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  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Gender Politics of Knowledge in Colonial Mexico by Stephanie Kirk
  • Mónica Díaz
Kirk, Stephanie. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Gender Politics of Knowledge in Colonial Mexico. New York: NY. Routledge, 2016. ISBN: 978-14-0943-845-8.

Through a careful contextualization of five themes – the library, education, anatomy, print and piety – Stephanie Kirk presents a landscape in which male judgment and its institutions preside over the city of knowledge, from which most women are banned. However, Kirk shows the ways in which Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) managed to participate in all of these areas, becoming an anomaly on occasion and an interlocutor at other times. While Kirk provides an acute and sophisticated analysis of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's works, she positions her and her writing within a much larger context, allowing the reader to glimpse, through a kind of narrative counterpoint, the creative ways in which Sor Juana participated in the male-dominated lettered culture of the time.

"Dangerous Books and Vagabond Readers," the first chapter of the book, centers on the gender politics of the library in Colonial Mexico. It takes into consideration two very different libraries, that of Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (bishop of Puebla between 1640-1655), and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's library. Palafox's library has become part of UNESCO's "Memory of the World," while Sor Juana's was lost during the last years of her life. Kirk points to the gender politics of knowledge and power involved in the preservation of Palafox's collection, and the contrasting dispersion of Sor Juana's library. In this chapter, Kirk also engages with Alejandro Soriano Vallès's arguments in relation to the recent discovery of the Carta de Puebla. Soriano Vallès mainly claims that Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz was always supportive of Sor Juana's literary activities, an assertion that contradicts feminist readings of Sor Juana's life and work. Stephanie Kirk argues against Soriano Vallès's claim that Sor Juana willingly sold her library in her last few years in order to live an ascetic life, assertion that rejects Elias Trabulse's accepted argument that she did so forced by episcopal authorities. The chapter closes with a look at some of Sor Juana's portraits and the visual symbolism that reflects Sor Juana's engagement with books and learning.

Chapter 2 focuses on the themes of education and erudition in New Spain, with a special focus on the role that the Society of Jesus had in establishing institutions of learning. Kirk delves into the correlation between masculinity and knowledge, making evident the ways in which women were banned from learning Latin, among other important subjects, because they were expected to remain in private spaces. In connection to these obstacles, the author offers a sophisticated close reading of Sor Juana's works pointing to the moments in which the writer makes reference to her autodidactism as well as to the rare times in which she had a teacher. Kirk also develops a strong assessment of Sor Juana's mastery of Latin in her poetry and her inroads as a translator.

"Literary Dissections," the third chapter, centers on medicine and anatomy in Colonial Mexico. Kirk explores the availability of this kind of specialized knowledge and the differences between men and women to access it. The author opens the chapter by presenting the stark contrast between what happened with Carlos de [End Page 210] Sigüenza y Góngora's body after his death and that of Sor Juana; while the first one was given to scientific examination, Sor Juana's was privately buried. Kirk extends the metaphor of the public and the private to explain how Sor Juana had to use her poetry as a laboratory, given that empirical knowledge was banned to her. In the close reading that Kirk carries out of Sor Juana's work she asserts that the poet succeeded in mirroring the knowledge produced by the masculine elite.

The fourth chapter of the book centers on the politics of...


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