Interview with Eliza Brown: Epistemic Injustice, Juana of Castile, and the Women of Indiana Women's Prison

My bondage shall not / keep my story bound
— Brittney Watson, "Voice of the Dead"

In this interview, EDN violist Ammie Brod sits down with composer Eliza Brown to ask some questions about The Body of the State, Brown's new monodramatic work that Ensemble Dal Niente will premiere as part of its STAGED series in 2017-2018.

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Q: First off, can you tell us a little about the history behind your monodrama?

A: The Body of the State is a monodrama for soprano and ensemble about Juana of Castile. Juana, born in 1479, was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of what is now  Spain. At 16, she was married to Philip of Burgundy, who soon proved abusive and unfaithful, denying Juana power in the household and locking her in her chambers as punishment.

In 1506, both Isabella and Philip died, leaving Juana, at age 27, sole heir to the Castilian throne. She found herself locked in a battle for power with her own father, who strong-armed her into signing away her governing rights, leaving her queen in name only. Rumors of her insanity were spread by her political enemies, and her father had her confined to a house in Tordesillas, surrounded by servants and priests whom he paid to lie to her, control her, and interrogate the legitimacy of her faith

Q: That’s very . . . operatic, isn’t it?

A: It is, and that’s part of what got me interested in Juana’s story. I was initially drawn to this as a “hidden narrative” of women’s history, the dark origin story of the Hapsburg empire. But I also appreciated its operatic-ness: the scale of its drama, its emotionally fraught scenarios, the family power plays that affect thousands of people, and as a composer I was interested in the opportunity to allude to and subvert the operatic trope of the madwoman.

Q: Has the focus of your interest changed as you’ve delved deeper into the story?

A: It has, for a number of reasons. As this project developed over the last few years, Juana’s story came to feel more and more relevant to the modern world. Women are still used as political pawns via arranged marriages. The stigma of mental illness is still used to discredit the voices of survivors of abuse and oppression. Educational disparities still undermine the human potential of women and girls around the globe. Incarceration is still used as a method for controlling the non-conforming and the politically threatening, and women still face intense opposition when they pursue political power. This is not only a historical story, but a human story.

Last fall I was involved in a faculty/staff reading group at DePauw University which met via videoconference with the graduate class at Indiana Women’s Prison. We read articles by philosophers and by women in the prison about the concept of “epistemic injustice.” Epistemic injustice occurs when we discount someone’s ability to be a knower, reducing that person to a knowable object. This form of injustice affects many marginalized people, including the incarcerated. As I learned about epistemic injustice from the women at IWP, I felt it perfectly described Juana’s situation. This changed my understanding of the character, and of the text and music she ought to sing.

I felt an ethical responsibility to tell the IWP scholars that their work had influenced mine, and an ethical desire to offer them a way to participate in this project as a small corrective to epistemic injustice. A number of women were interested in participating, and we scheduled a series of meetings to discuss the form that might take.

The body of Juana of Castile is likened unto a strikingly luminescent orb. An orb floating about the land of her people, equally tangible and intangible, equally desired and repulsed, beautiful, but hard to look at, hard to take in....In the story of power misused against her and the dilution of her own power, we see a woman who had no real possession of her body.
— Michelle Jones, Thoughts on Juana of Castile: A Body that Belonged to the State

Q: There are so many levels of collaboration going on in this project! Can you tell me more about the form that this specific collaboration ended up taking?

A: It was important to me to approach this particular collaboration in a way that minimized the position of power I was systemically assigned to, so at first I asked a lot of questions: how do we do this together? Initially, we discussed excerpts of a book about Juana, and then the women wrote responses to it in the formats that felt most appropriate to them. We picked through these responses together, editing and combining them into a libretto. We went through several rounds of editing, giving feedback, and then editing again.

More concretely, I wrote the libretto for the second scene before the collaboration; the librettos for the first and third scenes were written with them. We have no text actually written by Juana to work with, despite her presumed education; all we know of her life is what other people wrote about her. Much as I wanted this monodrama to subvert the operatic paradigm of the mentally unstable female, I wanted this collaboration to subvert the epistemic injustice that prisoners, including both Juana and my collaborators, experience on a daily basis.

Q: Aside from the concrete contribution of a libretto, were there other ways this collaboration shaped your piece?

A: Absolutely. The piece now includes aspects of Juana’s story and psychology that I had not prioritized.  For instance, the character now mentions her children several times, and at one point mistakes someone else on stage for one of her sons. I had initially planned to leave out references to her children for the sake of theatrical simplicity, but the women thought we had to find a way to include them.

Our conversations also complicated my perception of Juana as a constant victim. My collaborators picked up on her ability to maintain small forms of resistance to injustice, even if that resistance was sometimes to her detriment. They saw her as strong, because she’s aware of the injustices in her world and resists them instead of being broken by them. Juana heroically attempted to assert her agency against all odds, despite losing battle after battle and despite the opposition of everyone around her. Her story is simultaneously tragedy and triumph.

They’ve also had a hand in the sonic world of the piece. Juana’s mental health is somewhat ambiguous in the historical record: was her mental instability innate, or imposed by circumstance? Some of the women I’ve been working with have had personal experiences with mental health that are not unlike Juana’s, and this prompted a discussion of sound and what sounds could be used as triggers for or symbols of her mental instability within the scope of the piece. Some of these--an electric guitar string being scraped while a flute plays a particular sound, for instance--will be included in the final score. I will also record the women’s voices and incorporate those recordings into the electronics, and I’ve invited them to choose some of their individual text responses to the subject matter that can become part of the background info surrounding this piece. [Two of these texts are quoted above.]

Q: Any final words on this collaboration or your work in general?

A: I’d just like to thank the women I’ve worked with at IWP for their insights into Juana’s story, and the education program at IWP for approving and facilitating this project.