world. The book is a memoir she wrote coming back to Spain after having to choose between getting killed or confessing her sins. She had by this time lived 20 years in the New World dressed as a man. Reading this book I felt like I was hearing a grandfather telling a story about everything he experienced in his travels in South America, knowing only 1/3 could be true, but having no idea which third it is. It seem to wonderful.
The Lieutenant Nun has become a cult figure in Spain, similar to Joan of Arch. There are also a lot of different ways to interpret the book.
First and foremost it’s interesting in regarding gender-identity. The translators point out that a lot is lost in translation. In Spanish words are gendered (the words change depending on the gender of the person) in a way English doesn’t. Literature around this book refers Catalina as a transvestite, that means as a woman dressing up as a man. This isn’t uncommon and considering Catalina’s personality as someone craving excitement, dressing as a man would be the only way she could get this. There is also very little talk about feelings. Catalina describes what she does and emotions and motivations are rarely stated.
But at the end of that time, with no more reason than that it suited me, I quit the comfort of this situation and returned to my home town, – Chapter I
If she is having an identity crisis, about feeling she was born in the wrong body, this isn’t present in the text. On the other hand in the Spanish edition she is constantly referring herself as a “he”, with a few exceptions. The fact that she is a woman dressed as a man is also not brought up much. She talks a bit about hiding from family members. It doesn’t even come up when she mentions the women that try to marry her. She refuses all of them, some times almost sacrificing her life, but she never talks about how she did this because she is a woman. Though, she might have thought this was implied and understood by the reader.
I keep wanting to refer to Catalina as a “he”, personally the text even reads as something written by a man. Yet, this might be my own prejudice, and as Marjorie Garber, who wrote one of the introductions, pointed out “What I want to emphasize here is that such over-determination is part of the pleasure of reading as well as part of its danger. All reading is partial in two senses – not impartial and not whole”. Trying to put Catalina into the trans-gender category might be just as injustice to her as seeing her as a woman only wanting freedom from the patriarchy. A part of the fascination with The Lieutenant Nun is how she transcends these categories and boxes.
What Catalina talks about is fighting. It’s clear she has a quick temper and incredible pride. When she is being tortured she writes “They gave the screws a turn and I held fast, steady as an oak.” and later she writes “I’d only been there a few days when I got myself into another serious mess, undeserved to tell the truth, because this time around I was entirely blameless – whatever you may have heard”. She also has a surprising witty sense of humour, which took me off garde between all the killing and fighting. This book tested my prejudices, if you write without emotions I read you as a man, if you talk a lot about killing people you can’t have a sense of humour.
“I came before his Majesty and told him the sorry tale of my travels. He listened, and then he asked, “Well, how is it that you allowed yourself to be robbed?”
“Señor,” I responded, “I had no choice in the matter.” – Chapter 24
Even without the trans-gender/transvestite the story is a compelling one, even if I feel I should take it with a grain of salt.